The Rwandan genocide: a revisionist history

Political wars around the history of genocide are most evident in controversies over the Holocaust (see "The Holocaust, genocide studies, and politics",
18 August 2010). But they are also sharpening around Rwanda, where in
1994 the “Hutu Power” regime killed hundreds of thousands of Tutsis as
well as moderate Hutus (see Gérard Prunier, The Rwanda Crisis, 1954-94: History of a Genocide [C Hurst, 2nd edition, 1998]).

The political context of this development is that the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) government headed by Paul Kagame - which ended the genocide when it seized power - is both determined to use the west's guilt at failing to stop the 1994 genocide to entrench
its own impunity, and trade on the victims of the Rwanda genocide in order to deflect criticism of its domestic authoritarianism and external aggression.

strategy is diminishing in effect. A real momentum is growing behind
the recognition of the RPF's own responsibility for massacres of
civilians, mainly Hutus,
leading to accusations that it too has committed genocide. Until now
most attention has focused on massacres inside Rwanda, during the RPF's
invasion in 1994 and subsequent consolidation of power, most notoriously
at Kibeho in 1995.

These events led some Hutu propagandists to
propound the theory of the “double genocide”. This is a simplistic and
distorting idea because RPF massacres were localised, with neither the
national scope nor the consistent targeting of the huge Hutu Power
murder-campaign. Nevertheless, there is no doubt that the RPF committed
genocidal massacres of Hutu civilians.

The spotlight now, however, is on the aftermath of the 1994 genocide, when the RPF pursued Hutu génocidaires into what was then Zaïre (now the Democratic Republic of Congo),
initiating the devastating wars which engulfed that country until 2003
and continue in some regions to this day. In these wars, a changing (and
to the uninitiated, bewildering) array of states and Congolese armed
groups have both fought each other and committed atrocities (including
systematic rape) against civilians.

A new report

Gérard Prunier, in his monumental study of the Congo wars - From Genocide to Continental War: The 'Congolese' Conflict and the Crisis of Contemporary Africa (C Hurst, 2009) - explains that Rwanda's RPF regime remained the most
consistent and determined external participant throughout these
conflicts, and that its responsibility for massacres has long been known (see Gérard Prunier, "The eastern DR Congo: dynamics of conflict", 17 November 2008).

their part western governments, especially the United States and
Britain’s, have consistently deferred to Rwanda's “victim” status, in
some cases defending it against serious charges of having perpetrated
crimes for which there is real evidence.

But a detailed report of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights - leaked to Le Monde - maps “the most serious violations of human rights and international
humanitarian law” committed within the DR Congo in 1993-2003: namely,
charges that civilians were systematically attacked on a large scale. A
summary on paragraph 512 reads:

“These attacks resulted in a very
large number of victims, probably tens of thousands of members of the
Hutu ethnic group, all nationalities combined. In the vast majority of
cases reported, it was not a question of people killed unintentionally
in the course of combat, but people targeted primarily by [Rwandan and
allied] forces and executed in their hundreds, often with edged weapons.
The majority of the victims were children, women, elderly people and
the sick, who posed no threat to the attacking forces. Numerous serious
attacks on the physical or psychological integrity of members of the
group were also committed, with a very high number of Hutus shot, raped,
burnt or beaten. Very large numbers of victims were forced to flee and
travel long distances to escape their pursuers, who were trying to kill
them. The hunt lasted for months, resulting in the deaths of an unknown
number of people subjected to cruel, inhuman and degrading living
conditions, without access to food or medication. On several occasions,
the humanitarian aid intended for them was deliberately blocked, in
particular in Orientale Province, depriving them of assistance essential
to their survival.”

The report therefore carefully argues (paragraphs 514-18) that the attacks on Hutus could have amounted to genocide.

This is an explosive conclusion for the Rwandan government (which has predictably reacted by threatening regional peacemaking arrangements). The United Nations
and western governments will also find it embarrassing and inconvenient -
to the extent that there is doubt as to whether the report will ever be published officially.  

A great denial

All this is also welcome fuel for a determined group of Rwanda genocide-deniers. A new book by Edward S Herman and David Peterson focusing on the use of the term “genocide” in the media and academia - The Politics of Genocide (Monthly Review Press, 2010) - argues that the western establishment
has “swallowed a propaganda line on Rwanda that turned perpetrator and
victim upside-down” (p.51); the RPF not only killed Hutus, but were the
“prime génocidaires” (p.54); there was “large-scale killing and
ethnic cleansing of Hutus by the RPF long before the April-July 1994
period (p.53); this contributed to a result in which “the majority of
victims were likely Hutu and not Tutsi” (quoted with approval, p.58).

and Peterson state that “a number of observers as well as participants
in the events of 1994 claim that the great majority of deaths were Hutu,
with some estimates as high as two million” (p.58). But a check of the
reference for this shocking statement finds no more than a letter from a
former RPF military officer and personal communications from a former
defence council before the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (n.127,
p.132) - both participants rather than “observers”. That is enough for
these authors to dismiss the idea of “800,000 or more largely Tutsi
deaths” as RPF and western propaganda (see Adam Jones, "On Genocide Deniers - Challenging Herman and Peterson", 16 July 2010).

This book deserves attention for the fact that it opens with a lengthy foreword by Herman’s long-term collaborator, Noam Chomsky. Chomsky remains for many an exemplary champion of human rights; a quote from him even emblazons the respectable academic website on which the leaked UN report has been published.

Many others, however, reached a very different view after examining his comments on the Khmer Rouge record in Cambodia, his indulgence of Holocaust-denying writers, and his encouragement of Bosnian genocide-denial. But even in this gruesome context (to use one of Chomsky’s favourite words) his endorsement of The Politics of Genocide - with its denial of genocide in Rwanda as well as Bosnia - goes further.

A dead zone

book and Noam Chomsky’s foreword inadvertently show just how
multi-directional the politics of genocide have become. It is true that
official western propagandists minimise “our” crimes and represent those
of “our” enemies in over-simplified ways, and that such legerdemain merits exposure. But it also clear that anti-western propagandists -
Herman, Peterson and Chomsky among them - are guilty of the same
evasions and distortions from the “other” side.

They argue that in official western narratives, “our victims are unworthy of our attention and indignation, and never suffer ‘genocide’ at our
hands” (p.104, italics in original). Yet in anti-western, Chomskyan
narratives, an identical process occurs: the west's enemies, whether Serbian nationalist or Rwandan “Hutu Power”, have never committed “genocide”, and their crimes are always of less significance than those of western-supported forces.

The journalist John Pilger endorses The Politics of Genocide on its cover by saying that Herman and Peterson “defend the right of
all of us to a truthful historical memory”. This important right can
never be exercised by treating the men and boys of Srebrenica, the massacred and expelled Kosovo Albanians, and the slaughtered Rwandan Tutsis as “unworthy victims”. 

scholars of genocide studies, this book is rich source-material. It is
not a serious contribution to analysis in the interest of “truthful
historical memory”.

Martin Shaw is professorial fellow in international relations and human
rights at Roehampton University, London, and an honorary research
professor of international relations at the University of Sussex. His website is here
This review has been reproduced from under a Creative Commons licence. 


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