04/07/2014 07:35 EDT | Updated 06/07/2014 05:59 EDT

The Worst Thing About the Rwanda Genocide Is That It Was Preventable

The world stands together on April 7 to recall and reflect upon the 20th anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda, where one million Rwandans -- mostly ethnic Tutsis -- were murdered in less than 100 days. What makes the genocide in Rwanda so unspeakable is not only the horror of the genocide itself, but that this genocide was preventable. No one can say that we did not know; we knew, but we did not act.

On this occasion of remembrance and reminder we must ask ourselves: What have we learned? What must we do?

The horror of the killing fields in Rwanda -- and other genocides of the twentieth century in which the international community played the role of bystander -- gave rise to the Responsibility to Protect Doctrine (R2P). The R2P doctrine -- adopted unanimously in the UN 2005 World Summit Outcome Document -- mandates international action to "protect a state's population from genocide, war crimes, crimes against humanity and ethnic cleansing".

In a word, if such mass atrocity crimes are being committed, and the state where these crimes are occurring is unwilling or unable to act -- or worse, is the author of such international crimes -- the Responsibility to Protect arises.

Yet, as we mark yet another anniversary of the continuing crimes against humanity perpetrated daily in Syria, the international community has failed to heed the lessons of past tragedies. Given now the daily crimes against humanity in Syria, acting upon R2P is more urgent and necessary than ever. Simply put, if mass atrocities in Syria are not a case for R2P, then there is no R2P.

Accordingly, the lessons of the genocide in Rwanda can pour content into what the Responsibility to Protect entails -- and frame our responses to the compelling questions: What have we learned and what must be done?

The first lesson is the importance -- and responsibility -- of remembrance itself, of bearing witness as a standing witness of our failure to act. And more: The mass murder of one million Rwandans -- of 10,000 Tutsis being murdered every day for three months -- is not a matter of abstract statistics. As we say at these moments of remembrance -- unto each person there was a name, each person has an identity, each person is a universe. If you have saved a single person, it is as if you have saved an entire universe. And so, the abiding moral imperative that underpins R2P: We are each, wherever we are, the guarantors of each other's destiny.

The second enduring lesson from the Rwandan genocide -- not unlike the Holocaust -- is that it occurred not only because of the machinery of death, but because of state-sanctioned incitement to hate and genocide. Indeed, as the Supreme Court of Canada recognized, and as echoed by the International Criminal Tribunals for Rwanda, the Holocaust did not begin in the gas chambers -- it began with words. As the jurisprudence of the Rwandan tribunals demonstrates, these acts of genocide were preceded by -- and anchored in -- the state-orchestrated demonization and dehumanization of the minority Tutsi populations.

Simply put, the international community must bear in mind -- as the Supreme Court of Canada affirmed in the Mugesara case -- that incitement to genocide is a crime in and of itself. Taking action to prevent it, as the Genocide Convention compels us, is not a policy option; it is an international legal obligation of the highest order.

The third lesson is the danger of indifference and the consequences of inaction -- hence the Responsibility to Act. Simply put, while the U.N. Security Council and the international community dithered and delayed, Rwandans were dying.

The fourth lesson is the danger of a culture of impunity, and therefore the importance of the responsibility to bring to justice those who engage in mass human rights violations. If the past century was the age of atrocity, it was also the age of impunity. Few of the perpetrators have been brought to justice. Just as there cannot be sanctuary for hate or refuge for bigotry, neither can there be haven or sanctuary for the perpetrators of the worst crimes against humanity.

The fifth lesson is the danger of the vulnerability of the powerless and the powerlessness of the vulnerable -- the brutalized children, the violated women, the slaughter of innocents -- all the first targets of mass atrocity crimes. It is therefore our responsibility to empower the powerless while giving voice to the voiceless. Indeed, the test of a just society is how it protects its most vulnerable.

The sixth lesson is the cruelty of genocide denial -- a criminal conspiracy to erase and whitewash the horror of the genocide in Rwanda. In its most obscene form, genocide denial actually accuses the victim of falsifying the crime -- of perpetrating a "hoax". And so, we have a responsibility to remember the victims of genocide and other mass atrocity crimes -- itself a repudiation of such denial.

Seventh is the importance -- indeed, responsibility -- of remembering the heroic rescuers -- those who confronted and resisted evil -- who remind us of the range of humanity that prevailed in the face of evil -- and thereby transformed history.

Finally, we must remember and pay tribute to the survivors who endured the worst of inhumanity -- the worst of crimes against humanity -- and somehow found in the resources of their own humanity the will to go on -- to rebuild their lives as they contribute to the building of the communities in which they live.

While the implementation of the Responsibility to Protect remains as inadequate as it is incomplete, we must learn -- and most importantly act upon -- the lessons of the crime whose name we should even shudder to mention: genocide. We owe it to the memory of those killed in the Rwandan genocide to act upon R2P, before yet another life is lost to international indifference and inaction.


T.P. Allen's Rwanda