A Heroine for Human Rights

The human rights movement has lost one of its true heroes. But we are far stronger for the many years Alison Des Forges spent among us and for the example she set for us all.
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A diminutive, seemingly frail woman, barely five feet tall, she was nonetheless a giant in the field of human rights. At age 66, when most women are contemplating a quiet retirement with their grandchildren, she maintained a torrid pace that the 20-somethings in the office found difficult to sustain. Alison Des Forges, who led Human Rights Watch's work in Rwanda and the Great Lakes region of Africa for nearly 20 years, was killed in the plane crash in Buffalo on February 12.

The loss is huge--for the people of Rwanda, her family, and me personally. We worked closely together during our two shared decades at Human Rights Watch. To cite just one example, I will never forget my visit to Rwanda with her two years after the 1994 genocide, when the wounds were still raw and tensions high. Hearing of a new massacre in a remote part of the country, we dropped everything--typical for Alison--and drove there to investigate what had happened. We found a few survivors and interviewed them, but as we started to leave we bumped into the military patrol that had probably committed the massacre and was not eager for us to be snooping around. During a tense two-hour standoff on a hilltop in the middle of nowhere, Alison calmly and persistently negotiated our exit. Then, afraid that our captors would change their mind or ambush us en route, we drove as fast as we could on a two-hour ride back to the relative safety of the nearest town. The episode was vintage Alison--determined to get at the truth, deeply devoted to the Rwandan victims of atrocities, and seemingly oblivious to her own well being.

In the prelude to the genocide, I watched Alison struggle to warn the world of the rising ethnic tensions in Rwanda. When the killing broke out and hundreds of thousands of Tutsis and moderate Hutus were hacked, shot, and burned to death, Alison worked desperately--first to explain to the uninformed who the Tutsi and Hutu even were, then to convince the indifferent not to turn their backs on the slaughter. Alison saw that the raging slaughter was not the latest manifestation of "age-old hatreds" about which nothing could be done, as the defenders of indifference maintained, but the product of a deliberate scheme, embarked upon by a small group of ruthless leaders who could be identified, pressured, and stopped.

Later, her 800-page chronicle of the genocide, "Leave None to Tell the Story," based on four years of field research, demonstrated how carefully the genocidaires had tested the political waters before ratcheting up the killing. Worried about jeopardizing the international aid on which Rwanda depended, they at first allowed the genocide to unfold only gradually, checking to see how the international community would react. It barely did. The major powers, unwilling to risk another humanitarian intervention in Africa so shortly after the Somalia debacle of 1992-93, dithered. At the White House, Alison convinced then-National Security Advisor Anthony Lake to issue a statement, which she largely wrote, but sending the Marines was never in the cards. Lake blamed a lack of popular pressure, as if the responsibility to stop mass murder required no more than a glance at the latest polls.

When the killing finally stopped, not because of Western intervention but because the rebel Rwandan Patriotic Front won the civil war, Alison devoted herself to bringing the authors of these atrocities to justice (although she was often just as passionate in her defense of the wrongly accused). To note that she testified some dozen times as an expert witness before the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda is only to begin to acknowledge her role.

Prosecutors came and went, rarely willing to put in more than two years in distant Arusha or Kigali, but Alison was always there, patiently explaining to yet another green lawyer the complexities of how the genocide unfolded. Never formally on the prosecutorial staff, always simply offering her services as a member of the Human Rights Watch staff, Alison became, in essence, the tribunal's chief strategist--not just an expert witness on the stand but an indispensable guide behind the scenes.

Alison's commitment to principle was most apparent in her efforts to bring to justice not the genocidaires, who had few sympathizers, but the leadership of the Rwandan Patriotic Front, who had morphed into the current, internationally popular Rwandan government, led by President Paul Kagame. To a world wracked by guilt at having done nothing to stop the genocide, Kagame was a hero, the man whose brilliant military strategy had ousted the genocidaires. Bill Clinton, whose indifference to the genocide was the low point of his presidency, has often squired Kagame to be feted at various conferences and conclaves, as if to make amends. But Alison could not forget the 30,000 people murdered by Kagame's RPF during and in the immediate aftermath of the genocide. That toll is in no way equivalent to the estimated 800,000 genocide victims, as Kagame's apologists are quick to note, but it is no small number, either, and should not be ignored. To do so, Alison pointed out, looks like selective victor's justice, not a tribunal dedicated to the even-handed application of the law.

The very week of her death, Alison was corresponding with Hassan Jallow, the chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, about the importance of not ignoring the RPF crimes. The prosecutor had understandably held those crimes to the end, knowing that their pursuit would mark the end of the Rwandan government's cooperation with the tribunal. Now, however, with the tribunal's mandate nearing its end, Jallow still has not issued a single indictment for RPF crimes. I joined Alison in pressing him to pursue these cases, but whether he has the courage to take on the supposedly "new African leader" Kagame remains to be seen.

Alison's principled insistence on justice for all, on following the facts wherever they lead, on using her integrity and careful research to defend rights, made her countless friends in Rwanda but incurred the wrath of Kagame and his cohorts. In the last few months, as the public debate about prosecuting the RPF crimes was coming to a head, the Rwandan government twice denied Alison entrance to the country she loved. The move was a backhanded tribute to her effectiveness, and an implicit concession of how much Kagame has to hide.

For a woman who seemed to live on planes, it was sadly ironic that she died on one. She was heading home to see her husband Roger, whose patience with her peripatetic existence and support for her endless work should qualify him for sainthood. Alison was returning from Europe, where she had been pressing governments to respond to the latest crisis in Central Africa, this time in eastern Congo, where two separate conflicts are taking a renewed civilian toll. Alison was seeking a stronger UN peacekeeping presence, a force not simply asked to protect civilians but actually equipped to do so. Europe had the troops at hand--it had even set up two "battle groups" precisely for this purpose--but when it came time to deploy them, European leaders could find only excuses for inaction.

My inbox has been flooded with expressions of disbelief and despondency from Alison's admirers around the world. The human rights movement has lost one of its true heroes. But we are far stronger for the many years she spent among us and for the example she set for us all--of passion, persistence, honesty, and principle. She will always be a role model, for me and so many others around the world.


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