Get our latest essays, archival selections, reading lists, and exclusive content delivered straight to your inbox.
Sudan People's Liberation Army trainees march during drills in the Nuba Mountains. After an inadequate 2005 treaty between the Sudanese government and the SPLA, fighting was renewed in 2011. Many of the young men in the army were students before the war broke out. / Photograph: Trevor Snapp
The power to accuse someone of a grave crime on the basis of hearsay is a heady one. I have done it, and I faced the consequences of being wrong. Twenty years ago in the Nuba Mountains of central Sudan, I met a man, Chief Hussein Karbus, whose murder I had reported three years earlier. He was introduced to me by the man I had accused of ordering his death, a leader of the Sudan People’s Liberation Army. The mistake had appeared in a report I authored for Human Rights Watch; it was the kind of error that human rights researchers sometimes make and rarely admit. The three of us sat together and laughed about it. Not all such missteps turn out so well.
Correcting that error, I made another kind of mistake: I wrote of ongoing “genocide by attrition” in the Nuba Mountains. Although the peak of the massacres there had passed, replaced by a nasty low-level counterinsurgency, I used the term tactically to draw attention to an unknown war. It worked: on July 24, 1995, three days after the London Conference on the Srebrenica massacre, Facing Genocide: The Nuba of Sudan was published, and the top story on the BBC World Service radio program was genocide in Sudan.
The genre of the human rights report has emerged in just the last thirty years. In the 1980s, Amnesty International’s “Urgent Action” appeals offered dry factual accounts of prisoners of conscience, victims of torture, and people sentenced to execution, inviting readers to write letters to government authorities asking for clemency but articulating no judgment on the political leanings of the government and issuing no broader demands for change. Human Rights Watch (HRW) was the innovator, publishing short books describing the predicament of a whole country—telling moral stories, showing how human rights violations were symptoms of authoritarian and repressive governments, and making the case for liberal, democratic reform. While Amnesty International’s staff had been trained to prune their reports to the bare minimum, HRW gave journalists and political scientists license to put their storytelling skills to use. If journalism is the first draft of history, the human rights report is the draft of the prosecutor’s indictment.
The West likes morality plays with clear heroes and villains, in which we play the role of savior.
At their finest, such reports wed objectivity to outrage, making a compelling demand for action. But do they deserve their privileged status? Errors of fact are the least of the problem. Human rights researchers are usually well informed, even if they write under urgent deadlines and need to keep their sources confidential. Howls of fury and denial from the accused are considered an honor—the louder the better. The standard of proof is well below what is needed for conviction in court—for indictment, even—but the mud sticks. And almost always rightly so.
Even so, an ethical dilemma remains. Unlike an academic writer, who is obliged to be clear about methods and analytical frameworks, a human rights writer can simply tell a story. This story then gains uncommon gravitas thanks to its validation by a human rights organization. Yet there is never only one story that can be written about a war or a massacre. The writer must choose which one to tell, and how. This choice, no matter how principled, is not neutral. Revisiting the 1990s to reflect on how narratives were scripted for Somalia, Sudan, and Rwanda, I offer this personal account of how difficult it can be to distinguish victory from disaster in human rights campaigning.
I worked at the Africa Division of Human Rights Watch from 1989 to 1992. During this time the organization achieved its giddiest triumph and faced the challenge that would define its future. Having championed the dissidents of Eastern Europe while the Washington establishment insisted that the Soviet Union would succumb to no argument but force, HRW found its spectacular and unanticipated vindication in the collapse of communism and especially in Czechoslovakia’s 1989 Velvet Revolution. With its formidable publicity machine, HRW quickly garnered credit and scripted the story, obscuring the role of others, such as the Helsinki Citizens’ Assemblies, that had arguably done more to promote the end of Soviet dictatorship.
Soon after, the war in Yugoslavia showed not only that the global liberal euphoria was misplaced, but also that the model that had served HRW so well during the 1980s—shaming the governments of East and West—was not well suited to the task of sorting out complicated civil wars. Citizens of the former Yugoslav republics, as well as a generation of European and American journalists and activists, were traumatized by the resurgence of ugly, exclusivist nationalism and the incapacity of global powers to stop the bloodshed. The leaders of the West’s human rights movement used this moment not to reflect on the limits of their agenda but rather to open new fronts for the liberal imperium: international criminal accountability and military intervention to end mass atrocity and genocide.
The standard Amnesty International call to action—sit down and write a letter!—seemed hopelessly inadequate to the task at hand. No less a hindrance was the parallel caution among relief charities, which avoided politically controversial forms of aid. But in the early ’90s, a horizon of opportunity beckoned: not only the promotion of human rights, but also the practice of humanitarian aid in conflict zones, could now be unbound from the Cold War straitjacket and might make the world a better place. We believed we could surpass merely reacting to events. We could set agendas. Some humanitarians did so by using their moral and media clout to call for the great power of the day—the United States—to bend its coercive capacity to those agendas. It was not long before the perils and hubris of this philanthropic imperialism became painfully clear.
The ill-fated Operation Restore Hope in Somalia, launched in December 1992 in the dog days of the George H. W. Bush administration, followed the drumbeat for action led by relief agencies. It was supported by Aryeh Neier and Ken Roth, the directors of HRW in New York, who had also been seeking intervention in Bosnia. My colleague Rakiya Omaar and I opposed the intervention on the grounds that it would not solve Somalia’s crisis and that there was no guarantee that the intervening soldiers would respect human rights. The same day Marines were dispatched to Mogadishu, Rakiya was fired by HRW. I resigned.
A common explanation for the intervention’s disastrous outcome is that problems arose only after Marines handed control to a U.N. operation with a broader political mandate. But this does not wash: from start to finish, the critical political decisions were made by U.S. diplomats and commanders. The agencies providing humanitarian aid on the ground were quick to see the perils of the armed intervention; their staff were suddenly at greater risk of attack, and peacekeepers’ missiles were landing in their compounds and hospitals. HRW fell silent, not only because it had lost its key Africa staff, but also because it simply did not know how to handle the fact that the foreign troops dispatched to Somalia were themselves harassing and killing Somali civilians.
On leaving HRW, Rakiya and I founded a small NGO, African Rights. One of our earliest reports, Somalia: Human rights abuses by the United Nations forces (1993), prefigured many issues that became commonplace a decade later in Iraq and Afghanistan: the deployment of overwhelming force to minimize risk to American lives, at the cost of local ones; attacks on hospitals justified on the grounds that there were fighters inside; the malfunctioning of technology; a cavalier approach to the Geneva Conventions, deemed irrelevant to the realities of conflict; and the persistent denial of such excesses. Our report was released a few weeks before the Battle of Mogadishu, the encounter between the Americans and the militia of General Mohamed Farrah Aidid spun into legend by the 2001 Hollywood film Black Hawk Down. American special forces killed many hundreds of Somalis, civilians, and militiamen, and lost eighteen of their own.
Despite the tragedy, I was sure I had made the right calls. That was not always the case.
• • •
At African Rights, part of our agenda was to find ways of tackling hideous crises such as Somalia and Sudan without calling on the Marines. Events moved quickly, and we did not have time to theorize, but we viewed our work as an attempt to update the international campaigns of solidarity with anticolonial movements, adapting them to the demands of the 1990s. We wanted to draw global support for local peoples’ own struggles. One of our first major efforts was on behalf of the Nuba people of Sudan, a cause I had raised while at HRW and was determined to pursue. Rather than only documenting war and atrocity, we wanted to support the Nuba struggle, which we saw as fundamentally just.
The war in the Nuba Mountains began in 1985, pitting the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) against the Sudanese government’s army and militia. It was both an extension of the war in southern Sudan and an insurrection in its own right. The Nuba had their own grievances and had organized independently of the southerners. As the war intensified, the Nuba enclave became closed off from the rest of Sudan, and still more so to the outside world. Almost no news escaped the region. All that was known came from a handful of reports by Nuba exiles and foreign visitors. Isolation of that kind is unthinkable today, in an era of cell phones and satellite photographs. Then, it was different: the basic facts on the ground were almost entirely obscure.
As HRW’s Sudan researcher from 1989 to 1992, I had written the first two human rights reports on the Nuba Mountains. These were based on scraps of information and inference, much as a paleontologist reconstructs a skeleton from a few small bones. My information included the account given by a local high school student who returned home for the long vacation. The student had seen starving, naked women and children transported in cattle trucks and dumped on bare ground outside small towns. Fierce young security guards barred townspeople from bringing them food and blankets. I was shown long lists of names: schoolteachers, village chiefs, pharmacists, court clerks—all of them men with some education or standing in the community—who had disappeared into the military intelligence barracks in the provincial capital of Kadugli, never to be seen again. One of the elders of the Nuba diaspora, Suleiman Rahhal, a medical technician at St. Mary’s Hospital, London, had compiled these lists, based on documents smuggled out of the area, in a desperate attempt to do something for his community.
I was also anonymously passed copies of documents and speeches purporting to represent an official plan for the comprehensive uprooting, relocation, and cultural transformation of the Nuba population. Some of these were bizarre. For instance, there was a clumsily written fatwa by a bunch of second-rate provincial clerics declaring jihad on the Nuba and pronouncing Nuba rebels—about half of whom were Muslims—apostates deserving of death. I treated it gingerly, as it looked at first like a forgery. But it turned out to be authentic: it was confirmed by Islamists in the government.
Pounding the drum of ‘genocide’ left no option for negotiated peace.
While the majority of violence was being perpetrated by the army and government militia against Nuba civilians, I also sought information about what the rebels were doing. Among those grains of data were accounts of forced recruitment and killing, including the ominous disappearance of two Nuba chiefs reportedly at the hands of the SPLA.
To persist with our human rights campaign, we needed to break the blockade imposed by the Sudanese government and travel to the Nuba Mountains. This was not to be an exercise in disaster tourism, to shock the conscience of the world—though we did intend to publicize and shock—but fundamentally an effort to put the tools of humanitarian action, publicity, and political leadership into the hands of the Nuba people themselves.
Reaching the Nuba Mountains was not easy. It began with training and equipping radio operators, who needed to be able to decode the Sudanese army’s communications so that we could locate their garrisons and obtain advance warning of ground attacks. It took the radio operators three months to walk from our base in southern Sudan to the Nuba Mountains. Once there, they cleared an airstrip and sent back its coordinates. They also set up an early-warning system of runners who would be dispatched to warn villages in the path of a military convoy. We then linked up with a BBC documentary film crew, led by journalist Julie Flint, and a humanitarian program led by the newly established Nuba Relief Rehabilitation and Development Organization.
In April 1995, Julie, my Sudanese colleague Yoanes Ajawin, and I flew to Nairobi. We had arranged to charter a plane to fly first to a base at Chukudum in rebel-held southern Sudan and then to our airstrip at Tabari in the Nuba Mountains. Flint went ahead to Chukudum with a fuel truck, to refuel the plane. But when we arrived at Nairobi’s Wilson Airport to board the charter, our pilot got cold feet and pulled out. So did the second.
In midafternoon we secured a third flight, a Polish Antonov, bigger and slower than the plane we had wanted, but with a willing crew. They grumbled and said they wanted to leave in the morning, but Yoanes and I worried that they would have second thoughts. So just before dusk we flew to a small airstrip in northern Kenya and spent the night there. We left at dawn for the short flight to Chukudum, where Julie was waiting with Yousif Kuwa, the commander of the SPLA forces in the Nuba Mountains. A former schoolteacher turned Nuba cultural activist, Yousif was determined to preserve his people’s unique and diverse cultures and to counter the racism that he experienced at the hands of Sudan’s political masters. In 1985, attracted by the “New Sudan” rhetoric of SPLA leader John Garang—who was, at that time, fighting for a transformed but still-united Sudan, not an independent South Sudan (as ended up being the case)—Yousif and his followers had joined Garang’s armed rebellion.
While the crew was busy fueling the plane, Yousif ordered his men to start loading ammunition onboard. This was also his first chance for a flight in. An earlier plane had crashed and burned just after takeoff as the SPLA commanders watched in horror—a disaster that Yousif compared to the disintegration of the Space Shuttle Challenger. But transporting arms was a step too far for us: Yoanes persuaded Yousif to offload his weapons. Instead, a dozen or so Nuba men, many of whom had been exiled for years, seized the chance to go.
As the plane left southern Sudan, the pilot flew low to avoid radar and zigzagged to stay away from the garrisons we had plotted on the map. Flying up the valley where Tabari lies, the pilot called out that he could not see the airstrip. Spotting a bush airstrip for the first time is tricky, and pilots usually use landmarks to guide them. But no one had flown here before—and the pilot surprised us with the news that his navigation system was old and not very accurate. The plane was at the limit of its range, and the crew was getting agitated, arguing that we would need to land in a garrison town, where we would be taken prisoner, or worse. But one of the hitchhikers we had picked up in Chukudum was from the area and knew the old missionary airstrip that our radio operators had cleared. He clambered over fuel drums into the cockpit, scanned the shapes of the hills, and pointed to the airstrip. Our pilot swung the plane around and came straight down. He had less than ten minutes of fuel left.
When we arrived, we were astonished by what we found. The Nuba were indeed impoverished and facing an ongoing war of daily destruction and killing. They were wearing homespun cotton, and the markets sold the smallest fractions of soap bars.
But, with no external aid at all, the people had resisted the genocidal onslaught by the sheer determination. In the meantime, a cultural renaissance had blossomed, reviving traditional music and dance. There was an emergent local democracy, which had even organized a religious tolerance conference that brought together Muslims and Christians along with leaders of traditional religions. As we walked through the hills, there was drumming and dancing. We feared that this way of life was still under imminent threat through “genocide by attrition.”
And while the SPLA troops in the Nuba Mountains were not innocent of human rights abuses, they were far less brutal than the rebels in southern Sudan. They were certainly not guilty of murdering Chief Hussein Karbus, as I had alleged. This mistake didn’t matter. Other mistakes did.
On our return, I titled our report Facing Genocide: The Nuba of Sudan. We could not be certain what dangers still threatened the Nuba, so we calculated that it was better to err on the side of alarmism. Although the word “facing” was meant to mitigate the annihilatory implications of “genocide,” using the G-word was an error. I claimed that the Sudanese government had embarked on a titanic scheme of Islamist social engineering, and, under the cloak of counterinsurgency, intended to erase Nuba culture and identity once and for all. But this was only part of the story.
In 1992, some three years before we arrived, the onslaught on the Nuba fit well the legal definition of genocide: Sudanese government officials aimed to destroy all or part of the Nuba people as a distinct ethnic group and impose a new social and cultural identity upon them. But, it later became clear, the government’s ambitions to re-engineer the Nuba had faded with the defeat of the 1992 jihad. The Khartoum regime was bitterly divided, and the Islamist ideologues who wanted forced, total societal renewal were in retreat. The ascendant generals wanted power, not total social transformation. A counterinsurgency continued, but by the time of our visit in 1995, the challenge confronting the Nuba leadership was no longer how to escape genocide but how to make a fair peace with their enemies.
My first report on the Nuba, in 1991, had used the term “ethnic cleansing,” borrowed from former Yugoslavia. In 1995, I opted, over Julie’s objections, for “genocide” because it would grab headlines in the same month as the Srebrenica massacre. It worked. The day after our report was published in July, Flint’s film The Nuba: Sudan’s Secret War aired on the BBC. Soon after, a humanitarian air bridge was set up.
The problem was that the word “genocide” unlocked a single, powerful script at a time when the Nuba predicament had become more complicated. There was indeed an ongoing war of attrition, but both sides were now divided. Significant numbers of the Nuba no longer saw a purpose in fighting and were ready to compromise—either through joining the government or through an international peace process. Yousif, to his immense credit, saw that the future of the SPLA depended on democratizing the movement so that its promise of a new Sudan—democratic, multiethnic, serving the poor and marginalized—would be realized, not merely held out as a promise for the distant future.
In planning our operation to the Nuba Mountains, we were also confronted, time and again, with evidence of the stunning incompetence of the SPLA’s high command. Garang often deliberately undermined his own field commanders for fear that they might conspire against him. Operations that could have shortened the war were called off because they required dealing with commanders whom Garang distrusted. Frontline officers were called for conferences at headquarters and kept waiting for months while their units languished. There was no care for the wounded. Even worse, efforts to build civil or democratic institutions were sabotaged. In our view, the war was being prolonged for no good reason, and the SPLA was failing to prepare for peace negotiations, let alone for governing a newly liberated country.
With discreet endorsement from Yousif, after 1995, African Rights tried to shift the agenda, giving the Nuba a platform for negotiating a fair peace. But that goal was continually undercut by international groups. Christian fundamentalists and humanitarian hawks, who had been inspired at least in part by our original call for action, wanted forced regime change in Khartoum. Having pounded the drum of genocide, we were now faced with a consequential and unanswerable question: What moral code permitted us to seek a negotiated settlement with perpetrators of the ultimate crime?
At African Rights, we knew that our efforts to democratize the anti-government coalition and broaden the peace process to include civilian groups would run into opposition from Garang. What we had not counted on was the Clinton administration’s decision, in December 1997, to back the SPLA. It was a policy of regime change by proxy. Now supported by the U.S. government—and by the Washington advocacy groups that followed in its wake—Garang’s despotism was unchallengeable, and the agenda of reforming the SPLA was jettisoned.
The result was that when peace talks began in earnest some years later, the Nuba were ill prepared and divided, and the 2005 Comprehensive Peace Agreement sold them short. By 2011 they were back at war. What had for a while seemed a triumph—putting the Nuba cause on the international agenda by using the word “genocide”—has had a dire legacy.
Civilians cheer Sudan People's Liberation Army soldiers driving a truck captured from the Sudanese military. / Photograph: Trevor Snapp
• • •
While we were in the middle of preparing our Nuba initiative, genocide was perpetrated in Rwanda. This time there was no question about whether the word applied: Rwanda has been recognized as one of the clearest cases of genocide in the twentieth century. The experience of African Rights there shows, even more sharply, the dilemmas of advocacy in conflict.
The facts of the genocide are so extraordinary as to bear repeating. Starting on April 7, 1994, at least five hundred thousand civilians—perhaps as many as a million—were murdered over the course of three and a half months, chiefly in places where they had sought safety, such as church compounds. The killers’ expressed intent was to eliminate the entire Tutsi population. The rate of killing, and the defenselessness of those murdered, calls to mind the Holocaust. Most United Nations peacekeepers stationed in the country infamously ran away (the Ghanaian contingent, to its everlasting credit, remained), and the United Nations, United States, and Britain aborted any discussions of stopping the massacres. The killing continued until the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) won a military victory and took power in a shattered land. This represented, I wrote at the time, “an accidental defeat for genocide, not a victory for human rights.”
African Rights played a pioneering role in responding to that genocide. Rakiya had started the HRW program on Rwanda in 1991, during the Rwandan Civil War, and cosponsored an important report with the International Federation for Human Rights two years later. In April of 1994, when the genocide began, she was in Nairobi, en route to Somalia. But she immediately flew to the border between Tanzania and Rwanda, where refugees were flooding across. There she began her characteristic kind of investigation: the relentless, passionate collection of firsthand testimonies.
After a few days, she traveled into Rwanda with an escort from the rebel RPF and conducted extraordinary on-the-spot documentation of the genocide as it unfolded. One of the RPF commanders, Okwir Rabwoni, later told me how he first mistook Rakiya for a genocide survivor. He said he had to warn her not to stray too close to the front line: as a Somali, she would be readily mistaken for a Tutsi and murdered.
Rakiya interviewed survivors, often on the same day that they stumbled across the battle lines to safety or were discovered hiding in forests or marshes by the advancing RPF troops. She took notes longhand and almost verbatim, sending them by courier to the nearest town in Uganda, with money and instructions to fax them to me at our office in London.
Each morning I came in and found that our old roll-style fax machine had spewed a bloody trail across the floor. I collated the pages and typed them up, mentally compiling the story they told. The Rwandan genocide has spawned a minor academic industry over two decades, but there is no documentation that matches the testimonies Rakiya collected, told with utter and immediate rawness. When she returned to London, she was on fire and energized by rage: our seven hundred–page report, Rwanda: Death, Despair and Defiance, was published in the first week of September. (A second edition, nearly twice as long and with minor corrections, came out a year later.)
In the early weeks of the genocide, most of the reporting on Rwanda was very bad. That month, the experienced Africa correspondents were in South Africa for its historic first democratic election. The dominant story in the press was of tribal conflict, anarchy, and killings by all sides. The humanitarian community’s reporting was little better. Amnesty International’s first report on the genocide devoted almost as much space to RPF revenge killings as to the genocide itself. HRW’s leading Rwanda researcher, Alison Des Forges, was forthright and outstanding, but the group chose to focus its public advocacy on the plight of a particular individual, Monique Mujawamariya, an activist who had earlier met President Clinton and whose fate was at the time unknown. (She survived, hiding for hours in a crawlspace beneath the roof of her house and later bribing a soldier to take her to safety). The focus on Mujawamariya was an attempt to give the cataclysm a human face, but it was a misguided application of a public relations template, given the scale of the catastrophe.
We didn’t have anything like complete evidence. Ours was a rough sketch, but it served its purpose.
I set out to counter the “tribal war” account, writing a report and press stories that presented the genocide as a carefully organized state crime. Des Forges did the same, writing, “The massacres were planned for months in advance.” The RPF later adopted this narrative—it suited them well—but at the time, they were overwhelmed by the ferocity and speed of killing unleashed by soldiers and militiamen fighting for the supremacist ideology of Hutu Power. The RPF spoke of genocide but in a purely descriptive sense. They had not developed a broader anti-genocide narrative with political weight.
In London, I met with Theogene Rudasingwa—then an RPF leader, now a political opponent of President Paul Kagame—who framed his analysis around the politics of restoring the collapsed peace agreement, not the genocide. In the field, Rabwoni, who took on the task of protecting Rakiya, was far too concerned with the day-to-day exigencies of fighting to consider that her interviewing and writing might have wider significance. But from this fog of uncertainties and contingencies emerged the first draft of the history of the Rwandan genocide.
In a May 1994 report, “Rwanda: Who is killing, who is dying, what is to be done?” and in articles for the London Times and Times Literary Supplement, Rakiya and I developed an account of the killing as a state project to build a new Rwanda based on collective involvement in the ultimate crime. Such a crime required careful planning and orchestration. We didn’t have anything resembling complete evidence; that kind of detailed documentation would come later, notably in Des Forges’s 1999 magnum opus, Leave None to Tell the Story: Genocide in Rwanda. Ours was a rough sketch, but it served its purpose.
In seeking to understand Rwanda, the word “genocide” led us straight to the Holocaust and the linear track of escalating dehumanization of the Jews. Rwanda seemed to fit: the privileged Tutsi minority had been targeted for a jacquerie in 1959 and was the victim of many subsequent pogroms. Since the outbreak of civil war in 1990, the ruling party had aligned with an extremist fringe to demonize and dehumanize the Tutsi. Hutu Power literature, including an infamous tract called the “Hutu Ten Commandments,” and Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines exhorted Hutus to kill Tutsis. The Interahamwe militia mobilized and armed under the noses of UN peacekeepers, whose commander, Roméo Dallaire, was denied permission to raid weapons caches. Motive and means were there, we wrote. All that was needed was opportunity.
The spark for the genocide was the downing of President Juvénal Habyarimana’s executive jet, killing him, the Burundian president who had joined him for the flight, and senior military commanders. Suspicion would naturally fall on the rebels. But the missile appeared to have been fired from a camp of Rwanda’s own presidential guard, and the simultaneous commencement of organized mass killing suggested an alternative explanation—namely that the Hutu Power extremists had done it themselves as a pretext for launching their final solution. African Rights—along with other analysts—presented the second version as fact. We had no more evidence than anyone else, but it fit our narrative, and it was rapidly becoming the official version of events. Our version has not been proven wrong, although the weight of evidence has shifted in the other direction.
A common-sense view was put to me by one RPF commander, who said that Kagame—then head of the RPF—ordered the plane shot down, intending to throw the army into disarray so that he could seize power in a swift military operation. According to this view, Kagame expected reprisals against the Tutsis but did not think that a leaderless regime would be able to organize so much killing. Maybe ten thousand dead, he thought. Kagame’s correctly foresaw the military response, but he fatally miscalculated the political dynamics of the decapitated political class. The meticulous account compiled by André Guichaoua (recently published in English as From War to Genocide) shows how the assassination of President Habyarimana unleashed a power struggle. A would-be putschist, Colonel Théoneste Bagosora, backed by Habyarimana’s widow, immediately murdered all the moderate politicians who had constitutional claims to power, but was not strong enough to consolidate his coup. Instead, he corralled a set of fearful, vengeful, disoriented, and divided politicians into an interim government. But they could not agree on who should lead them; they could only agree that the slaughter of the Tutsis should go ahead. Directing their manpower and logistics to killing civilians instead of fighting the rebels, they doomed themselves to defeat.
Referencing and refuting my 1994 Times article, “Rwanda Genocide took four years to plan,” Guichaoua wrote, “the genocide of the Tutsis wasn’t prepared four years in advance.” He is right. The genocide was a state crime, but not in the way I depicted.
As world leaders began to appreciate the scale of the atrocity and their own culpability in failing to stop it, the singular narrative of the well-prepared genocide became dominant. Other stories were occluded. One of those was the war itself: the fierce fighting on the front lines and the fate of the civilians caught between the lines. The RPF’s own human rights violations were also often overlooked—especially at African Rights. As time passed, the genocide story became the official story; those who challenged it were either Hutu Power génocidaires or found themselves in that unsavory company. On the first anniversary of the genocide, the RPF abandoned its plans to celebrate its military victory and instead agreed to survivors’ demands to commemorate the dead. By the tenth anniversary of the genocide, the commemoration events were produced and controlled by the Rwandan government, and a genocide museum was opened, modeled closely on Britain’s National Holocaust Centre and Museum. As the twentieth anniversary approached, the Rwandan government officially renamed the events the “Genocide of the Tutsi” and included among the recognized victims Tutsis who had been killed or forced to flee in earlier pogroms dating back to 1959. What had begun as a minority story became orthodoxy. In fact, under the current Rwandan constitution, it is a severe crime to challenge the government’s officially endorsed narrative, punishable by up to life imprisonment.
A result is that those who try to tell the other stories feel beleaguered and silenced. When they do tell those stories—as, for example, in the 2014 BBC documentary Rwanda’s Untold Story—they go to an extreme, crudely reversing the accepted narrative. Suddenly the Tutsis are perpetrators and the Hutus victims. The BBC film was rightly met with outrage and removed from the broadcaster’s website, but the uncomfortable truth is that there are still many untold stories about the genocide and its aftermath.
I don’t regret my role in helping to write the genocide narrative for Rwanda in 1994 or transcribing and publishing survivors’ testimonies. They are uncooked and authentic. Rakiya and a small staff of survivors walked the hillsides of Rwanda in 1994 and 1995 to gather them in all their horrific vividness. These are an unmatched record. Other researchers followed, but, as time passed, survivors undoubtedly filtered their stories in subtle ways and reconstructed their narratives, probably unintentionally. The political context in which these testimonies were collected and published also began to change—for example in asylum hearings and trials—and these accounts served less to speak unheard truth to power than to bolster the new apparatus of power in Rwanda. Nor does the governmental co-option of a genocide narrative make the ongoing collection of testimony any less necessary. There are still some people who deny the genocide, more who try to dilute the responsibility of the Hutu Power leaders, and many who deny their individual culpability in the killings.
Human rights should make no distinction between political allies and adversaries: all should be held to the same standard.
As the genocide narrative took on political power, however, a rift opened between Rakiya and me. Like the handful of journalists, peacekeepers, and aid workers who remained and witnessed the massacres, Rakiya experienced something that burned deep into her mind. She devoted herself to hunting the génocidaires wherever they might hide. As with Sudan, I was more interested in democratizing the liberators. In 1997, I agreed to leave. I didn’t write more on Rwanda: neither further analysis of the genocide’s complexities, nor investigations of the politics of the successor regime.
I regret that silence. By 1997, the RPF had spun the singular genocide narrative to justify its emergent dictatorship and its escalating military operations in Zaire/Democratic Republic of the Congo, which quickly went beyond securing the Rwandan border to wholesale hunting of Hutu refugees, installing a new government in Kinshasa, and maintaining a security perimeter deep inside Congo—where its army has been involved in smuggling gold, diamonds, and timber. The RPF began killing its own and forcing others into exile. One of my friends in the RPF, Wilson “Shaban” Rutayisire, was assassinated in 2000, an early casualty in what has become a frightening catalog of murdered dissenters. Shaban had expressed his disquiet with Rwanda’s Congo policy. Several African Rights researchers, themselves genocide survivors, were threatened and ended up fleeing to Europe and elsewhere to seek asylum. The government’s death list became infamous in 2014 when Patrick Karegeya, former head of Rwandan intelligence and potentially Kagame’s most powerful rival, was strangled in a hotel room in South Africa.
• • •
Silence can be a deliberate decision. It comes in many forms, including telling partial truths or postponing speaking out, anticipating a more propitious moment. Human rights advocates ration their courage and indignation. As Stanley Cohen observes in his classic investigation of denial, it is not possible to be outraged about every single rights violation; the advocate needs to choose. And that choice often reflects an effort to craft a narrative that will gain attention.
In the West, we like morality plays with clearly identified heroes and villains, in which we can play the role of savior. The best tellers of these fairy tales are celebrity activists, the evangelists of the human rights business. Their targets are members of the established rogues’ gallery—the likes of Joseph Kony of the Lord’s Resistance Army or Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir. However, human rights should make no distinction between political allies and adversaries: all should be held to the same standard. Going after the usual suspects is easy. Determining when and how to condemn one’s friends is the true test of human rights reporting.
In Sudan, I felt sure enough of the critique of the SPLA—and of the possibility of a democratic alternative—to take an outspoken line against the repression and corruption of the “liberators.” Until very recently, mine was an isolated position that routinely drew the fire of American advocacy groups. In Rwanda, I was less sure of both my facts and my leverage, so I did not speak out, even as the narrative I helped to craft became a license for despotism.
There are many reasons why I was silent, none of them good enough. I was preoccupied with difficult problems elsewhere, such as Sudan and other countries in the Horn of Africa. I didn’t know enough about Rwanda. I couldn’t see a way through the country’s conundrum and didn’t want to face another set of fires. I was, I have to admit, confused: I did not want to be identified with either the deniers or the new regime. There was a moment, I am convinced, when those who had earned political credits for their position during the genocide could have spoken frankly to the new Rwandan leadership about the perils of following the path they chose. That window closed with the second invasion of Congo in 1998.
On-the-ground humanitarians learned tough lessons in Somalia, Sudan, and central Africa in the 1990s. Relief agencies adapted to the emerging sociological critique of humanitarian action. But human rights organizations and their practices of documentation and advocacy were not compelled to change, even though they had faced similar dilemmas and made similar mistakes. But, rather than reflecting on where they had succeeded and where they had failed, human rights organizations turned their agendas into the philanthropic version of a Jurassic Park sequel: bigger, louder, more teeth. They consolidated as a kind of Global Ethics, Inc., accommodating their own critique to power, especially American power. Too often, their concern has been to influence U.S. government power at the margin. Achieving that goal has blunted their political principles. The ascent of Samantha Power—whose 2002 book A Problem from Hell excoriated American inaction in Rwanda and elsewhere—from critical journalist to senior member of the Obama administration speaks to the rise of this liberal interventionism.
The fundamental tensions of human rights activism have not changed. The moral cogency of a human rights narrative is compelling but partial: it is incomplete and it takes sides. Making the human rights counternarrative into a dominant agenda is a dangerous success, whether it involves endorsing authoritarianism in Rwanda or advocating American military intervention as a remedy for mass atrocity. Human rights advocacy is a critique of power, not a directive for exercising it; humility is not only a necessary character trait but also an ideal. I now believe that a fully emancipatory human rights practice must be based on an agenda set by the affected people. This requires challenging the iniquitous structures of power that too often stand in the way of emancipation or co-opt narratives of human rights for their own ends.
Alex de Waal is Executive Director of the World Peace Foundation at the Fletcher School at Tufts University. He is the author of Mass Starvation: The History and Future of Famine, The Real Politics of the Horn of Africa: Money, War and the Business of Power, and editor of Advocacy in Conflict: Critical Perspectives on Transnational Activism.
…we need your help. Confronting the many challenges of COVID-19—from the medical to the economic, the social to the political—demands all the moral and deliberative clarity we can muster. In Thinking in a Pandemic, we’ve organized the latest arguments from doctors and epidemiologists, philosophers and economists, legal scholars and historians, activists and citizens, as they think not just through this moment but beyond it. While much remains uncertain, Boston Review’s responsibility to public reason is sure. That’s why you’ll never see a paywall or ads. It also means that we rely on you, our readers, for support. If you like what you read here, pledge your contribution to keep it free for everyone by making a tax-deductible donation.
Vital reading on politics, literature, and more in your inbox. Sign up for our Weekly Newsletter, Monthly Roundup, and event notifications.
The vast hinterlands of the Global South’s cities are generating new solidarities and ideas of what counts as a life worth living.
Protests in China are shining a light not only on the country’s draconian population management but restrictions on workers everywhere.
Support us with a donation this giving season.