x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Rights crusader dies in air crash

Alison Des Forges, a senior adviser to the US-based Human Rights Watch, dared to tell the truth about Rwanda.

It was remarkably easy to treat the rulers of Rwanda with kid gloves following the 1994 genocide. If ever a government had morality and the world's troubled conscience on its side, it was the new regime in Kigali. The Rwandan Patriotic Front came to power after ending a genocide the world did not lift a finger to stop. In the aftermath of the swiftest mass slaughter in modern history - at least 800,000 people in 100 days - its soldiers had returned to their villages, most to discover that their families had been killed under a cascade of dulled-edged machetes wielded by extremist Hutus and their followers.

In the name of preventing another genocide, the new government of Paul Kagame favoured its own Tutsi minority at the expense of Rwanda's Hutu majority. It launched incursions into neighbouring Congo to root out the genocide's perpetrators. Its forces killed some 30,000 people, during the genocide and in its immediate aftermath. To these breaches of international law, guilt-ridden western governments averted their eyes. What harm can come from victims of one of the century's great crimes settling some scores and getting in a rabbit punch or two against their persecutors?

Alison Des Forges, who was killed last week in the crash of a commuter plane in Buffalo, New York, thought quite a lot. It was not that Des Forges, a senior adviser to the US-based Human Rights Watch, failed to grasp the horror of the atrocities committed against Rwanda's Tutsis. Barely five feet tall with silver hair and glassy blue eyes, she was indefatigable in pursuit of the truth about the genocide.

She warned of the impending conflagration and when it broke out, she was on the telephone to friends in Rwanda from her home in Buffalo, trying to help them escape the carnage. She travelled to Washington in an attempt to persuade the Clinton administration to intervene to stop the killing. For 30 minutes, Mr Clinton's national security adviser, Anthony Lake, listened politely to her pleas. With no constituency urging intervention and no political will to form one, Mr Lake offered just one nugget of advice: "Make more noise."

When the air of Kigali was still rank with the smell of rotting flesh and dogs fat from eating the flesh of rotting corpses roamed its darkened and mostly empty streets, Des Forges gathered human rights activists there. Around a table lit only by candles, she began to piece together what had happened in the dismembered country. And with a slight limp in her gait, she stormed through the Rwandan countryside to investigate allegations of atrocities.

One result was the publication five years later of a 789-page definitive account of the genocide, Leave None to Tell the Story. That year, she received a MacArthur "genius award" of US$375,000 (Dh1.4 million), which she used to continue "telling the story". She served as an expert witness at 11 trials of suspected "genocidaires". For all of her understanding of the monstrous suffering of Rwanda's Tutsis, Des Forges seemed to understand keenly how exposure to atrocities could brutalise Tutsi survivors and pervert their judgment - how, in the words of WH Auden, "Those to whom evil is done/Do evil in return".

"There is irrefutable evidence of RPF atrocities," she said weeks after the genocide's end. "The time to act to contain the problem is now." She did not equate the alleged human rights violations by the RPF with the deaths of some 800,000 people, she merely insisted they not be ignored. She understood the urge for revenge and the inclination to deny a tormentor their legitimate human rights, but insisted both impulses were politically unwise and legally unjustifiable.

The answer to decades of colonially inspired disenfranchisement of Rwanda's Tutsi minority by its Hutu majority was not its reverse. "The balance of power needs to be worked out," she urged. For her demand that all perpetrators of human rights abuses be brought to justice, including officials in the government, Des Forges was banned from Rwanda last year. "They broadcast my name on the radio as an enemy of Rwanda," she laughingly told a reporter in November. "What are they so scared of? I'm just a little old lady."

Some "old lady" - when she died, the 66-year-old Des Forges was returning to Buffalo from Europe where she had been pressing governments to send more peacekeepers to Central Africa. The notion of a "new world order," which gained great credence following the 1991 collapse of the Soviet Union, was already staggering when the genocide that Des Forges predicted dashed it once and for all three years later.

Yet it also brought us two heroes for our time. One was Romeo Dallaire, the Canadian general in charge of UN peacekeepers who fought to save the lives of Rwandans even as the UN Security Council, under pressure from the United States, reduced his force from 2,500 to 270. The other was Des Forges. The worst of human rights advocates are political partisans in disguise; the best, like Des Forges, are fearless adherents to the principle of justice for all and reminders that the struggle for human rights is ennobling to all who join it.

cnelson@thenational.ae