Rwanda 25 years on: have we learned anything?

Europe's World

Asia, Africa & Emerging Economies

Picture of Harriet Lamb
Harriet Lamb

CEO of International Alert

Harriet Lamb is the CEO of International Alert, and leads Alert’s work across 20 countries and key themes, from gender relations to the role the private sector can play in supporting peace.

This April, we will be commemorating 25 years since the world stood by silently and watched Rwanda descend into a tragic bloodbath that saw the massacre of over 1,000,000 Rwandans. It was a genocide of terrifying proportions that laid bare, in all its ruthless brutality, man’s inhumanity to man. For the global community, the genocide exposed the weaknesses of international governance, rendering diplomacy, military might and UN resolutions ultimately impotent.

25 years on, what lessons have Rwandans and the international community learned? Now, against a backdrop of rising conflict and increasing superpower tensions, the need to double down on efforts to prevent violence has become strikingly apparent. After all, the international community, including the European Union, has an array of tools at its disposal, which it should not hesitate to exploit to its fullest potential.

Listening to the experiences of Rwandans reminds us what a feat it is to move beyond the toxic narratives we inherit. Cecil, a 25-year-old Rwandan girl, says that she has learned “both good and bad” things from older generations: “I was told several times by mum how the Hutus were bad towards my family, how they completely wiped it out; I grew up with that bitterness every day.”

Lest we forget, reconciliation takes time and constant effort. In the immediate aftermath of the genocide against the Tutsi, the Rwandan government embarked on a process of transitional justice. But once the short-term goals had been accomplished, and the perpetrators punished, it was understood that the process by which a country undergoes national rehabilitation is by no means a brief one.

Support that brings people together must be maintained

Rather, for the generational trauma to be remedied, long-term commitment to peacebuilding would be a necessity. There are children, born out of genocidal rape, who are in desperate need of psycho-social support. Other children have inherited stereotypes. Poisonous narratives still circulate, leading to transgenerational trauma and even to genocidal ideology among some youth. Furthermore, more prisoners who have served time for their participation in the genocide are to be released. It is for these reasons that we must continue to work hard to nurture alternative, peaceful narratives.

International Alert has brought together young people from both perpetrator and victim backgrounds. Evariste, the 26-year-old son of a former prisoner and member of one of these dialogue clubs, says these have “changed the way we look at things”. He now owns a bar and has been able to acutely observe the changing attitudes: “Initially, people would not even share a beer, but now I look at them, through a peacebuilding lens, and I can see how they share.”

Support that brings people together must be maintained, alongside measures that strive to tackle the root causes of the conflict, promote good governance, justice and inclusive economic growth. These approaches constitute the very essence of ‘peacebuilding’, and deserve more international attention and funds.

Central to the debate on genocide prevention has been the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) initiative, a concept that obliges national governments and the international community to protect people from genocide and other such crimes. While it is sometimes true that only outside military intervention can curb casualty numbers, effective conflict prevention is ultimately dependent on the systematic use of a wider range of governmental tools, in addition to R2P. Diplomacy, while important, must go hand-in-hand with peacebuilding efforts if catastrophes are to be prevented and dialogue is to be created.

February’s Munich Security Conference was instrumental in highlighting emerging security concerns, as reiterated by global leaders from China, Russia, France and Germany. The erosion of the global order is becoming more and more discernible, as underlying tensions are made visibly manifest. In the words of French President Emmanuel Macron: ”…we are currently experiencing a crisis of the effectiveness and principles of our contemporary world order which will not be able to get back on track or return to how it functioned before.”

People clearly rank prevention ahead of cure

The overriding question remains: how should Europe tackle these issues? Discussions about setting up Franco-German European armies or funding the so-called European Peace Facility to support other countries to deliver lethal force are counter-productive, as they pave the way for escalation rather than resolution.

Instead, the EU – given its wholehearted committed to multilateralism –needs to step up and support coordinated global responses that tackle the root causes of conflict, including those relating to social and economic inequality. It is also within the EU’s power to dramatically scale up peacebuilding initiatives. The EU could champion such approaches, which have been underutilised when compared with other responses to conflict like military interventions and humanitarian aid provision.

Both of these tend to be applied in retrospect as opposed to being harnessed as preventative measures. Currently, 2% of all OECD aid is invested in peacebuilding. Given that more people, including civilians and children, are killed during conflict, with more people displaced than at any other time throughout human history, this is woefully inadequate.

All evidence shows that peacebuilding is effective. It is also cost-effective. Research conducted in Rwanda by the Institute of Economics and Peace found that every $1 invested in peacebuilding saves $16 in war costs.

Moreover, peacebuilding is popular. Last year, International Alert, in collaboration with the British Council and RIWI, polled over 100,000 people from a mix of 14 different countries, ranging from the UK to Ukraine, from Nigeria to Syria, on the subject of government spending. When asked where governments should spend more to promote peace, while given options such as emergency aid, military intervention and diplomacy, people ranked first ‘dealing with the reasons why people fight in the first place’. In second place, they identified the option of ‘teaching peace, tolerance and conflict resolution in schools’ as a priority. Overall, the results show overwhelming support for peacebuilding.

When questioned about the most effective way to create long-term peace, people ranked ‘dealing with the reasons why people fight in the first place’, followed by ‘supporting societies and communities to deal with conflict peacefully’. The military option came last. People clearly rank prevention ahead of cure.

25 years on, Rwanda’s healing journey is a clear testament to the power of peacebuilding. But peacebuilding is a slow process. As Cecil said, “I can say that with time the narrative is changing.” Ultimately, if further atrocities are to be prevented, the EU urgently needs to transform the scale and scope of its long-term conflict prevention strategy.

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