What Have We Learned From the Rwandan Genocide?
By Cora True-Frost
(Re-published from U.S. News & World Report | April 4, 2019) This first week of April marks the 25th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, a three-month long massacre during which Hutu militants killed an estimated 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus after the Hutu president was killed. The international community responded to the atrocities late, and then sought accountability after the genocide by establishing the International Criminal Tribunal of Rwanda (ICTR) to try those most responsible.
It is important that we remember the horror of the genocide and reflect on the mistakes made, in order to work toward a more peaceful future. One of the main takeaways from the ICTR’s atrocity trials is that words matter.
The world of the Rwandan genocide may to most people seem far removed from the United States. It does not to me. I am a law professor who grew up an Army brat, often abroad. I graduated high school in Nuremberg in the former West Germany – the site of the famous Nuremberg Tribunal held in the wake of the Holocaust. I know that words matter. Always mindful of the horrors of the Holocaust and the ways that democratic majorities can scapegoat and dehumanize minorities, my professional focus has been in constitutional and international law.
The law, and particularly international criminal trials, should teach us about past mistakes. The legacy of Rwanda’s genocide has some compelling messages for American people about the power of our words, and the danger of hate speech. Few of us are immune to the polarizing media coverage. Our leaders and media pundits use generalizations about cultures and fear-mongering to drive home support for policy in a very profound and impactful way. Creating hate as opposed to understanding will lead to repeat mistakes. This week in particular, we should heed the legacy of Rwanda’s genocide, reminding our nation of what can happen when we don’t identify and speak about the impact that fear has on our united psyche.
We Americans know words matter. We famously have strong free-speech protections. We are outliers in the international community for refusing to penalize hate speech. However, even those of us with the strongest commitments to free speech understand that speech can be dangerous and even constitute incitement …
Syracuse University Professor Cora True-Frost is an INSCT Affiliated Faculty Member.