Paul Pillar

Atrocities and Their Reverberations

 A still-unpublished but partly leaked report by the United Nations Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights provides a disturbing additional perspective on the horrible violence that afflicted eastern Congo and adjoining areas of central Africa beginning in the early 1990s.  We all know of the genocide in Rwanda in 1994, in which a Hutu-dominated government and associated militias butchered at least 800,000 of their fellow Rwandans, mostly ethnic Tutsis.  A rebel movement known as the Rwandan Popular Front and led by Paul Kagame, the current president of Rwanda, ousted that regime and continued to chase the perpetrators of the genocide when they fled, along with hundreds of thousands of Hutu civilians, into Congo (then still known as Zaire).  According to the UN report, what followed was not, as Kagame's Rwandans have long claimed, just a combating of those who were responsible for the genocide and who continued to stage attacks into Rwanda.  It included incidents in which unarmed Hutu refugees were gunned down by the hundreds and that the report-writers assessed were war crimes, crimes against humanity, and possibly genocide.

The report, which the Rwandan regime has denounced--and the release of which has been delayed until next month because of Rwandan pressure--is a jarring counterpoint to the favorable image the regime has enjoyed for the most part within the international community.  Kagame's government has received high marks for fostering a robust and free economy and for promoting women's rights.  Its mostly favorable reputation may be one reason the atrocities described in the report may have long gone largely unnoticed.  Timothy Longman, director of the African Studies Center at Boston University, says this part of the bloodshed in eastern Congo had not gotten more attention to date because "it contradicted the narrative of the Rwandan Popular Front as the 'good group' that stopped the genocide in Rwanda."

To the extent the report is accurate, it suggests some more general observations.  One is that our collective attention even to gross atrocities is highly selective.  Some are much more in our consciousness than others, in a pattern that does not necessarily correlate highly with death tolls or even with the degree of moral depravity.  The Nazi-perpetrated Holocaust is easily the atrocity most salient in Western consciousness.  Given the scale, organization, and purely genocidal intent involved, it probably should be.  But beyond that, attention gets much more sporadic.  Some really horrible events have not gotten nearly as much attention in the West.  The huge famine in Ukraine in the early 1930s, known as the Holodomor, resulting from Stalin's repressive policies caused deaths that--although there are no accurate figures--were of an order of magnitude probably comparable to those of the Holocaust.  Even more numerous were the deaths caused by Mao's Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution in China, another instance in which repression by a totalitarian regime was the single biggest factor.

There are several reasons for the inconsistent attention and impact.  One is surely the presence, organization, and political influence of whatever community feels most victimized by an atrocity.  Another is inconsistent knowledge; some atrocities we simply have not had an opportunity to learn as much about as others.  Then when we do learn about them, a few that catch our attention may become the focus of subsequent "what we should have known" or "what we knew but didn't do anything about" recriminations.  The Rwandan genocide of 1994 has become a poster child for this kind of retrospection.  

Another reason is that the nature and intent of the actions that cause the death and suffering are not always clear.  Mao's policies, despite the enormous death toll for which they were responsible, probably were not intentionally or at least self-consciously genocidal.  But does the willful infliction of such suffering become less immoral if it supposedly is in the service of some revolutionary aim?  Some of the same blurriness was involved with Stalin's policies and the Holodomor, although less so because the dictator's policies that caused the famine probably were intended in part to deliver a literally lethal blow to Ukrainian nationalism.  The genocidal element may not be as graphically clear as with gas chambers or lining people up at the edge of a trench and shooting them (although Stalin's regime did that sort of thing, too), but there is not a strong distinction in either morality or the degree of suffering.

Another observation is that we should be cautious about dividing the world into good guys and bad guys and believing that the only atrocities are committed on the bad guys' side.  Kagame and his movement really do deserve credit for doing a lot of good in ousting the perpetrators of the earlier genocide and in bringing effective governance to Rwanda.  But they also deserve condemnation for any atrocities they committed in Congo.