Fighting "Genocide Ideology" in Rwanda

Each year in April Rwanda commemorates its 1994 genocide, in which at least half-a-million Rwandans were killed in a hundred days. The theme this year is "Fighting Genocide Ideology," which sounds, on the face of it, like a good thing to do, especially in Rwanda. But much depends on how we identify genocide ideology, and how we fight it.

An ideology is genocidal if it proposes or implies that a particular group of people (such as an ethnic or religious group) should be destroyed. Genocidal ideologies make genocide possible by dichotomizing people into "us vs. them" categories, demonizing and dehumanizing "them," and justifying (often while simultaneously denying) group destruction. We should speak out against such ideologies; schools everywhere should teach about their dangers.

Rwanda, however, does not just teach and persuade. In 2008, it passed a law criminalizing "genocide ideology" and providing for its punishment. Under this law one is punished for what one believes, not for what one says. Speech is evidence of belief. In Rwanda, genocide ideology is now a thought-crime.

Specifically, genocide ideology is defined as "an aggregate of thoughts" that can be inferred from speech or action. Examples of evidence from which "genocide ideology" may be inferred are dehumanizing, marginalizing, "defaming, mocking, boasting, despising, [or] degrading" on the basis of "ethnic group, origin, nationality, region, color, physical appearance, sex, language, religion or political opinion." Even "laughing at [others'] misfortune" may show genocide ideology.

The penalties are no laughing matter: "Any person convicted of the crime of genocide ideology ... shall be sentenced to an imprisonment of ten (10) years to twenty five (25) years." Public dissemination of genocide ideology is punished by a sentence of 20-25 years. Associations, organizations, and political groups convicted of genocide ideology are subject to "dissolution."

Even children can be guilty: The law includes a section entitled "Penalties awarded to children guilty of the crime of genocide ideology." For children under 12 years, the penalty is up to 12 months in a rehabilitation center. For ages 12-18 years, the penalty is half the adult penalty, with the possibility of serving some or all of the imprisonment in a rehabilitation center.

And who is responsible for the thought-crimes of children? Parents and teachers of children found guilty of genocide ideology are subject to imprisonment of 15 to 25 years if it is "evident" that they "participated" in inculcating the forbidden ideology. Teachers, in addition, are permanently barred from teaching.

"Genocide ideology" is also inferred from "genocide denial." The government has determined that the 1994 genocide shall be officially known as the "Genocide against the Tutsi." This accurately reflects the fact that in 1994 thousands of Hutu killed hundreds of thousands of Tutsi, mostly with machetes, in a hundred days of political violence planned and orchestrated by advocates of Hutu power, an unambiguous act of genocide.

But tens of thousands of Hutu were also killed, many by Hutu perpetrators intent on eliminating the political opposition and many by Tutsi forces taking control of the country. Rwandans face criminal penalties for questioning the government's official story about the nature and context of the 1994 violence and the identities of its perpetrators and victims. This severely undermines much-needed research, teaching, and discussion regarding Rwanda's genocide.

Dozens of Rwandans are charged each year with genocide ideology. Intellectual freedom is also restricted through systematic indoctrination of students and deadly attacks on journalists. Human Rights Watch and others have repeatedly charged the government with human rights abuses including disappearances and assassinations of those deemed to oppose it.

Rwanda is admirable in many ways, including economic development and women's participation in government. Its suppression of "genocide ideology," however, is part of a larger pattern of repression inconsistent with its democratic aspirations and with its need for free and serious discussion of its history, social identities, and political options.

We should refute genocidal ideologies wherever they arise, with full attention to the dangers of dichotomization, dehumanization, and denial. But Rwanda illustrates how readily a government can use genocide legislation to criminalize the ideas of its political opponents and thus eliminate opposition. In Rwanda and everywhere else we should all be free to think and talk about everything, including genocide.