This op-ed by John Prendergast was originally published in The Daily Beast on April 7, 2014 the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan Genocide.
Exactly 20 years ago, the sitting government in Rwanda commenced a genocide against minority Tutsi and moderate Hutu populations. Eight hundred thousand Rwandans perished in 100 frenzied days, the fastest rate of killing in recorded history, though most international actors did not name what was happening as genocide—and did not act before it was too late for most of the victims.
Today most people’s understanding of what genocide looks like comes from the grainy footage of the Holocaust that will haunt and stain the human conscience until the end of time. But when there are no gas chambers, no barbed wire, and no concentration camps, many don’t recognize the perpetration of new genocides and other targeted mass atrocity crimes because they may not look the same.
Yale Law professor Reva Siegel has written about the concept of “preservation through transformation,” which holds that evil practices of the past that we now universally condemn may continue in the present in different forms, precisely because they don’t stay or look the same. Slavery, racism, sexism, and other forms of bigotry, subordination, and human rights abuse transform and adapt with the times. The concept applies even to the most profound of all human rights crimes: genocide and other targeted mass atrocities.
In the face of this accumulated horror, there are nevertheless signs of hope that international efforts can be much more effective in responding. But first, it is important to understand that despite the evolution in genocidal tactics, five common characteristics are distinguishable. Understanding them allows quicker recognition and more effective responses.