Summary: Not Guilty of Genocide Denial

Summary: Not Guilty of Genocide Denial


Howard Adelman

Are Jane Corbin, Allan Stam and Christian Davenport guilty of genocide denial with respect to the slaughter of Tutsi in Rwanda in 1994? Are they akin to David Irving’s denial of the Holocaust. He claimed that Jews were not killed to the extent members of the so-called Holocaust industry said. According to Irving, the vast majority of Jews died because of other motives and circumstances. Are Corbin, S&D akin to the Turkish government which has consistently denied that a genocide of Armenians took place before and during WWI? Are they similar to those who deny that the slaughter at Srebrenica did not constitute genocide or to those who insist that the government of Sudan should not be charged with committing genocide against the agriculturalists of Darfur?

No. Why?

There are many types of genocide deniers. I am a genocide denier when it comes to Darfur. I do not deny the extent of the slaughter. Nor do I deny that the events in Darfur constituted a crime against humanity. I disagree with the application of the term genocide to that slaughter because the intent of extermination was not there. Others who place the emphasis on the destruction, not only of the people physically, but also on the agricultural way of life of the Fur, Zaghawa and Masalit tribes, believe that the use of the term genocide is quite appropriate to what took place in Darfur. Though I disagree on the appropriateness of the use of the term, I am not labeled a genocide denier.
The latter is a case of academic disagreement over the breadth of the use of the term “genocide”. It is not a disagreement over what happened. Allan Stam and Christian Davenport offer a much narrower definition of genocide than even I do and, in doing so, minimalize the number of Tutsi killed for genocidal reasons. But they also minimize the actual numbers killed. Further, they muster a whole series of arguments for their conclusion that the Hutu killed constituted the much greater proportion of those slaughtered. They also suggest that it is the Kagame government that is guilty of denial because of its interest in promoting Tutsi deaths as a mode of covering up the role of the RPF in the death of tens or even hundreds of thousands of Hutu.

It is important to note that the charge of genocide denial is not really about differences over the breadth of the use of a concept. It is over how history should be memorialized, what should be memorialized, and why it should be memorialized. It is no accident that Jane Corbin begins her BBC documentary of the Rwanda genocide with the twentieth anniversary commemoration of the Rwandan genocide in Kigali. For Israel Charny argues that genocide denial is but the last phase of committing genocide by denying the victims their place in history and exonerating, or, at the very least, minimalizing the crime committed by the perpetrators. In the case of Rwanda, the effort at minimalizing is not intended to exonerate those who failed to intervene, for S&D find them, or, at least, the USA, guilty, not simply of criminal neglect, but of collaborating with the murderous opposition. The evidence is also used to charge Paul Kagame and the RPF with guilt for its failure to confront the genocidaires as the RPF pursued its war against the FAR. Was targeting the memorializing of the victims – a clear intent of the BBC documentary, an exercise of, at the very least, collaboration with genocide deniers? The effort to denigrate the recollection and ceremonies of remembrance at the very least feeds the agenda of the deniers.

However, there is a difference between minimizing a death toll absolutely and claiming the death toll seems smaller in relationship to a larger overall picture of death and destruction. However, neither Jane Corbin nor S&D claim that hardly any Tutsi were killed, or that they were killed simply in self-defense or as a result of the fog of war, or that there was no intent to exterminate the Tutsi in Rwanda. All three concede the numbers were large, though not nearly as large as previously claimed, that many Tutsi were killed deliberately as part of an extermination effort, and that a cabal of extremists was behind such an effort. It is over the latter issue that they seem to cross the border into denial because they engage in distraction and the use of red herrings by claiming that the Habyarimana government was not guilty of genocide even when no reputable scholar makes such a claim. But Corbin and S&D do not cross the line in denying that there was a large scale genocidal intent by authorities who controlled the levers of power – even as they claim that the scale was not nearly as large as the accusers make out.

Intention is as important in determining genocide denial as in determining whether an action constituted genocide. Corbin and S&D do not reveal telltale signs of the genocide denier such as decrying scientific analysis or blatantly misusing it to the extent of fraud. Their use of journalistic standards or of statistical analysis may be very faulty, but the errors arise more from a determination to establish originality than to corrupt the whole research process even as their scholarship and application of their methods are so questionable. They do not accuse scholars, who hold that genocide took place to a far greater extent than they grant, of being fraudsters – though they imply that Kagame is one. Nor do they insist that delving into the past is a waste of time and a distraction. Quite the opposite! They argue for more and better research into the issue. They certainly misuse history, omit key evidence and engage in a myriad assortment of distortions, but I would argue that this is due to their mathematically-based political science or journalistic pig-headedness.

The most telling evidence for the charge of genocide denial for many, however, is the way typical understandings are inverted. Instead of the normal range of interpretation of the meaning of genocide, their very narrow definition lies outside that range. Further, they claim that, rather than extremist Hutu being the greatest perpetrators, Kagame et al (Tutsi) are. Hutu, they insist, are, by far, the most numerous victims. This reversal, however, is not made in the name of denying that a genocide took place or that it was not extensive. It is made with the intent of minimalizing its extent by combining the fallacious historical interpretations and misuse of statistical evidence with narrow definitionalism that goes far beyond the normal range of meanings and interpretations considered acceptable for the application of the concept. If that is the case, isn’t this genocide denial?

Note the similarities and differences between the approach of S&D to the approach of the American government in the first few weeks after 6 April 1994. Then the American government refused to recognize that a genocide was underway. They did not want to incur the expenses nor engage in another rescue mission like the one in Somalia as portrayed in the movie Black Hawk Down. This was the so-called Mogadishu Syndrome. However, though the American leadership were in denial that a genocide was underway, and though their motives for denial were very suspect, they generally have not been accused of being genocide deniers.

Why not? If a motive of not wanting to be involved is responsible for one’s mind blindness, is this not genocide denial? The denial helped relieve them of any sense of responsibility for intervention. However, in the BBC documentary, and as also suggested by S&D, America’s and Britain’s current support for the Kagame regime is used to explain why the allegedly much greater evils committed by Kagame and his RPF cohorts are not confronted. America and Britain were in denial of one genocide in 1994; they are currently guilty of denial of crimes against humanity in 2014 committed by the other side according to Corbin and S&D. Just as Western governments usually refuse to endorse the Armenian genocide lest they alienate their ally, Turkey, they are now doing the same for Kagame’s crimes. In this mind-set, it is not Corbin and S&D who are in denial,
but Kagame’s supporters.

Is denial of a genocide because of inattention or self-interested motives genocide denial proper? If it is, then America and Britain were guilty then and are now guilty of denial of crimes against humanity. However, the failure to recognize a genocide or a crime against humanity, I argue, does not make one a genocide denier. And the effort to minimalize genocide by using the contrast of the crimes committed by the other side is also not genocide denial. Genocide denial is a deliberate effort to relieve the killers of responsibility and to blame the victims. The creators of the BBC documentary and S&D do not do either.

The logic of their minimalization is not the logic of deniers. The logic of Corbin and S&D is determined by an effort to claim originality, not to abuse victims further or relieve perpetrators of guilt. They may practice poor journalism. They may betray scholarly and research standards. But they are not deniers, even though they attribute the vast majority of deaths to non-genocidal motives, a common effort of deniers. They do not blame the Tutsi citizens of Rwanda for their victimization, but, instead, blame Kagame for instigating the genocidaires and for failing to intervene to protect the victims in his pursuit of victory. Further, though they claim that most deaths were the result of the fog of civil war and though they claim that the perpetrators of the genocide were motivated by the invasion of 1990 and the suspicion that Tutsi citizens in Rwanda were or could be a fifth column, they do not use that numerical comparison, however much it is mistaken, or the overdetermination of the motivation of the perpetrators, to excuse their actions. They concur that the Rwandan genocide was planned and directed by extremists who gained control of the central government, the media, the army and the armed militias.

They do not seem to be motivated by an eagerness to deny or even minimize the genocide, though the effects of their work do precisely that. Their vested interest is their professionalism, not the message of denial or even minimalization, even if the latter is the result of their sloppy work.

One last but not irrelevant note on the massacres perpetrated by the RPF at Kibeho. The BBC documentarians are on the side of the maximalists who claim that those slaughtered by the RPF in emptying the IDP camp of over one hundred thousand was four thousand and not the official figure of 300+ claimed by the government. In my own investigation (“Preventing Massacre: The Case of Kibeho.” in The Rwanda Crisis: Healing and Protection Strategies, Sally Gacharuzi, ed. Kensington, MD: Overview Press, 1997), I suggested a figure of about 800. I may have been wrong in my conclusions about numbers. But I do not believe I was wrong about the context, the situation and the motives. A colleague very recently wrote me that she had been at a conference and ran into someone who had been with one NGO and with others from MSF at Kibeho along with 15 Ghanaian peacekeepers. They were amidst lots of Hutu civilians in the camp when it started raining, turning the hills into muddy slopes. The Hutu started running for shelter under the trees. The RPF soldiers thought the civilians were running away and started shooting. This set off a much greater panic. More flight further exacerbated the level of shooting by the RPF.

Whatever the number of dead, this is a very different account than a tale which insists that Kagame deliberately ordered the killing of Hutu civilians. For if one takes into account the fact that genocidaires were hiding amidst the one hundred thousand Hutu civilians, that they had weapons, that they were using coercion and fear to keep the Hutu in the IDP camp, that the NGOs repeatedly agreed to disperse the residents and escort them back to their homes but also continually postponed the date of initiation, that during the week of the slaughter there was a serious communication error among the peacekeepers, the NGOs and the RPF, and the heavy rains that had turned the hills into muddy slopes obscured what was happening, all of which may explain why the slaughter cannot and should not be characterized as a deliberate effort to kill Hutu displaced persons. This does not exonerate the RPF from a charge of negligent homicide, but it does argue against a charge of deliberate murder.
Similarly, though Corbin and S&D have committed a myriad of errors that undermine their professionalism, they are not guilty of genocide denial. They just come very close.


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