Former ambassador talks about Rwanda, rule of law 2016.05.11


The Rwandan genocide of 1994 was quick and brutal and every bit as horrible as portrayed in the movie "Hotel Rwanda."

Take it from David Rawson because he was there.

Rawson spoke May 1 at the Fayette Opera House for the annual "Law Day" program. The former U.S. Ambassador to Rwanda discussed the importance of the rule of law and how it was absent when the killing got underway.

Rawson presented facets of the rule of law through the words of statesmen, philosophers and leaders of the past, such as Marcus Tullius Cicero who said, "True law is right reason in accord with nature. It's valid for all nations and all times."

St. Thomas Aquinas spoke of law as something for the common good, for all people, adding that promulgation is necessary—people must be aware of the law.

The Magna Carta called for judgment by equals, for credible witnesses, for punishment to fit the crime and for the freedom to leave and then come back again later.

John Adams said that a nation must have a government of laws and not of men, and John Locke pointed out that when law ends, tyranny begins.

In Rwanda it began April 7, 1994. Within 100 days, 800,000 were dead—often killed with machetes and knives—and tens of thousands more perished from cholera that spread among the 2.5 million refugees who fled into neighboring countries.

One-tenth of the population was wiped out.

"I told the Rwandan leaders, 'I'm here to help your people find peace,'" Rawson said. "I clearly failed at that mission."

The rule of law was weak in Rwanda before the genocide. The country was ruled by a man—the President who controlled justice—rather than rule by the nation.

The killing took place in the context of a civil war, Rawson said, pushed by social differences. The action was triggered by the assassination of the President, and buoyed by a great fear about what the other side would do if it got into power.

"People would join in the killing because everyone else was doing it," Rawson explained. "Sometimes they were hoping to take over a neighbor's house."

There was a failure of international agencies to respond quickly.

"One side won," Rawson said. "That's what stopped it. Not intervention."

But a killing of that magnitude? How could it possibly happen?

A weak legal system, arbitrary justice, and continual demeaning of people through hate radio—those were the forces at play.

"When you constantly belittle people, they become less than you," Rawson explained.

It enables a person to kill and to take property.

International forces left Rwanda as the violence intensified, Rawson said. He thinks it could have been stopped if instead the international presence had been reinforced.

United Nations bureaucracy is too slow to get decisive action, he said, and the genocide had ended by the time action was decided.

"We should give credit to the U.N. for doing some things well," Rawson said, "but it is difficult at times. It's only made up of states and some states don't want to do anything."

During an extensive question-and-answer session, Rawson was asked if non-military options exist.

"Yes," he answered, "but once the fighting has broken out, you have to be willing to say, 'Don't do that,' and if they continue, you have to be willing to take them out."

If that action isn't taken, the situation can slip into the chaos experienced in Rwanda where ordinary people turned into mass killers.

Dr. David Rawson's presentation was preceded by short talks from three high school students.

• Bella Heilner from Morenci spoke about the natural resources of the Bean Creek Valley that influenced settlement in the area. Water resources, in particular, were important to the development of communities. As glaciers melted following the last Ice Age, the vast Mich-Ind-Oh aquifer formed beneath the region and now furnishes water to nearly two dozen communities.

Those natural resources must be protected, Heilner said, and citizens should remain vigilant in guarding them.

“Often times,” she said, “we do not know what we have until it is gone.”

• Ellen Baker from Fayette described the Steinem-Nyce Series that originated in 2013 in honor of two influential men in the community, Bill Steinem and Dr. Robert Nyce.

"[Steinem] was a pretty quiet man," Baker said, "but he definitely stood up for what he believed in and took action when necessary."

Dr. Nyce moved to Fayette after completing medical school and served as the community's family physician for many years.

"These two men were very different in their character," Baker said. "They also had different views on several different issues, but they both held similar values and definitely had a great respect for each other. They both made lasting contributions to their community and they will be remembered by many."

• Wauseon student Lacotus Spiess-Ebersole said, "The Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu once said the journey of a thousand miles begins with a single step. Dr. Rawson started that trip just north of here in Addison, Mich., the headwaters of the Bean Creek valley."

He pointed out that a person could look up Dr. Rawson's name and quickly discover that he's no stranger to being in print.