In April 1994, violence quietly spread through a small little-known African nation, quickly transforming it into a massive graveyard. Nearly two decades later, the Rwandan Genocide is recognized as one of the most horrific tragedies in human history.
Held on Thursday night in Hannaford Lecture Hall, the third instalment of the Paving the Way to a Better World panel discussion and lecture series was focused on the commemoration of the Rwandan Genocide and how new international legal norms are aimed at preventing such a tragedy from ever happening again.
Keynoting the event was a survivor of the genocide, Claude Gatebuke, who was 14 years old when he and his mother escaped a Hutu militia after being told by a soldier to dig their own graves.
Now in his early-30s, Gatebuke’s testimony sounded as polished and well-rehearsed as would be expected from someone who has dedicated his career to telling his story as a way of preventing its reoccurrence. But the most haunting descriptions of his past still seemed to emanate from a very young boy deeply affected by what he had witnessed.
“I had seen one of the kids I had played soccer with run from the man, and this man chased down the kid and chopped him up with a machete in front of everyone,” Gatebuke remembered. “They told me to prepare to leave this world.”
The genocide claimed an estimated 800,000 lives in the course of three months.
Gatebuke delivered his address to a crowd of nearly 80 USM students and community members who gathered to hear him and a panel of experts speak about genocide and other mass atrocities prevention. The discussion series, founded and organized by Junior International Studies major Dylan Hedtler-Gaudette, has focused on the Responsibility to Protect, also known as “RtoP” – an international legal norm that addresses these crimes and the duty of governments to prevent them from being committed within their borders.
On the panel were Rachel Shapiro, an associate at the International Coalition for the Responsibility to Protect in New York; Jonas Claes from the U.S. Institute for Peace in Washington, D.C.; and Ryan D’Souza, a research analyst at the Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect, where Hedtler-Gaudette interned last year. The organizations that these people work for and represent are currently working to shape international law, and USM students have been given the opportunity to engage directly in that discussion.
A 300-level class is currently being taught by Political Science professor Julia Edwards focusing on RtoP and its emergence in debate at the United Nations. Many of her students attended the event as a way of further connecting with the topic.
“This event gave students in the course direct access to experts and authors they have been reading, and the opportunity to ask questions to challenge what has emerged from those readings,” Edwards said after the event. “My students were able to engage in, as members of civil society, the shaping of the norm’s future, as opposed to observing its development.”
All audience members were asked to join in the discussion by asking questions of the panelists, and by adding their own testimonies to the voice of Gatebuke. A few people rose to share their own experience with genocide and ethnic violence, from Maine to Burundi – in English and in French.
Gatebuke also spoke to the power of witness, and to the importance of students like Hedtler-Gaudette and those in Edwards’ class who choose to continue on and focus on the issues. “These are small groups of extremists, very powerful, who are able to carry out these atrocities; but we are even more powerful if we can prevent that from happening.”
The event was sponsored in part by the USM International Relations Association and the USM Classics Club.