When metaphors ruin the argument: Rwanda, Israel and negationism

Famous genocide scholar and Rwanda expert, Gerald Caplan, recently published an op-ed on the events surrounding the arrest of both Victoire Ingabire and Peter Erlinder in Rwanda on charges of “genocidal ideology”. The article highlights some interesting aspects of the situation, denouncing the lack of perspective of those who criticize the Rwandan government without taking into account the entire situation. However, the author falls into the same trap in the other direction and his article is problematic in many ways, despite its good intentions.

For one, he embarks in a haphazard comparison with holocaust denial in Israel. Here’s how that works:

An enigmatic, controversial woman returns to Israel after decades away and announces she’s running for Prime Minister.
She regrets the Holocaust, but after a tour of Yad Vashem, the country’s main memorial to the genocide of the Jews, she can’t help asking why no one bothers recalling all those good people that were killed by Jews resisting the Nazis. In fact she says not even sure whether more Germans or more Jews were murdered.
The Israeli authorities decide to take her seriously. She’s imprisoned, awaiting trial.
Soon her lawyer appears, from another country. He proves to be one of the world’s most notorious Holocaust deniers. The Law Society of Upper Canada (i.e. Ontario) writes to remind the Israeli government that UN protocols protect the right of a lawyer to perform his/her professional functions without hindrance. The responsibility of the Law Society, its website tells us, is to ensure that “the people of Ontario are served by lawyers and paralegals who meet high standards of learning, competence and professional conduct”. And the people of the world, as well. Their letter fails to mention the lawyer’s views on the Holocaust.
The Israeli government unceremoniously throws the lawyer-denier out of the country. Despite UN protocols, the world cheers.

And the conclusion is that:

This story never happened in Israel. It is happening right now, with minor situational variations, in Rwanda. But the world’s reaction is entirely different. 

Gerald Caplan says there are “minor situational variations”… But, I fail to see how the differences are not “major”. The comparison with Israel does not really work. For the comparison to work, you would need a jew to actually fight and win a bloody civil war in Germany and gain power there, thus becoming the leader of a majority population that is considered to have in large numbers contributed to the genocide. Surely that makes the political reality and sociological evaluation far more complex. The comparison as it stands is certainly flashy, but is not really helpful. It looks like a variation of world-famous Godwin’s Law, according to which any debate will end up with a reference to Hitler or the Nazis. In this case the variation is that there will always be a holocaust reference to advance an argument, however irrelevant this is…

On the substance, I find it disturbing that an academic gives so little thought for the real question of the link between criminally prohibiting revisionist discourse and the freedom of expression. The arguments for free expression are strong and can’t so easily be brushed aside, even if one does need to take into account the fragile situation of a country, only some years after such a scar on its history. And it is not really an answer to say that such discourse is banned in other countries. Mere examples do not constitute an argument. The fact is that one can legitimately consider that there is always a risk when law has a say on the content of history, with Orwell’s 1984 as a extreme, but perfect example. Some at least lip service for this would be the minimum to expect for an honest intellectual assessment of the issue.

A second point is the totally one-sided view of the political situation. As I’ve had the opportunity of saying several times in this blog, the genocide totally obscures the reality of the situation in the great lakes. For one, it is well documented that the FPR was involved in large scale massacres in their conquest of the country in 1994. This doesn’t justify Ms. Ingabire gross exaggeration of the numbers, but one should at least have the right to say it. In the same way, in relation to Erlinder, I had sort of understood that the scope of the genocidal plan has been circumscribed by the ICTR itself, the intent not necessarily attributable to some parts of government and the military. As for today’s situation, maybe Ms. Ingabire is linked to extremist Hutu in Eastern Congo, as the author suggests, but it is also true that Kagame, with the support of Uganda, has been an integral part of the destabilisation in the region, for equally pragmatic reasons as taking over areas rich in minerals. There is a general leniency towards the Kagame regime that is most problematic, and on the long run, not necessarily helpful. It must be possible to condemn the genocide at the same time criticize the excesses of the regime and denounce the crimes committed by the FPR.

Finally, Gerald Caplan concludes with this remark:

But then, why would he listen to an outsider like me? I did nothing in 1994 to try to stop the genocide. Why would he listen to any of those who support Erlinder’s rights without even alluding to Erlinder’s inflammatory views? Why should the ban on genocide denial not apply to him? Who has earned the right to tell this Rwandan nation, abandoned and betrayed by the world a mere 16 years ago, how to deal with the fear of renewed genocide? Who would dare lecture Israel on the rights of Holocaust deniers?

 This seems to make sense on the face of it, but doesn’t really. For one, does past conduct mean that one can never say anything again? this means, given the history of all countries, that nobody is legitimate to express outrage about anything that happens in the present. Secondly, and more importantly, it is an ontological no brainer for anyone working in ICL, human rights and genocide prevention, and more generally for any outsider. Who are we ever to say anything about anything? who are we to even condemn a genocide? If the author really believes in what he says, he should consider a career change…

One response to “When metaphors ruin the argument: Rwanda, Israel and negationism

  1. Caplan has a long list of publications on Rwanda, all of which need to be argued against. Thanks for your thoughtful review!

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