Sixty years ago, people vowed "never again." As news of the Holocaust spread around the world, people were determined to make sure such heinous crimes would not be repeated. Yet, 10 years ago, everything went to hell in Rwanda. 800,000 people died, and few people seemed to care.
As April's tragic anniversary rolled around, a lot of questions still seem untouched and the important answers ignored altogether. While there is definitely some well-deserved criticism of the way the world acted, or failed to act to be more precise, especially from such notable sources as Lt.-Gen. Romeo Dallaire, the Canadian in charge of keeping a difficult peace in the war-torn country, there are still many people who have yet to realize the full scope of the genocide.
To better understand this conflict, perhaps the word genocide itself needs to be reconsidered.
The United Nations defines the crime of genocide as the "intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group." Seems straight forward enough. The wanton aggression of a specific group will not, according to UN law at least, be tolerated.
So why was it?
To answer such a question, it is hard to avoid the role of racism in state policy making. It is far too easy to believe that racism is an archaic occurrence, one that could never be tolerated in the enlightened countries of the West, but if we are to be realistic here, its ugly remnants must be considered when looking at Rwanda. Or, more precisely, at any of the countries who have experienced massive death tolls since the end of the Second World War.
When UN sanctions killed 500,000 Iraqis who were already living in wretched conditions, little attention was brought to this fact. When American bombs accidentally blew up a factory in Sudan that was making aspirin, few bothered to express outrage that little was done to help a sick populace. When millions of Africans could not receive the medicine that will make their HIV/AIDS more tolerable, only a few people managed to come out and say that the pharmaceutical industry was being greedy.
Whether they are deliberately aggressive actions, like the vicious fighting between the Hutus and Tutsies that decimated Rwanda a decade ago, or the political passive ignorance exhibited by Washington and Paris that allowed the fighting to go on for 100 days, the occurrence of genocide still seems possible despite suggestions to the contrary. It is hard to believe such crimes would be tolerated if they were committed in more "civilized" countries, to use the rhetoric and all its racist undertones.
And yet, it happens time and time again, always followed with a promise to see that it doesn't.
When the West incorporates the racial makeup of a war-torn country and balances its assessment of the risks involved in participation--like whether there are strategic interests that need to be guarded or how intervention plays out in terms of public relations--against how poorly inaction might be received, little consideration seems to go into actually protecting human lives.
It must not be forgotten that the Jewish community was left exposed by an international community that refused to protect its citizens. As they became stateless, with nobody to protect their human rights, Jews were left vulnerable to Nazi aggression.
Afterwards, when all was said and done, states around the world came out expressing their collective outrage that nothing was done, just as they do today, standing silently at memorials around the world, shaking their heads in quiet dismay.
"Why didn't we know? Why didn't we act?" But they did. And they did not.
For as long as some groups remain exposed to racist policy, albeit disguised in confusion, future promises, and bewilderment, such actions will continue. Their scales may differ, but genocides will happen again in the future. Ignorance can no longer be an excuse.