The Prevention Problem: Thinking about Rwanda 20 years later

Of my areas of interest, the two that stand out are violence prevention and technology. This year marks the 20th anniversary of the Rwanda genocide, and I’ve been keeping track of the media coverage which has included the usual themes of never again, and a call to seek the tools and capacity to prevent such events in the future. To really make this happen though there needs to be a differentiation between patterns of smaller atrocities and genocide. This presents a challenge for localizing peacebuilding, especially for those of us who work in the technology space.

First, we have to differentiate atrocities from genocides. There are books upon books worth of arguments about semantics (which are important from a legal standpoint!), but I want to generally focus on differences in scale and intent. A militant group might commit a one-time atrocity to make a political statement, a riot could lead to a military crackdown that spins out of control, one ethnic group might target another over land rights, etc. These can be atrocities, especially if there’s a pattern of events. Genocide, what happened in Rwanda 20 years ago, is different in scale and intent. The scope of violence is an entire identity group, and the intent is the elimination of that group. Unlike an atrocity, this requires state-grade organization and capacity. Indeed, these are rather blunt definitions that ignore a lot of semantic detail, but bear with me.

If our goal is the prevention of atrocities and genocide, and our preferred method is to empower local communities with the tools and skills to prevent violence before it starts, then scale and intention matter. If we take the example of election violence in Kenya in 2007/8, there were many atrocities committed, but the intent wasn’t overtly genocidal. Since that election there have been efforts made to reinforce peace keeping (not ‘peacekeeping’) capacity at the local level through training programs and innovative approaches to information sharing using mobile phones and social media. In this scenario the communities that would be affected by discrete events of violence could prevent the spark at the local level. Compare this to Rwanda in 1994, where the Hutu-led government provided the weapons and logistics to the militias that did the killing, and the aim was the elimination of the Tutsi ethnic group. There had been atrocities at the local level leading up to the genocide (particularly in the north where the Tutsi RPF militia was fighting Rwandan government forces), but when the genocide started in earnest the violence was top-down and totalizing. Local-level violence prevention and peacebuilding methods weren’t going to stop that level of organized killing.

So where does this leave us now? If the goal is violence prevention, then we have to recognize where the local strategies work, and be willing to push for international intervention when necessary. Start by asking,”is the violence extrinsically motivated, and localized?” Are people fighting over a tangible thing (e.g. land, access to water, representation in government)? If so, there are going to be opportunities for local-level peacebuilding and violence prevention. Public information and discourse will play a major role in this kind of peacebuilding, and communication technology can have a significant positive multiplier effect. Is the violence extrinsic and national, for example election violence? This is where intervention from the international community probably needs to happen, but there’s also a large place for localized peacebuilding too. For example, peacekeepers might come to enforce stability but local level peacebuilding needs to happen if the gains from a ceasefire are going to hold up in communities. Communication technology can play a role in linking communities to each other, as well as providing a conduit for sharing needs and information with the national government and international intervenors.

What about intrinsically motivated national level violence? This where local solutions start to lose impact, especially when we’re talking about the violence being carried out by the state against a minority. At this point, it’s unlikely communication technologies are going to be much use; either they’ll amplify negative messages in an already politically volatile space, or they won’t matter as violence becomes ubiquitous. Large, international intervention becomes necessary at this point to force the sides apart and impose stability while a peace process is undertaken.

Localized peacebuilding and technology are at their most effective before large scale violence starts. Communication technology in particular can play a powerful role in connecting communities, and breaking down narratives that can reinforce the kinds of intrinsic, dehumanizing narratives of violence that open the door to genocide. When we think about ‘preventing genocide’ we actually need to be thinking about how we prevent or intervene in the small atrocities which build up to a Genocidal event, because once that event has started it’s too late.

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