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From outright denial to blame-shifting: three guises of genocide denial in Rwanda

Genocide denial is an obstacle to meaningful reconciliation and healing in Rwanda, a country struggling to recover from the deep scars left by the 1994 genocide. In this article, Helen Hintjens and Jos van Oijen show that genocide denial has evolved over time, shifting from outright denial to relativizing the genocide by referring to other forms of violence, or recasting it in a way that shifts the blame to the victims and perpetrators while keeping bystanders such as international organizations out of the spotlight.

According to Human Rights Watch, in 100 days from April to July 1994, some 500,000 to one million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were murdered in Rwanda on the orders of the state. The ‘dark side of democracy’ involved mass citizen participation (forced as well as voluntary) in killings and the failure of weak UN forces and unwilling Western governments to protect the victims.

Genocide Watch recognizes denial as one of ten stages of genocide, and recent literature is emerging on this topic in Rwanda. Genocide denial is an obstacle to meaningful reconciliation and healing in this country. Even 25 years after the genocide, leading suspects are still being found and tried; only some will fully admit to what happened in Rwanda in 1994. At least three different types of genocide denial—there are probably more—are evident, starting shortly after the genocide and continuing to present. Moreover, organized denial started before 1994 to cover up genocide preparation.

It is important to recognize genocide denial in all its forms in order to prevent future justification of state violence targeted against minorities. The three forms of collective genocide denial, literal (1994-1998), interpretative (1998-2003), and implicatory (2003-present), do overlap, but one form is more pronounced in each period. These are discussed below

Literal denial (1994-1998)

Literal denial claims no genocide took place. It involves systematically negating the facts of genocide and keeping silent about genocidal plans and killings. Within and outside Rwanda, literal denial was widespread among leaders and followers of the Hutu Power. Governments represented in the UN Security Council who had a responsibility to act avoided using the word genocide, and this literal denial was because they did not wish to get involved. Even before genocide ended, literal genocide denial started in Europe, spread by groups with close ties to genocidaires before 1994. This included the French government and the White Fathers, Catholic missionaries from Belgium.

After the genocide, literal genocide denial became a defence strategy of genocide suspects at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR). Attorneys such as Christopher Black and Peter Erlinder believed the denial narratives of their clients and became activists on their behalf, claiming convicted perpetrators were actually political prisoners—victims of an international conspiracy led by the US and the UK.

Several scholars and journalists with little prior knowledge of Rwanda or the genocide were influenced by these lawyers. A good example is the case of Edward S. Herman and David Peterson who published several books and articles claiming the accepted history of the genocide was based on a ‘complex of interwoven lies’. They downplayed the organizing capacities of the Rwandan state, denying that the Hutu Power regime was even ‘capable’ of planning and managing genocide.

Interpretative denial (1998-2003)

Once a firm historical record of the facts had been established, around the late 1990s, literal denial became more difficult to sustain. Testimonies from survivors and studies by Human Rights Watch and other NGOs made literal denial almost impossible. As a result, interpretative denial became more pronounced. This involved distracting attention from genocide by highlighting other crimes committed around the same time or afterwards that were not classified as genocide, in order to relativize genocide.

Interpretative denial means that the ‘drama’ of violence is acknowledged, but is recast as something other than genocide. Facts are twisted to deny that the killings constituted genocide. Interpretative denial started when the international media swallowed tales of seemingly two-sided ‘tribal violence’ in Rwanda. The killings were justified as self-defence, part of civil war or ethnic self-determination of the ‘majority’ population. In this way, genocide becomes no more than ‘blood-letting’ or massacre.

A popular form of interpretative denial implies that the Tutsi minority more or less committed suicide. They first waged war against the Hutu majority, and then were wiped out in retaliation. It is claimed Hutu soldiers and civil defence militia had no choice but to defend themselves against an invading Tutsi rebel army. In this way, a deliberate campaign of extermination of up to a million unarmed civilians was rationalized by portraying victims as casualties of civil war—a war supposedly caused by victims themselves.

By portraying selective slaughter as self-defence, or part of civil war and ethnic self-determination by the ‘majority’ population, interpretative denial conveniently reworks the facts of genocide as something else. Narratives of interpretative denial suggest someone else was responsible for the killings, not Hutu Power organizers, not the Rwandan state. Victims are blamed, which may seem absurd. However, for perpetrators and their allies, this reinterpretation of genocide allows them to maintain a positive self-image.  One form of collective genocide denial, the ‘double genocide thesis’, bridges interpretative and implicatory genocide denial.

Implicatory denial (pre-1994, post -003)

Implicatory genocide denial acknowledges that genocide took place, but involves explicit counter-accusations to blame the ‘other side’. In Rwanda, implicatory denial involved conspiracy theories that preceded the genocide and were later revived and expanded upon. In the early 1990s, Hutu Power media claimed the Tutsi intended to wipe out the Hutu majority. This fear-mongering was intended to justify the creation of so-called self-defence militias, really death squads, like the notorious interahamwe, who in 1994 were deployed to kill Tutsis in their homes, at roadblocks, even in schools, hospitals, and places of worship.

The ‘double genocide’ thesis suggests the Hutu were themselves victims of genocide, perpetrated by the Tutsi dominated RPF. After the genocide against the Tutsi, this theory was used to suggest moral equivalence. It was claimed all sides were equally guilty of heinous war crimes. More recently, this narrative has evolved further to claim the RPF – not the Hutu Power elite – somehow masterminded the genocide against the Tutsi. According to journalist Judi Rever, the genocide against Tutsi was secretly planned, ignited, and fuelled by the RPF. It is claimed this was planned to generate international support and sympathy for the RPF seizure of state power in Rwanda. At the same time the RPF is accused of planning a genocide of Hutus, and slaughtering and demonizing the Hutu majority.

Implicatory denial is a bit like fake news, suggesting, ‘things are not what they seem’. Evidence is taken out of context or made up to ‘reveal’ a secret conspiracy. Literal genocide denial is relatively easy to challenge. Interpretative and implicatory genocide denial are more difficult, since they are not about denying facts, but about reinterpreting what lies ‘behind’ facts; what they mean. This suggests there are hidden truths behind the facts, often as with fake news, on the basis of hearsay and unsubstantiated evidence. More than 25 years after the Rwandan genocide, organized denial persists.

An obstacle to peace and mutual understanding

So, can laws and prosecutions prevent organized, collective genocide denial in Rwanda and elsewhere? Some think they can. Yet the problem is that genuine criticism of the present Rwandan government can sometimes be prosecuted as genocide denial. Unrecognized RPF crimes have meant that few soldiers have come to trial for killing Hutu during the civil war and in the years thereafter, in neighbouring Congo (DRC). This background helps politicize debates around genocide denial. Yet consistent and sincere efforts to combat genocide denial need to continue, and should not be misinterpreted as unconditional support for the current government.

This blog article was first published here and is based on the article ‘Elementary Forms of Collective Denial: The 1994 Rwanda Genocide’.

About the authors:

Helen HintjensHelen Hintjens is Assistant Professor in Development and Social Justice at the ISS, working in the field of migration.

Jos van Oijen is an independent researcher from the Netherlands who publishes on genocide-related issues in various online and print media.

Are you looking for more content about Global Development and Social Justice? Subscribe to Bliss, the official blog of the International Institute of Social Studies, and stay updated about interesting topics our researchers are working on.

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COVID-19 | New modalities of online activism: using WhatsApp to mobilize for change by Lize Swartz

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As the COVID-19 pandemic progresses, we are slowly settling in to a ‘new normal’. For many of us, having lived our lives online the last few weeks has made us question the necessity of meeting in person to get things done. Can we also organize online to enact change? While internet access is not yet universal, a recent study shows that WhatsApp can be an important tool for mobilizing. Lize Swartz discusses how new forms of online activism can emerge on WhatsApp and whether it promotes inclusivity.


A recent post by Duncan Green on the drawbacks of online activism left me deep in thought. Green mentioned that not all people have access to a stable and reliable internet connection, leading to the exclusion of some groups and the domination of other groups in online campaigning. He also discussed how issues can be hyped on social media, how attention to the issues are based on the life span of content on different social media channels, and how ‘woke’ online activists need to be. Successful online activism therefore seems to involve the ability to connect to the internet and use it as a tool, for example by building an online presence and communications strategy.

Online activism is often equated to clicktivism and online campaigning for funds or signatures, but can be something else entirely. Being an online activist does not only mean subscribing to campaign emails and following campaigns online, donating money online to your favourite cause, or hashtagging or hyping issues you care about on social media. These are all tired forms of online activism that are seen as the lowest-hanging fruit. And being online does not mean working on a computer, being a ‘digital native’, or keeping up to date with and shaping how debates are developing by being online all the time.

Research I conducted about responses to the collapse of urban water supply systems in South Africa shows the tremendous potential of WhatsApp as a platform for organization and social learning. Mobile phones are the primary way of accessing the internet in South Africa, where I’m from and where I’ve been conducting research on social mobilization. Online activism through channels such as WhatsApp is part of people’s daily lives because the mobile phone has become the primary means of communication for many—a companion that follows us everywhere and helps us make sense of our lives.

Mobile phone users can become activists whenever they share pictures or information on WhatsApp with the hope of changing someone’s perspective or encouraging action. But WhatsApp can also be used to mobilize in different ways. It can either be used to organize physical protests or to organize initiatives or stage protests that take place entirely online.

I studied responses of water users in three South African towns to the interruption of municipal water supplies following the depletion of the towns’ water sources. Through WhatsApp, water users in these towns were able to inform each other about the collapse, including the date on which the municipal water supply would be shut off, where they could access water once this happened, and who needed help. Once the water ran out, people were able to organize at a national level through WhatsApp to collect and transport bottled and bulk water to towns in need (these are called ‘water drives’ in South Africa).

In the process, water users produced knowledge not only on how to adapt, but also about what drove the collapses that ultimately informed certain adaptation strategies. This includes the role they played in bringing about the collapse through how they interact with water. This may not be considered conventional online activism, but it clearly shows how WhatsApp can be used to mobilize for change, in this case by informing choices about preferred adaptation strategies and ways to access water. It also informed strategies to hold actors perceived responsible for the collapse accountable, for example by ‘going off the water grid’ (using private water instead of state-supplied water).

Several things about organizing through WhatsApp could be observed. The most important are:

You don’t need to be a ‘digital native’ or tech savvy to organize online. Most of the water users on the WhatsApp groups were middle-aged or retired persons who use WhatsApp to stay connected and share information. Many of the water users I interviewed for my research who are active on these groups do not own or regularly use a computer, neither do all of them have WiFi. Most of them surf the internet on their mobile phones using mobile data. They are more likely than hyperconnected ‘digital natives’ to call each other. And they regularly talk to each other and share information on WhatsApp. Something as rudimentary as WhatsApp can lead to sophisticated activist strategies that are not based on an extensive online presence or knowledge of how to promote your organization or hashtag the hell out of an issue to get your point across.

Not everyone needs to be on WhatsApp to be involved in campaigns or initiatives. Many participants on WhatsApp groups represented households. They would share information with family and friends in their personal capacity through personal connections on WhatsApp. This means that online participants linked to their networks to mobilize or share information.

You don’t need to be ‘woke’ about current issues. The participants in WhatsApp groups were part of the group based on a shared concern—a lack of water. Other WhatsApp groups exist in these communities for other issues, including an unstable energy supply (sharing information on ‘load shedding’) or neighbourhood security (organizing neighbourhood watch schedules). One thing I’ve noticed about these communities (of largely middle-class white people) is how there seems to be a WhatsApp group for everything: to organize a baby shower, a birthday gift, a water collection drive, or a protest. Thus, a central concern and an assertive, practical approach to addressing it, rather than the desire to hype an issue on social media, drives engagement and collaboration.

You don’t need to be part of an organization. WhatsApp users were organized loosely around a central concern they collectively identified, not one imposed ‘from above’ by NGOs or other ‘civil society organizations’. The WhatsApp groups emerged organically, with a central administrator and leader, but without any clear hierarchies or agenda. The freedom to set and pursue an agenda was enabled through this, facilitating social learning and deeper impacts.

Some other things should be kept in mind when organizing through WhatsApp:

A concrete goal is important. Do you want the WhatsApp group to be used to share information, to coordinate collective efforts, or to learn?

Think about who you want the message to reach. To make online activism successful, the measures need to reach the right people and have the right clout to place pressure for change. Visual imagery such as videos and photos may prove particularly effective in showing decision-makers, the media or the general public that real persons are concerned about and affected by an issue. It’s even better if social media and physical mobilization are combined.

Opportunism isn’t a problem, it’s strategic. If COVID-19 is seen as a moment of reality, is it so bad if its momentum is used to drive wider or deeper change not directly related to the pandemic? The restriction of movement for example has encouraged environmental activists to emphasize the link between human activity and climate change. Over the last three months I’ve heard how Venice’s water is crystal clear for the first time in years, of wild animals roaming the streets now that humans are not, and how visibility has increased due to the sudden decrease in air pollution. Linking your cause to wider developments can give it momentum to be propelled forward.

A number of concerns regarding the use of WhatsApp remain that require careful consideration. These include the way in which it and other social media platforms can exclude, privacy concerns, and the propensity of using it to circulate fake news. These concerns will be addressed in a future blog.


This article is part of a series about the coronavirus crisis. Find more articles of this series here.


Lize Swartz

About the author:

Lize Swartz is a PhD researcher at the ISS focusing on water user interactions with sustainability-climate crises in the water sector, in particular the role of water scarcity politics on crisis responses and adaptation processes. She is also the editor of the ISS Blog Bliss.

 


 

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