Jan Pronk

“If you do not remember, you do not know where to go”

Address Memorial Ceremony ‘Kwibuka 20’ of the Genocide in Rwanda, April 1994. The Hague, 14 February 2014

When the world came to its senses after the end of World War 2 and reports of the horrors of the holocaust stated coming in, the international community reacted with disbelief. Reality proved much worse than even the worst nightmare.

The world community reacted with a general outcry that crimes of this magnitude must never happen again. And in the initial post-war political climate of overall optimism, we believed that this categorical imperative – never again! – was a realistic option, not merely a deeply-felt desire, not only an ultimate hope, but a commitment. The international community would not remain passive in the face of such revolting barbarism in the future. ‘Never again’ was to be our overarching pledge.

This has turned out to be wishful thinking. Crimes, so heinous that a repetition was unthinkable, have occurred since World War 2, in Asia, in Africa, and elsewhere. “The hope of never again has become the reality of again and again”, in the words of Richard Goldstone, former prosecutor of the international criminal tribunal on Rwanda.

I flew to Rwanda several weeks after the beginning of the genocide in April 1994. The horror was beyond imagination. I saw terror and fear in Kigali, dead bodies in the villages around, mutilated corpses in the river, an endless flow. Death was everywhere; you could smell it. In those years I had been in Cambodia, Somalia, Liberia, Guatemala, Bosnia and Sudan. In all those countries I had witnessed mass killings, but Rwanda was the worst ever.

Since then I visited the country many times. I listened to the stories and had the images clearly before my eyes. And more and more one overriding question forced itself on me. This was not the question: ‘Why did people do this?’, nor: ‘How could this happen?’, but: ‘Why did we not stop this? Why did we fail?” After all we had promised: ‘Never again’.

Genocide is not a new phenomenon. It has taken place throughout history. If we define genocide as ‘mass violence against a social group with the intent to destroy that group in whole or in part’, we must admit that such crimes against humanity had not only occurred during earlier stages of human civilisation, but also recently.  Mass slaughtering of people did not stop when the two World Wars had ended, despite the efforts to unite nations and peoples and to build a global system on the basis of international law and human rights. The genocide of the Armenians, the killings in the Soviet Gulag, the Holocaust, and the famine inflicted on Chines peasants during the Great Leap Forward and the killing fields of Cambodia took place without the world community trying to stop them. 

Some of those killings were unforeseen, or not widely known, anyway not in time. News about Pol Pot’s killing fields did spread, but it was beyond imagination and was - again - received with disbelief. That has been the case quite often, and it still is: the world community wants proof. It often tends to doubt the information, to close eyes and to postpone action until it is too late.

Sometimes the international community, knowing that mass killings were taking place and wishing to stop them, lacked the capacity to do so. That may have been the case in the early years of the UN, or because of constraints due to the Cold War, but often it was just another poor excuse.

As far as Rwanda was concerned there was no excuse whatsoever. We could have foreseen the genocide since the spiralling of violence and retaliation which had started around 1960. Those who perpetrate acts of genocide or other massive abuses of human rights usually try to commit their crimes out of the public limelight. Not so in Rwanda. We could actually see the killings on TV. The extent of the massacres and their motives were not immediately apparent, but the facts were clear:  this was genocide, beyond any reasonable doubt, not a borderline case, even within the narrow definition of the genocide Convention.

What happened in Rwanda was the deliberate, politically motivated massacre of an ethnic group. The international community could not plead ignorance and shoulders part of the responsibility.

A year later I was present at the first commemoration of the Rwandan genocide. Thousands of bodies were reburied in Kigali, at Rebero Hill. UN equipment was used to transport the coffins and to dig the graves. Survivors carried posters bearing texts such as “Enterrons les morts, pas la verité” - “Let us bury the victims, not the truth” - and: “Where was the UN when they were killed?” Indeed: why didn’t we act, though we knew and though we could? The Security Council decided to not increase and strengthen the protection force, but to withdraw. Aid was given to people in refugee camps without any effort to separate the murderers from the innocents. It was a history of shame, not only during the early stages of the massacre, but also later on, when the international community turned a deaf ear to appeals for help to prevent new attacks by the FAR and the Interahamwe. The international community did nothing, responded too late, did not implement decisions which could have saved lives, and, even worse, took decisions which resulted in greater danger.

It was the ultimate exposure of the UN strategy, as reflected in a cartoon by  Alan Moir, comparing the strategies in Somalia (“we can appear to do something and fail”), Cambodia (“we can do something and appear to fail”), Bosnia (“we can appear to do something and appear to fail”) and Rwanda (“we can fail to appear”). No wonder there was such a resentment in Rwanda against the international community, no wonder there was bitterness.

I was one of the speakers at Rebero Hill. As a matter of fact I was the only speaker from outside Rwanda. So, I spoke more or less as a representative of the international community. What could I say, in addition to expressing grief? That is what did and I added: “We are with you today and will be in the future. …. The crime against humanity which took place in Rwanda should never happen again. We have said so before, we failed, but it is worth repeating and it is worth working for. Together ... “ 

Twenty years later we have to admit: we have failed again. In Iraq, Afghanistan, Darfur, Syria and the Central African Republic we were either absent, or came too late and did too little. We sometimes even fuelled the flames of violence, rather than protecting the victims.

Rwanda is a new country now. There are still many problems, but the Rwandese are looking forward. They try to fundamentally renew their society. Two years ago the Gacaca trials came to an end. It was an effort to dig up the truth, to seek justice and reconciliation, and to heal society. In a documentary film about Rwanda a woman, who had survived the massacre, says: “If you do not remember, you do not know where to go”. That is the basic message of the Kwibuka memorial ceremonies of this year: Kwibuka, remember, but do so in order to unite and renew. 

This appeal does not only concern Rwanda, but world society as a whole. Remember, unite and renew. Remember the catastrophes behind us. Do not forget the people who are no longer with us. We owe it to the people of Rwanda, those who have been killed and those who have survived. We owe it to all people fearing violence and death somewhere else on this earth, to bear and share a responsibility to protect and to work for justice, peace and healing. Such a responsibility starts by not looking away, turning a blind eye and shamming deafness, but, instead, listening to the voices of those who have good reasons to be afraid.

Remember, unite and renew. Unite the peoples of the world, whatever their colour, race or religion. Renew the commitment to protect human beings wherever, the commitment not to fail, but to heal the global community of people.

Indeed: if you do not remember, you do not know where, and how, to go.


Address Memorial Ceremony ‘Kwibuka 20’ of the Genocide in Rwanda, April 1994. The Hague, 14 February 2012