20 Years After Rwanda, Why Is It Still So Hard to Stop Genocide?

Our brains are better equipped to process isolated tragedies, while international laws make it easy to ignore anything that isn't the Holocaust.
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Rwandan Genocide Memorial in Kigali, Rwanda. (Photo: Ryan M. Bolton/Shutterstock)

Rwandan Genocide Memorial in Kigali, Rwanda. (Photo: Ryan M. Bolton/Shutterstock)

During the spring and early summer of 1994, the bodies of approximately 40,000 lifeless men, women, and children were dumped into Rwanda's Kagera River. Often mutilated, these bodies floated for several miles until they reached the shores of Lake Victoria in neighboring Uganda, where local officials declared the growing mass of limbs and torsos a health hazard. Feral dogs and other animals in search of an easy meal soon arrived, only complicating efforts to prevent disease from spreading.

This, of course, is merely one instance of the grotesque horror that erupted within Rwanda nearly 20 years ago. After 100 days of carnage in a country roughly the size of Maryland, an estimated 800,000 people lost their lives—many from the blade of a machete swung over and over until the job was done. Despite these rudimentary tools, the systematic slaughter remains one of the most efficient genocides in modern times.

"The value of a life is very steep going from zero to one, but then it flattens out as the numbers get bigger."

While history is spotted with examples of ethnic-annihilating behavior (the Bible contains a passage in which God commands his people to "kill both man and woman, child and infant" of the Amalek tribe), the term "genocide" was first coined in 1944 by Polish-Jewish lawyer Raphael Lemkin in an effort to describe what the Nazis had just done and attempted to do. A few years earlier, Winston Churchill had simply referred to it as a "crime without a name."

And yet ever since Lemkin's definition and the recurring vow from numerous politicians, activists, and United Nations bureaucrats to "Never Again" allow genocide to occur, it has. Some might even say it's flourished. Ever since the Holocaust, the world has witnessed the mass murder of various groups in places such as Bangladesh, East Timor, Cambodia, Guatemala, Bosnia, and Sudan. Today, reports of genocide are popping up from the Central African Republic.

LAST MONTH, RYAN JACOBSinterviewed a political scientist from the University of Sydney about how statistic-crunching technology is helping us better predict outbreaks of genocide before they begin. But once they do begin, and newspapers start relaying stories of bodies being dumped into a river by the thousands, why don't we make it stop? If world leaders are so dedicated to eradicating mass atrocities of this kind, why don't they?

Apart from the obvious complications that accompany sending foreign troops into another country and deciding who should finance the operation, Paul Slovic, a professor of psychology at the University of Oregon, believes part of the problem lies in our inability to scale our emotions accordingly. Much in line with the maxim that one person's death is a tragedy yet a million deaths are a statistic, Slovic's research points to a mental numbing that sets in when we're confronted with catastrophes of this magnitude.

"The value of a life is very steep going from zero to one," Slovic tells me over the phone, “but then it flattens out as the numbers get bigger."

This apparent moral shortcoming, however, isn't completely our fault. Slovic argues we're hardwired to process different information in different ways, which is why we don't always grasp the reality behind grotesque figures, such as 800,000 murders in three months. (This concept is captured in the book Thinking, Fast and Slow, by psychologist and Noble Prize-winner Daniel Kahneman.) Slovic says fast thinking entails intuition and gut feelings. It's the mode people rely on most to guide them through their day. Slow thinking, on the other hand, requires analysis, reasoning, contemplation, and a willingness to adjust. It's hard work and sometimes rather unpleasant. That's why murmurs of genocide in a far away land don't always register with the same immediacy as, say, news that the lady down the street with the bright orange shoes was struck dead by a drunk driver.

Our sensory system works in a similar way. For survival, we've learned to detect certain changes in the environment while filtering out others.

"In a very dark room, you can see a very faint light," Slovic says, "but in a very bright room, it takes a bigger change in light for you even to notice it. The same is true of sound in a quiet room compared to a rock concert."

Slovic's work describes a 2005 study in which researchers predicted that participants would feel more compassion for a single, identifiable sick child in need of medical treatment worth $300,000 than a group of eight sick children also in need of treatment totaling the same amount. They were right, and participants donated more to help the individual child.

THERE'S ANOTHER FACTOR THAT precludes other states from getting involved during a time of genocide, and it’s the Holocaust. Although the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, established in 1948, was designed to avoid another Holocaust, the international community has a sad history of arguing over semantics and hesitating to act if a genocidal crisis isn't deemed Holocaust-like enough, as backward as that may sound.

According to research from the University of Gothenburg, ultimately, due to a lack of political will, leaders make this comparison. They use it as an excuse to "circumvent the obligation to intervene that is set out in the convention," head researcher Malin Isaksson is quoted as saying in a statement. "So you could maintain that the Holocaust is sometimes held up not to prevent the reoccurrence of such events, but with the very opposite aim."

In a 2001 article in TheAtlantic, Samantha Power, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide and current U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, reports that the Clinton Administration knew what was happening in Rwanda back in 1994, and therefore both could have and should have done something to help. "Any failure to fully appreciate the genocide," she writes, "stemmed from political, moral, and imaginative weaknesses, not informational ones."

WHILE RWANDA PREPARES TO commemorate the 20th anniversary of its own genocide, the country is also making great strides to leave behind its devastating past. Since 2001, the nation's GDP has grown by an average of eight percent per year, lifting one million of the nation's 12 million inhabitants out of poverty. As for the United Nations' Millennium Development Goals, which aim to increase education and equality while reducing hunger and disease, a 2013 report found that Rwanda is one of the few states in sub-Saharan Africa expected to achieve them.

Critics, however, worry that President Paul Kagame's authoritarian grip is choking democracy, while many of those who participated in the 1994 genocide remain unpunished in the nearby Democratic Republic of the Congo, where they've formed a rebel group that poses a constant threat to regional stability. Yet Rwanda's future certainly shines brighter now than it has in quite some time.

If "Never Again" is too ambitious or too optimistic, maybe we should go with "Less Often," instead. That way we might feel more compelled to start making some progress of our own.

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