Remaking Rwanda – State Building and Human Rights after Mass Violence


Remaking Rwanda – State Building and Human Rights after Mass Violence
Edited by Scott Straus and Lars Waldorf
The University of Wisconsin Press – $26.95

I was living in New York when the heartbreaking civil war ravaged Rwanda beyond the pale of all human expectation in 1994; yet I remember it as if it were only yesterday. I remember the incalculable degree to which I was shocked and outraged beyond all compare. Beyond all philosophical reasoning – much as I am today over what is currently taking place in Syria’s own incomprehensively barbaric and utterly futile civil war.

Has human kind/supposed civil society not learnt anything?
Or is severe lack of education, the ultimate deal here?

Might it be that certain societies just aren’t (supposed to be) civil. After all, the way things are currently unfolding in Syria, would suggest that all humanistic behaviour and common decency (a joke, surely?) has long since expired. But what’s more unsettling and of paramount validity, is the colossal amount of psychological damage done.

For one thing, how long is it going to take before any form of coherent normalcy will return to the region? If ever? I ask as much, because after reading this fantastically well-researched, complex and sobering book, it has become increasingly more evident, to my mind at least, that it probably never will.

And if it does, it will probably take many, many years – if not generations. Yet underlining this American publication, Remaking Rwanda – State Building and Human Rights after Mass Violence, are numerous glints of literary light that, so far as Rwanda is concerned, surprisingly suggest otherwise. This may in part be due to the tentative trajectory – that looms large throughout – of the Human Rights Activist, Alison Des Forges (1942-2009), in whose honour this book has been written and compiled.

For instance, at the very outset of the first chapter (‘Limitations to Political Reform – The Undemocratic Nature of Transition in Rwanda’), Timothy Longman writes: ‘’For much of the international community, post-genocide Rwanda stands as a glowing story of successful post-war reconstruction. The journalist Stephen Kinzer (2008) agues that Rwanda has ‘’rebelled against its destiny. It has recovered from civil war and genocide more fully than anyone imagined possible and is united, stable, and at peace. Its leaders are boundlessly ambitious. Rwandans are bubbling over with a sense of unlimited possibility.’’ Diplomats and businesspeople praise the high level of competence displayed by civil servants and the government’s strong commitment to economic development. International church and school groups now regularly visit Rwanda to learn about reconciliation and contribute to the country’s reconstruction.’’

That ‘’international church groups’’ regularly visit the nation, doesn’t (to my mind at least) bode particularly well – what with the religious orientated factions of Hutu and Tutsi having been both infamously and ultimately responsible for the original genocide – but if said visits are closely monitored by the world community, then perhaps it can only be of a positive persuasion.

Only time, and the degree to which the RPF (Rwandan Political Front) will allow sincere, translucent reconciliation to truly take place, will essentially tell. As Longman partially clarifies when he continues: ‘’The regime tolerates very little public criticism, strictly limiting freedoms of speech, press, and association. Political parties are restricted and intimidated, while constraints and manipulation of the electoral process have prevented elections from being truly free and fair. Defenders of the RPF regime simultaneously deny these criticisms and claim that restrictions of freedoms are necessary for national unity, given the history of genocide, and that benign authoritarian rule is necessary for economic development, their top priority.’’

Now call me a myopic, political fool, but since when have ‘’restrictions of freedoms’’ been ‘’necessary for national unity?’’

Especially ‘’given the history of genocide?’’

Broken into six fundamentally different sections (‘Governance and State Building,’ ‘International and Regional Contexts,’ ‘Justice,’ ‘Rural Reengineering,’ ‘History and Memory’ and ‘Concluding Observations’); Remaking Rwanda is at perplexing pains to set many a record straight, whilst at the same time, hard pressed to avoid mentioning how the international community (Belgium in particular) quintessentially turned a blind eye.

As a piece of scholarship within the temperamental sphere of Human Rights, this book has clearly been very well written by a number of academics who sincerely care about the subject a great deal. The author of King Leopold’s Ghost qualifies as much on the back cover: ‘’This rich array of careful scholarship provides a valuable, multifaceted view of a country still struggling with the after effects of genocide and civil war. It offers an important corrective to the naively rosy picture of Rwanda that too often prevails in the American media.’’

David Marx


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