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Samantha Power, Rwandan Genocide Survivors Address NCC April 23 Event

By James N. Birkitt, Jr., for the NCC

April 23, 2004, LOS ANGELES - A commemoration of the 10th anniversary of the Rwandan Genocide, held here today and sponsored by the National Council of Churches USA, recalled the horror of the genocide and offered a word of counsel and hope - genocide can be prevented.

Keynote speaker was Samantha Power, recipient of the 2003 Pulitzer Prize for her book “’A Problem from Hell’: America and the Age of Genocide,” which focuses on the failure of America, other Western governments and the United Nations to respond effectively to genocide.

Power called on United States to redefine its “vital interests” to include genocide. Currently, long-standing American policy permits military intervention only when America’s security or economic well-being is threatened.

Another positive step, she said, “would be for the U.S. to replace its ‘all or nothing’ diplomatic approach with a continuum of responses and options that may stop genocide before it occurs. The failure of the U.S. government to act is always an implicit signal to other governments as well as a green light to the perpetrators of genocide.”

Power noted that such actions would be necessary to prevent a repetition of this horror in Sudan. She pointed out that even the slightest condemnation by the U.S. Government of policies of the government in Khartoum results in the easing up of hostilities.

An eclectic gathering of religious leaders, educators, public policy experts, students and activists attended the event, titled “Remembering Rwanda: Ten Years After The Genocide.” Held at the Fowler Museum in Los Angeles, the April 23 event featured presentations by genocide experts, testimonies by survivors, and the premiere showing of a documentary film on the Rwandan Genocide.

The 1994 Rwandan Genocide, the result of escalating violence between Hutu and Tutsi peoples, began in April 1994 and led to the murder of more than 800,000 Tutsi and politically moderate Hutu during 100 days of terror.

Power’s research on the world’s failure to intervene in Rwanda notes that the response of the United States and other Western countries is shaped by decisions made prior to the start of genocide, rather than in response to it. She also noted that a series of missteps and mixed signals by the United States and the United Nations emboldened the perpetrators of the Rwandan Genocide.

In her remarks, Power highlighted ways future genocides might be prevented. In addition to calling on the U.S. government to expand its definition of “vital interests” to include prevention and intervention in genocide, Power called on journalists to focus world attention on genocide, encouraged faith communities to raise their voices, and suggested governments note “the early warning signals that are always part of the cycle of genocide, including smaller massacres that serve as trial balloons to test international response and the demonizing of specific groups by the government or the media.”

Power also called on governments to find new ways to conduct diplomacy. “Diplomats are so conditioned to be diplomats that they consistently offer conventional responses in the face of unconventional horrors. Governments must replace the pantomime of response with robust, effective responses.”

The NCC event included the premiere of “God Sleeps In Rwanda,” a documentary by filmmakers Kimberlee Acquaro and Stacy Sherman. The film highlights ways genocide decimated Rwandan families, destabilized the culture, and contributed to the dramatic increase of HIV and AIDS among Rwandan women and children.

During his remarks, Rev. Bob Edgar, General Secretary of the National Council of Churches, noted, “It is important that we remember what we failed to do, and that includes churches and church people. We must ask forgiveness for our silence. Those of us in faith communities must honor God’s call to love and care for the least of our brothers and sisters.”

Dr. Richard Hrair Dekmejian, an expert on the Armenian Genocide and professor of political science at the University of Southern California, noted that despite the current international focus on terrorism, “Terrorists have killed relatively few people when compared with genocide.”

Dekmejian, noting the NCC program was being held on the eve of the 89th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide, called for a three-point commitment by faith communities and people of conscience to “bring the perpetrators of genocide to justice, work for compensation for its victims, and influence governments to prevent and intervene in future genocides.”

Gerry Caplan, founder of the international coalition Remembering Rwanda, suggested four groups who must be remembered one decade after the Rwandan Genocide: “those who died; the victims who survived; the perpetrators, most of whom were never brought to justice; and the international community, or more accurately, international bystanders, who actively chose not to get involved.”

Caplan laid broad blame for the failure to intervene in the Rwandan Genocide on parties including churches within Rwanda, the governments of the United States and Europe and the United Nations.

Also participating in the program was Rabbi Allen I. Freehling, Executive Director of the Los Angeles Human Relations Commission. Rabbi Freehling closed the program with words from the Hebrew prophets exhorting all people to love their fellow human beings.

Two Rwandan Genocide survivors vividly described the destruction of entire villages and towns, the use of rape as a tool of genocide, the mass psychosis of genocide, and the lasting impact on survivors. In a powerful and moving moment, one survivor said, “I recently looked through my photo albums of my friends and family from Rwanda - and realized that everyone in those photos is dead. Except for me. I am called to bear witness.”

The “Remembering Rwanda: Ten Years After The Genocide” commemorative event was held as part of the World Council of Churches’ Decade To Overcome Violence.

Reflecting after the event, Dr. Antonios Kireopoulos, the NCC's Associate General Secretary for International Affairs and Peace, commented that "What was quite compelling was Samantha Power's assessment that the lessons of Rwanda could be applied today to prevent another tragedy in Sudan. If we have learned anything as an international community from our various commemorations of the Rwandan Genocide, it is that we must apply these lessons to situations that come before us. Otherwise, we will be resigned to saying yet another time, 'Never again!'"


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James N. Birkitt, Jr., Director of Communication of the Universal Fellowship of Metropolitan Community Churches, Los Angeles, filed this report.

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