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Rwanda’s genocide commemorations

Why they are infused with political and diplomatic agendas

RWANDA | ANDRÉ GUICHAOUA | Created in 2003, the National Commission for the Fight Against Genocide is responsible for Rwanda’s genocide remembrance policy. It is a programme that has, over time, influenced all aspects of politics across all sectors.

Each year, on 7 April, themed memorial events are organised by the commission, in close collaboration with the president.

This article addresses the period following the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan Civil War and its 1994 genocide.

What follows is a review of the commemorations from 2014 to the present – and a view on the challenges ahead.

2014 – 2019: internationalising the remembrance

In 2014 Rwanda entered the final phase of its genocide remembrance public policy, the “second internationalisation” phase. The aim was to urge recognition and commemoration of the Rwandan genocide as an ethical obligation across the world.

This gave rise to commemorations in Kigali in 2014 that were considered particularly offensive, especially by the French government. On the morning of the event, the French ambassador’s accreditation was withdrawn. The day culminated in an accusatory speech by Rwandan president Paul Kagame at a ceremony attended by the UN Secretary General and foreign heads of state.

With widespread international genocide commemorations in 2017, Rwanda submitted a draft resolution to the United Nations General Assembly to rename the day. On 26 January 2018, the assembly adopted a decision – without vote – for the “International Day of Reflection on the 1994 Genocide in Rwanda” to become the “International Day of Reflection on the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda”. This decision was highly criticised, given the new name excludes victims from other ethnic groups.

In 2019, the 25th anniversary commemorations consecrated the international community’s recognition of its responsibility towards the genocide and unwillingness to try to stop it. Official ceremonies were characterised by remorse from many countries.

Even France, usually in the crosshairs, was spared. A few months prior, a French court had dismissed a case against prominent Rwandans for the 6 April 1994 attack on Rwandan president Juvenal Habyarimana’s plane. This sparked the genocide.

A long-running dispute between France and the new Rwandan regime was resolved. But even as the investigation was being closed in 2017, Rwanda enlisted a prestigious U.S. law firm to explore bringing France before international courts for complicity in genocide.

In a 2019 declaration, French president Emmanuel Macron highlighted his desire to “break with the way in which France had understood and taught the Tutsi genocide”. He made 7 April a French national day of commemoration and a commission was set up “to examine all French archives relating to Rwanda between 1990 and 1994”. A French court also dismissed a case against French officers involved in Operation Turquoise in Rwanda.

This indicated an educational approach towards French sovereign institutions, who were invited to recognise the “errors” of the past.

2020: the return of controversial commemorations

The 2020 anniversary was particularly complicated for Rwanda. On top of COVID-19 restrictions and on the eve of commemorations, the UN secretary general António Guterres and UN General Assembly president Volkan Bozkir unexpectedly questioned the new title.

Guterres specified that among the one million people murdered in the genocide, “the victims were overwhelmingly Tutsi, but also included Hutu and others who opposed the genocide”.

The following day, 7 April, Kagame’s short public declaration took note of the statements. It was addressed to “all Rwandans”, speaking of “what happened to our country and what we learned”. It didn’t specifically mention the “genocide against the Tutsi”.

Such a transgression of the official wording drew such criticism from survivor organisations that Kagame eventually backtracked.

President Kagame’s 7 April address in 2020.

Rwanda’s draft resolution required a formal vote to be passed in the UN General Assembly. During debates, the U.S. and UK denounced the rewriting of history implied by this wording. Following Rwandan pressure, the resolution was nevertheless passed.

Rwanda lamented the U.S. and UK positions, saying they “bring ambiguity that feeds the resurgent genocide denial movement” in the Great Lakes Region.

All objectives of the active commemoration policy promoted by the National Commission for the Fight Against Genocide have therefore been formally achieved. The “genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda” is now recognised and commemorated internationally as an ethical obligation. So is the genocide remembrance policy, now divorced from its historical context.

By dissociating the genocide from actions undertaken by the two politico-military blocs during the 1990–94 war, Rwanda’s official version has ended the debates that characterise the historical work relating to this region since independence.

It’s no longer a matter of rebuilding, using factual research to provide depth. It is about criminalising those who dare to disagree, citing various genocide denial laws.

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