Learning Something, Not Everything

Two decades ago, the global media virtually ignored the killing in Rwanda. Has it learned from its mistake since, asks Michael Valpy.
By: /
April 30, 2014
Senior Fellow at Massey College at the University of Toronto

What have we, the Canadian media, learned in the 20 years since the Rwandan genocide? We can’t say “Nothing at all."

The very fact that we are still analyzing what the media did two decades ago when one million Rwandan Tutsis were exterminated virtually without the global media’s attention and drawing comparisons to what is currently happening in the Central African Republic, is indication of some learning, some knowledge and awareness. But enough?

There is the same tendency to report fatuous arguments from “experts” concerning whether wholesale sectarian slaughtering is genocide or merely civil war, in which case let them go at it. No United Nations convention exists to prevent and punish civil war.  

There is pretty much the same media sightlessness, probably more systemic today given the Western mass media’s business model, that underscores Bernard Cohen’s aphorism that, “The press may not be successful much of the time in telling people what to think but it is stunningly successful in telling its readers what to think about.”

In other words, if the media is not present, is anything important happening?

“The world will look different to different people,” said Cohen, “depending on the map that is drawn for them by writers, editors, and publishers of the paper they read.”

Thus, “Militias in the Central African Republic Are Using Black Magic to Protect Them From Rockets” is the heading on one Vice report. Another reads: “The Devil Tried to Divide Us - Part 1.” Ukraine and Crimea have a more comprehensible dramatic narrative: Putin bellying up against Obama. Prime Minister Stephen Harper flew to Kyiv for a cameo appearance.

Samantha Power, as a Harvard professor before she became U.S. Ambassador to the UN, wrote in 1998 that, “Genocide has occurred so often and is so uncontested in the last 50 years [since the UN in 1948 passed Resolution 260, formally known as the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide] that an epithet more apt in describing recent events than the oft-chanted ‘Never Again’ [after the Nazi Holocaust] is in fact ‘Again and Again.’”

Would genocide be happening again and again if the media were doing what it should be doing, carrying on the proper conversation of the culture and reinforcing vital habits of communities they purport to serve?

Elements of the Rwandan media, as Carleton University journalism professor Allan Thompson points out in his book The Media and the Rwanda Genocide, “were used to spread hatred, to dehumanize people, and even to guide the genocidaires toward their victims.” The Rwandan media that wasn’t co-opted; it was cowed.

And as death squads torched churches where refugees took sanctuary and teachers killed students and neighbours killed neighbours, almost all Western journalists focused upon the evacuation of expatriates from the country and then left themselves. Indeed, the Rwandan genocide has virtually no photographic record.

So, this leads to the question: If the international media had remained in Rwanda, would the bloodshed have been curtailed by what Allan Thompson calls the Heisenberg effect? 

The Heisenberg effect, named for German physicist Werner Heisenberg, describes how the act of observing a particle actually changes its behaviour, its velocity, or direction. Thus more comprehensive and accurate reporting about the Rwanda genocide could have changed the behaviour of the perpetrators, mitigating the slaughter.

“Instead,” writes Thompson, “the lack of international media attention contributed to what I would call a sort of inverse Heisenberg effect. Through their absence and a failure to adequately observe and record events, journalists contributed to the behaviour of the perpetrators of the genocide—who were encouraged by the world’s apathy and acted with impunity.”

Would the Canadian government have supported UN Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali’s call for a UN armed force to enter Rwanda and enforce peace if the Canadian media had vociferously demanded such action? We’ll never know.

A month after the carnage began, the influential The Globe and Mail editorialized: “The UN should not try to insert itself between the two warring sides or favour one side over the other.” It sent reporters to Rwanda very briefly.

But are the Canadian media behaving differently today?

The Globe and Mail said on April 10, 2014: “Given the brutal lessons of Rwanda, Ottawa should acutely understand the consequences of inaction. Retired General and Liberal Senator Roméo Dallaire has called for Canada to join a proposed permanent UN peacekeeping mission of 12,000 soldiers. Ottawa can do that…

“‘How many more children have to be decapitated, how many more women and girls will be raped, how many more acts of cannibalism must there be, before we really sit up and pay attention?’” Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, said to reporters after a recent trip to the country. Twenty years after Rwanda, it’s discouraging that she even has to ask such a question.

So, yes, some learning, but not yet enough.

Throughout the month of April 2014, the Canadian Centre for the Responsibility to Protect and OpenCanada.org will be publishing reflections on the lessons learned since the Rwandan Genocide from prominent Canadians who have shown leadership in promoting global humanitarianism as part of the series Canadian Voices on R2P.

Also in the series


Peacekeeping Does Not Have to Wait

Roméo Dallaire on how the international community can guarantee swift international action where civilians are under imminent threat.

Protecting the Responsiblity to Protect

The “responsibility to protect” be made real through “the capacity to deploy,” says Hugh Segal. Without that, the doctrine will lose salience.

New Tools to Prevent Mass Atrocities

Technology can be used to gather, analyze, and communicate information for the sake of predicting, preventing, and mitigating atrocities in an unprecedented way, argues Christopher Tuckwood.

How Much "Law" Is There in "International Law"?

Bob Rae on our collective failure to properly enforce the rule of law.

The Role of the Churches in the Rwandan Genocide

Churches are uniquely positioned to address conflict before it gets out of hand, says Lois M Wilson. Yet they failed to act 20 years ago in Rwanda.

Renewing R2P

There is still much work to be done on how to define and apply R2P, but there is hope for the concept, says Lloyd Axworthy.

Today's Digital Witnesses Can Prevent Tomorrow's War Crimes

A growing cadre of scholars, practitioners, and hobbyists are leveraging new tools to help prevent gross violations of human rights and holding perpetrators to account after heinous crimes are committed, says Robert Muggah.

Returning to the Responsiblity to Protect

If we want to make R2P's hope of "never again" a reality, we need to turn away from the critique of sovereignty and the example of Libya, argues John Duncan.

Protecting R2P From Misuse

Acting on R2P inappropriately or invoking it as a pretext for other objectives like regime change can be as damaging as inaction to R2P’s long-run effectiveness, argues Maria L. Banda.

Time For Canada to Recommit to R2P

In the 20 years since the Rwandan genocide, Canada has gone from being the most vocal supporter of the norm to one of its meekest.

The Eight Lessons of Rwanda

Irwin Cotler on what we have learned in the 20 years since the Rwandan genocide.