Statement by

President of the Republic of Rwanda

at the World Conference Against Racism, Racial Discrimination,
Xenophobia and Related Intolerance,

Durban, South Africa, 31 August 2001

Your Excellency President Thabo Mbeki;

Your Excellencies Heads of State and Government;

Madam Mary Robinson, United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights;

Distinguished Ladies and Gentlemen;

Let me begin by paying tribute to the People and Government of the Republic of South Africa for hosting this Conference Against Racism.

May I also thank the United Nations, in particular, Mrs. Robinson for their contribution in rendering this Conference a success.

This is indeed a very important Conference for the world community, a Conference that has particular meaning for those of us in Rwanda and in the Great Lakes region in general.

We know the horror and destruction borne of racism and the difficulties of trying to overcome deep-rooted prejudice. We know that our future peace and stability depend upon gaining acceptance of the values of tolerance and diversity within our individual countries, and across the region as a whole. We are also aware, of course, that the lives of our fellow-Africans elsewhere have been marked by the scourge of racist attitudes and behaviour, nowhere more poignantly than in South Africa itself.

For this reason, it is especially significant that we are gathered together here in Durban. This city and this country are a salutary reminder of the dangers of racism. But South Africa is also an encouraging symbol of what can be achieved when a people unite to safeguard their shared future, when Africans join hands across the continent and when the world rejects a political system which is an offence to our common humanity. Debating the critical issues on the agenda of this conference in South Africa will, I am sure, be an inspiration to all of us. It will be a constant reminder that the most insurmountable obstacles can be overcome; that tolerance, dignity and decency can win the day, provided we continue to cherish that vision and work together as a world community to make it a reality for all our peoples. I would therefore like to add my voice to the other speakers who have expressed their appreciation to President Thabo Mbeki for his foresight and generosity in hosting this conference.

This conference comes at a time when the world is confronted with problems that challenge, to an extreme degree, our ability and willingness to find peaceful solutions to a number of enduring conflicts. For example, in the Middle East, we must find a durable solution that will give security, justice and prosperity to all. In addition to contemporary challenges such as the Middle East, we are also confronted with historical legacies that call for reflection and answers. In this case, we are faced with the question of reparations for the untold ravages which the slave trade inflicted on Africa and people of African origins. It would be wrong, in my view, to focus on the monetary issue.

No financial settlement could ever compensate our continent, and the people who were enslaved, for the legacy of slavery. A starting point towards a constructive dialogue would be a recognition, and an apology, for the wrong that has been done to Africa.

Turning to Rwanda for a moment, the 1994 genocide in our country has been properly understood as the outcome of a dangerous ideology built on ethnic and political concerns. But this ideology was so potent and infectious because it drew upon racial stereotypes ingrained in the minds of people over generations.

The genocide aimed at the elimination of a people who were depicted as foreigners. Despite their presence in Rwanda from pre-colonial times and their shared culture and language with the other ethnic groups in Rwanda, the Tutsi community was historically categorised and viewed as aliens.

It is, I know, beyond imagination that ordinary men, women and children could have killed neighbours, friends and even in some cases, family members, to order. It is difficult to believe that such an appalling crime could be committed by so many previously law-abiding citizens. The genocide can never be fully explained and must remain in our minds as an aberrant and evil event which does not conform to the norms of human society.

Yet it remains essential to the prevention of genocide globally and to the reconstruction of Rwandese society that we scrutinize the influences which determined this horrifying result. And central to this task must be the deconstruction of the lies about the origins of our different peoples which have been so ruinous.

The racial doctrine which underpinned the genocide is directly traceable to the ideas which informed the colonial administration of Rwanda. This was no arbitrary example of divide and rule tactics, but part of the effort to maintain the facade that the European presence in Africa was morally tenable.

The colonisation of Africa depended upon a consensus about European racial supremacy in much the same way as the Atlantic slave trade had done. The details and extremity of this view varied over more than two centuries, but the idea of a shared humanity remained anathema. Repression and abuse on the scale which the colonial project required could not be undertaken without perpetuating the belief that Africans were somehow less human.

The dangerous myths and lethal propaganda which led to the genocide are still being exploited by extremists of the former regime who seek to re-establish themselves in power. The racial argument has been particularly useful for the remnants of the ex-Rwandan Armed Forces and the Interahamive Militias who have used the Kivu region of the Democratic Republic of the Congo as a base from which to wage war upon our country. Politics continues to be shaped by a nationalist discourse which purports to uphold the rights of indigenous people against a threat posed by migrants. The notion of a Bantu majority engaged in a struggle against a Nilo-Hamitic minority clings on with disastrous consequences, and has now spread beyond the Great Lakes

These theories have been rejected in academic quarters today. They have long since been dismissed with empirical research and careful analysis. But in the minds of some people in the Great Lakes they remain tenacious, and this is perhaps the greatest challenge we are facing today.

Even though the reasoning was thin and the evidence poor, people cannot easily discard identities which have determined the nature of their existence for years. This is a reality we must both recognise and work hard to change.

As in South Africa, our peoples have been defined in opposition to each other; throughout our history, the labels have been used to identify victims and to choose oppressors. We must now work with all our peoples to ensure that our identities encompass our shared experiences and the recognition that our destinies are inextricably linked.

The experience of the genocide leaves us with an understanding of just how poisonous racism is, when it is allowed to seep through generation after generation.

It leaves us with the understanding of just how influential and damaging the colonial project was and just how difficult its legacy is to undo. But it should not leave us to despair alone. We hope that other countries, in Africa and beyond, will draw lessons from the horrors endured by the Rwandan people. The wars in the Balkans show that racist attitudes and ethnic chauvinism are not the preserve of Africa. The fact that the United Nations International Tribunals are delivering convictions for acts of genocide simultaneously for crimes committed in Rwanda and in the Balkans is a sobering reminder of how small our world is, and how leaders bent on division can easily misguide people whatever their background, race or colour. But I do not want to end on a negative note.

The recent conviction in Belgium of four Rwandan genocide suspects demonstrates what can be achieved when nations commit themselves to fulfilling their international obligations.

We cannot, in Africa, afford to be complacent. Our continent is facing such formidable problems that we need to harness the skills and experience of all our peoples. We cannot use racial or ethnic differences as a reason to deny our people citizenship, documents, jobs and access to public services. Such an attitude is wrong. It is also counterproductive because it breeds resentment and hatred and is a threat to future peace and stability. We must also combine forces to combat the racism which affects our African brothers and sisters abroad. We need to reinforce the impressive work which is being done by a wide range of anti-racist organisations founded by citizens and sustained by their belief that racism destroys not only the target of the hatred, but the community trapped in this destructive process.

In such an inter-dependent world, helping our neighbours and looking to the outside world for assistance where we need it is to be expected. But responsibility like charity begins at home.

African leaders, and African people, cannot ask for expect the outside world to scrutinise or address our problems. The wisdom and capacity to solve problems depends, to a great degree, upon the strength to examine and recognise our weaknesses. We must ask, as Africans, what it was that made our communities susceptible to colonialism and subjugation.

From that analysis and understanding we will be better armed for a future that we can be proud to leave for younger generations. Furthermore, we should devise means of empowering Africans and African institutions as insurance and lasting deterrence against racism, crude ethnicism, and all forms of exclusion.

Let me conclude my contribution with some reflections on my country. The genocide in Rwanda would not have occurred without the racial background I have briefly outlined. But this does not excuse or diminish the responsibility of a genocidal leadership. It was their determination to guard their own privileges which was the crucial factor in sharpening divisions and then in manipulating a vulnerable community for their own ends. Some of them remain at large and continue to spread the genocide ideology in the Great Lakes in collusion with other individuals and groups who find their arguments convenient.

Racism is all too often the tool of those who seek to monopolise power. Bringing the leaders who use racist language to support their political goals to account must constitute a key aspect of the fight against racism globally.

I thank you.