Not up for debate: Rwanda cannot excuse Peter Erlinder’s genocide denial

BY PATRICK KARURETWA

ADDIS ABABA, ETHIOPIA

On June 20, 1994, the BBC’s Marc Doyle sent a stern memo to his London-based editors. Writing from the streets of Rwanda, where defenseless men, women, and children were being slaughtered at the rate of 10,000 a day; the journalist cautioned that “It is a very serious misrepresentation of the situation in Rwanda to describe the killings simply as ‘the slaughter of civilians’ or ‘the mass killings,’ without explaining who is killing whom […T]he government militia and the government armed forces are responsible for the bodies being found in mass graves in Rwanda and floating in rivers.”

Doyle, who spent more time on the ground throughout the genocide than any other foreign reporter, recalls the frequent calls from London requesting that he submit “balanced reports”. “[Show] the other side!” he was told. The BBC editors maintained that whatever crimes the Hutu Interahamwe militia and the government army were committing were almost certainly replicated by their opponents, the Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF). The BBC were not the only ones uncomfortable with the idea that Rwanda’s tragedy could possibly be as unbalanced as was being reported. Other western media outlets took the same approach.

After all, this was Africa! The events in Rwanda could not be anything else than yet another eruption of irrational tribal or inter-ethnic violence. It had to be about “tribesmen killing each other for obscure reasons”, “inter-ethnic carnage”, “indiscriminate mass killings”, “various clans murdering others”, “the explosion of some ancient tribal hatred”, “gangs of youth settling tribal scores”, “incomprehensible savagery”, etc. Doyle recalls that every instance of exaction by individual RPF soldiers was reported and magnified with “undisguised glee” to demonstrate that the “other side” was just as evil.

The media attempts to establish a moral equivalency “between the two sides” was playing right in the hands of the genocidaires. From the beginning, the extremists had capitalized on an orchestrated confusion between two distinct wars, distinguished by Marc Doyle as the “shooting war” (easy to describe with two armies fiercely fighting each other in the North of the country), and the “genocide war” (in which a government was involved in the systematic annihilation of part of its own population).

16 years later, the “moral equivalency” fight is still on. It is tougher than ever. The crusaders’ ranks have swollen. Knowingly or not; human rights activists, lawyers, journalists, etc. are now working hands in hands with genocide suspects and nostalgics of the “Hutu Power” era based in the West. Their agenda has expanded; it now appears to include outright genocide denial.

The strange case of Peter Erlinder

“Can the tragedy that engulfed Rwanda properly be called ‘a genocide’ at all? Or, was it closer to a case of civilians being caught up in war-time violence, like the Eastern Front in WWII, rather than the planned behind-the-lines killings in Nazi death camps? The ICTR [International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda] judgment found the former.” – Peter Erlinder

One of the crusaders’ champions, Peter Erlinder, is finding out, at his own expense, that Rwandans have learned from their painful past. They will no longer cross their arms while their history is being distorted and their hardly-earned stability is jeopardized by unscrupulous individuals, however powerful. They know, from experience, that none of those individuals will stand by them when it’s time to reap the seeds of lies and division. They have not forgotten the sight of departing evacuation vehicles in which there was no space for Rwandans (only expatriates, their pets, and their belongings), the convoys that drove inexorably to safer havens amidst screams of agony and gunshots.

Erlinder, an American law professor at the William Mitchell College of Law who acted as a defense lawyer in the ICTR, is now being prosecuted for his controversial suggestion that the killings in Rwanda in 1994 not be termed a genocide at all. Under Rwanda’s anti-genocide law, individuals condemned for denying or grossly minimizing genocide, attempting to justify or approve genocide, or who destroy  evidence related to it are liable to a minimum of 10 years and a maximum of 20 in prison.

If the professor’s objective in repeatedly uttering his genocide-negating statement was to achieve fame, he was certainly successful. The reaction in academic and legal circles in the U.S. was immediate. Lawyers, professors, human rights activists throughout the U.S. have made their views clear. Peter Erlinder’s prosecution by that “petty dictatorship”, as they call Rwanda, has nothing to do with the country’s laws, they said. It is pure political vendetta directed against an ICTR defense lawyer in the exercise of his functions. On this, they appear to be in notable disagreement with, of all people, Peter Erlinder, who wrote in one of his more inflammatory essays: “I have to disclose my own bias because, under the laws of Rwanda, I too am a criminal”.

The outraged intellectuals – who seem to suggest that the right to defend alleged genocide perpetrators entails the right to contend it never happened, and to propagate such views in Rwanda – are also in disagreement with Peter Erlinder’s employer. The ICTR, whose relationship with the Rwandan government has not been exactly smooth over the past decade, is, nonetheless, clear in this case: Peter Erlinder’s immunity as a defense lawyer at the international court does not apply to the accusations formulated against him in this case.

Peter Robinson, another American defense lawyer who has appeared before the ICTR, is currently paying the price for trying to force the tribunal’s hand into a blind endorsement of Erlinder’s cause. Judge Dennis Byron, the ICTR’s president, has ruled that Robinson and his colleague, Belgian/Congolese lawyer Nimy Mayidika Ngimbi, shall appear in court on June 21st for contempt of court under the Tribunal’s Rule 77. The defense lawyer, who refused to continue with an ongoing case unless “the UN court condemns and acts on the prosecution by Rwanda of their colleague” Erlinder, was also reported to his Bar Association in the U.S. for obstructing the ICTR’s proceedings.

Despite the risk of his arrest and prosecution, Erlinder, for whom the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi was nothing more than a “Clinton and Bush cover-up,” decided to go to Rwanda and defy the country’s justice system. The day before his arrival in Kigali, Erlinder was a panelist at a conference that gathered the who’s who of an increasingly visible international network of genocide deniers as well as known genocide suspects. He bid farewell to his audience and requested their support as he traveled to Rwanda to “show them” (meaning the Rwandan legal system). Shortly after the conference, one of his co-panelists, Eugene Rwamucyo, was arrested by the French police for his alleged participation in the planning and execution of the 1994 genocide. Clearly, Erlinder was not unaware of his potential criminal status under Rwandan law. His decision to travel to Rwanda was apparently based on the assumption that the small sub-Saharan country would never dare prosecuting a U.S. citizen, a prominent law professor, and a defense lawyer at the ICTR.

He was wrong. He failed to take into consideration the numerous instances when Rwanda’s leadership made it clear that, when it comes to its painful memories and hardly-earned stability, a clear line has been drawn. He failed to learn from other individuals and organizations that tried to cross that line before him. From the FLDR, a military organization comprising many Hutu leaders of the genocide based in the neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo, to French Judge Jean-Louis Brugiere and his spurious accusations against the RPF leadership, whom he accused of inciting a genocide against its own people so that he could ultimately take power, all are invariably confronted with the resolve of the Rwan
dan people, who have learned from their country’s painful history.

Whether the speech-related provisions of Rwanda’s anti-genocide laws are technically sound or not; whether they are intrinsically different from holocaust denial laws in Israel, Germany, France, Austria, Belgium, Poland, Portugal, etc. is an open and highly subjective question. But one thing is certain: Rwanda is not ready to tolerate blatant genocide denial. As the government’s spokesperson stated, “if critics disagree with the Rwandan laws against the denial or defence of Genocide, we invite and welcome that debate […] but this needs to be understood; flagrant and orchestrated breaches of our genocide ideology laws will be met with the full force of the law.”

Looking to the future, remembering the past

“We understand that human rights activists schooled in the U.S. Bill of Rights may find this objectionable. But for Rwandans – schooled in the tragedy of the 1994 genocide and who long for peace – Mr. Erlinder’s arrest is an act of justice.” – Louise Mushikiwabo, Spokesperson of the Government of Rwanda

Many have tried and failed to accurately predict Rwanda’s post-genocide prospects. I could be mistaken too, but let me take a quick shot at reading into the country’s future in light of current events. There will be more Erlinders on Rwanda’s path to stability and prosperity, other “inspired” left-wingers using Rwanda in a bid to attack their own country will come up with some new conspiracy theories over the country’s troubled history. There will be further attempts by the FDLR and its sympathizers to weaken Rwanda’s still-fragile harmony. More “experts” and powerful organizations will find it shocking that their views and priorities are not adopted as the law of the land in such an unimportant country. These attention-seekers and would-be heroes will make news; they might also generate occasional doubt and confusion.

That is all they will achieve. They will not manage to derail a country that in less than two decades has moved from the verge of disintegration to becoming a regional model in areas as critical and wide-ranging as healthcare, anti-corruption, environmental policies, business climate, contribution to peacekeeping, women empowerment, access to education, etc. All they will achieve is to make Rwandans – and, indeed, all Africans – stronger, wiser, and more assertive in their claim for fairness and respect.

In fact, cases such as Rwanda’s could eventually be a blessing in disguise for the Western world, which Chatham House, a leading think-thank, recently called “out of touch” when it comes to Africa’s current realities. Hopefully, more “experts” and policy-makers may appreciate – and it’s about time they do – that even poor sub-Saharan countries should be approached with deliberation and respect. Just like citizens of wealthier countries, the people of such nations expect and deserve to be treated as equal partners rather than humanitarian cases.

Rwanda’s most significant achievement over the last 16 years may not be its spectacular socio-economic recovery. The country’s true success may be a less tangible one. Careful – and reasonably humble – observers have seen, in recent years, a resilient people regaining nothing less than its soul. Day after day, they have watched Rwandans moving, through trial and error, from a state of despair to a “Yes We Can!” mind-set. Rwandans deserve support; they need genuine advice and criticism. However, as it should be clear by now, they will resist those who insist on dragging them back to what they see as “their rightful position”.

Patrick Karuretwa is a Rwandan lawyer studying at Tufts University’s Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy as its first ever LL.M./M.A.L.D. joint degree candidate.

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