George Monbiot and the Anti-“Genocide Deniers” Brigade

A disturbing number of British figures like to play fast-and-loose with charges of "revisionism" and "genocide denial."  Intellectuals and media commentators hurl these charges because they know that within the fields where they work, emotionally-laden attack-words such as these elicit reactions similar to screaming "sex offender" at a local playground.  Just as one can count on "sex offender" to grab the attention of the anti-paedophile unit, "genocide denier" grabs the attention of no less a dedicated brigade of anti-"genocide denier" activists.

In "Left and libertarian right cohabit in the weird world of the genocide belittlers" (The Guardian, June 14), George Monbiot proves that he is not above temptation.

With regard to events in Rwanda from 1990 through 1994, Monbiot complains that in a book I co-authored in 2010 with Edward S. Herman titled The Politics of Genocide (Monthly Review Press[1]), we place the "Rwandan genocide in inverted commas throughout the text." 

In fact, this use of scare-quotes is meant to demarcate two radically different and incompatible accounts of what happened in Rwanda during this period.  Thus the "Rwandan genocide" (i.e., with the scare-quotes) refers to the false and propagandistic notion of a "conspiracy" by the majority Hutu to eliminate the Tutsi minority from Rwanda through mass slaughter.  The Hutu planners of this enterprise are alleged to have shot-down Hutu President Juvenal Habyarimana's Falcon-50 jet on its approach to Kanombe airport in Kigali on April 6, 1994, so they could carry out their "pre-planned" genocide against the Tutsi.  Indeed, this is more or less the standard account for the events of the period.  We, on the contrary, interpret the vast bloodbaths of 1994 as resulting from a pre-planned conspiracy by the Paul Kagame-led, Tutsi-dominated Rwandan Patriotic Front to seize state-power by military means.  The RPF accomplished this plan by July, after launching its final offensive on April 6, when it shot-down Habyarimana's jet.   Our use of scare-quotes is meant simply as a clarification device.  Some readers may find it a turn-off stylistically, but this is a different matter.

Monbiot takes even stronger issue with our assertion that the "great majority of deaths were Hutu, with some estimates as high as two million," and he objects that our work on Rwanda engages in "as straightforward an instance of revisionism as [he's] ever seen, comparable in this case only to the claims of the genocidaires themselves."

In fact, the two-million figure (which we mention in passing) derives from a letter that a former Rwandan Patriotic Front military officer submitted to the UN Commission of Inquiry into the 1994 genocide in Rwanda (1999), appealing to the commission to focus its attention on the actions of the RPF; the two million-figure applied to RPF conduct in the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo after 1994 (then known as Zaire) as well as to its conduct in Rwanda from 1990 through 1994.  On the other hand, the estimate that we use in our book is 800,000 deaths (see Table 1, p. 35, where this is as plain as day), adding that the actual number of deaths among all ethnic groups likely falls within a range between 800,000 and one million (and perhaps slightly higher).  

We base this on multiple considerations, an important one being the August 1991 census of Rwanda's population, which reported the Tutsi component to be 8.4 percent, or just under 600,000 persons (out of a total of 7,099,844 persons).[2] Also, as the U.S. academics Christian Davenport and Allan Stam have pointed out, the Tutsi organization IBUKA later claimed "about 300,000 Tutsi survived the 1994 slaughter."  This means, they add, that Rwanda in 1994 suffered "between 500,000 and 700,000 Hutu deaths," based on total deaths falling within the 800,000 to one million range.  Hence, the "majority of victims were in fact Hutu, not Tutsi," they conclude—just as we write in The Politics of Genocide, and Monbiot dismisses with a wave of his hand.  (See Christian Davenport and Allan Stam, "What Really Happened in Rwanda?" Miller-McCune, October 6, 2009.)

About the nature of the political violence that swept across Rwanda, 1990-1994, we most certainly are not genocide deniers (the cheap charge made by Monbiot)we are genocide re-allocators.  In our work, that is, we re-direct the primary responsibility for the great carnage during the 100-day Rwanda genocide (or Genocide No. One) away from the standard account's "conspiracy to commit genocide" by "Hutu Power," towards Tutsi leader Paul Kagame and the superior armed forces he then had under his command, which by April 1994 had increased greatly in strength from an October 1990 invasion level of 3,000 – 4,000, up to at least 20,000 armed fighters.[3]  Kagame's RPF had spent three-and-one-half years occupying northern Rwanda, but had failed to capture the capital city of Kigali, although its February 1993 assault came close.  The Arusha peace accords of August 1993 called for national elections in 1995, in which the Tutsi Kagame could have challenged the Hutu incumbent Habyarimana, but given the numerical superiority of the Hutu over the Tutsi electorate, Kagame and his RPF knew they stood zero-chance of prevailing at the polls.  It was for this reason that the RPF elected to shoot-down Habyarimana's jet and launch its final offensive, which achieved its objective by July, when it took control of Kigali and was rewarded with official recognition by the Clinton White House.

Later this same Kagame-led PRF extended its wars and the massive bloodbaths that have followed in their wake into the Democratic Republic of Congo (Genocide No. Two)—an event that Monbiot once characterized as "deliberate policy, commissioned and implemented by the Rwandan government," even citing one UN report's damning indictment that "more than 3.5 million excess deaths" probably had occurred as a "direct result of the occupation by Rwanda and Uganda" of large areas of the eastern DRC.[4] (For the Monbiot, see "The victim's licence," The Guardian, August 13, 2004.)  Well, exactly the same kind of ruthless policy was pursued by the same Kagame-led RPF inside Rwanda from 1990 on, culminating in the massive loss of life of April to July 1994.  It is odd to say the least that Monbiot is able to recognize the Kagame-led RPF as mass killers in the DRC beginning some time after 1994, but fails to recognize them as mass killers in Rwanda from 1990 through 1994.  And Monbiot calls Edward S. Herman and me "genocide belittlers"!

Monbiot asserts confidently that Bosnia and Rwanda are "two of the best-documented acts of genocide in history."  But in dismissing the work of persons he alleges comprise a "malign intellectual subculture that seeks to excuse savagery by denying the facts" (here quoting the same June 6 leader in The Times with which Monbiot opens his attack ("Memory Against Forgetting")), he does no better than repeat some of the most deeply entrenched artefacts of wartime propaganda associated with these two theaters of violence and atrocity.

The truth is that Bosnia and Rwanda rank among the most systematically misrepresented major stories of the past two decades.  And while Monbiot is perfectly entitled to hold in contempt whatever Edward S. Herman and I have written about them, this is a separate matter from what the facts bear out—in contrast to the fairytales he repeats.   

[ David Peterson is an independent writer and researcher based in Chicago. ] 

  [1] This particular chapter of our 2010 book was also published separately.  For an online copy, see Edward S. Herman and David Peterson, "Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo in the Propaganda System," Monthly Review 62, no. 1, May, 2010. 
  [2] See David Peterson, "Rwanda's 1991 Census," ZNet, June 17, 2011.
  [3] See Peter Erlinder, "The U.N. Security Council Tribunal for Rwanda: International Justice, or Juridically-Constructed 'Victor's Impunity'?" Journal of Social Justice, Vol. 4, No. 1, Fall 2010, pp. 131-214; esp. "RPF Military Superiority Established: January 1991 – February 1993," pp. 171-174.  As Erlinder puts it: "By the time of the RPF's [February] 1993 assault on Kigali the invading RPF had grown from the 3,000-4,000 Ugandan 'deserters' in late 1990, to a light infantry fighting force of at least 20,000 troops with unquestioned military superiority.  By contrast, the defending FAR [Armed Forces of Rwanda] had the 6,000-7,000 'real' troops who had defeated the initial small RPF/Ugandan invasion in late 1990, augmented by some 25-30,000 recent recruits, which the U.N. commander of U.N. troops, U.N. General Dallaire, characterized as 'rabble'" (pp. 172-173).  (For an online copy, click here.) 
  [4] See Mahmoud Kassem et al. of the UN Panel of Experts on the Illegal Exploitation of Natural Resources and Other Forms of Wealth of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (S/2002/1146), October 8, 2002, para. 96. 

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