How Rwanda is Teaching Peace Education through “Ubumuntu Conversations”

Rt Hon. Andrew Mitchell speaking during the Ubumuntu Conversations on July 31. (Photo: Aegis Trust)

(Reposted from: Social Science Research Council.  August 14, 2018)


The Kigali Genocide Memorial, located in Kigali’s Gisozi area, was built as a tribute to those who died in the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi and to promote peace education in Rwanda. The memorial, which was established in 2004 by the Aegis Trust on behalf of Rwanda’s National Commission for the Fight Against Genocide, is a burial site that holds the remains of over 250,000 Rwandans who perished during the war, making it the world’s largest mass grave. Within the grounds of the memorial, there are beautiful gardens, an amphitheater, the Genocide Archive of Rwanda library, the Kigali Genocide Memorial Peace School, and three permanent exhibitions documenting the history of the genocide in Rwanda and other mass atrocities elsewhere in the world.

Throughout the year, the Aegis Trust, which funds and manages the memorial, organizes various events to educate the public and visitors from around the world about the genocide and what they can do to help prevent such atrocities in the future. Among their peacebuilding initiatives are the Ubumuntu Conversations held at the memorial’s peace school during the last week of July 2018. Ubumuntu (pronounced oo–boo–moo–noo) is a Kinyarwanda word that means “to be human,” carrying a similar meaning to the word Ubuntu. Ubumuntu is to be humane: to genuinely care about others, to be generous and kind, to show empathy, to be sympathetic to the plight of others, and to recognize the humanity of others. As one Rwandan attendee told me, ubumuntu is “the greatness of the heart.”

The Ubumuntu Conversations, aptly themed, “After the Genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda: Is the World Getting Better at Prevention?” was attended by Rwandans from all walks of life—senior officials from the Rwandan government, academics, and the international community. The guest speaker was the Rt. Hon. Andrew Mitchell, a member of parliament in the United Kingdom. Hon. Mitchell began by describing the memorial as one of the most sacred places on earth, adding that he felt privileged to have returned to this site during the period of Kwibuka (remembrance). Recapping what happened in Rwanda in 1994, Hon. Mitchell noted the abject failure by the international community to stop the genocide against the Tutsi. He explained that when the genocide began to unfold in Rwanda, it was mischaracterized by France as a civil war which gave way to inaction by countries that should otherwise have responded to the ongoing atrocities.

Hon. Mitchell said that the international order has failed to achieve world peace even after the 1994 Rwandan genocide. Although the UN has adopted the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) framework that secures the rights of civilian populations during wartime, genocide and other mass atrocities continue unabated in numerous countries around the world, including Sudan’s Darfur region, Yemen, and Syria. In the case of Africa, Hon. Mitchell observed that “the African Union and its reform program can stand up and hold the ring for Africa.” He noted that to enhance the world’s capacity to seek redress for mass atrocities committed during armed conflict, it is important to invest in making institutions such as the International Criminal Court (ICC) “better and more attractive” to countries that are not party to the Rome Statute, the treaty that established the ICC.

After Hon. Mitchell’s speech, the other panelists shared stories about the 1994 genocide and the strides that Rwanda had made in ensuring that the country never returns to the precipice. Dr. Jean-Paul Kimonyo, a renowned Rwandan scholar who has authored several books including, Rwanda’s Popular Genocide: A Perfect Storm, discussed the ways Rwanda has engaged in genocide prevention through the introduction of laws that criminalize genocide ideology and genocide revisionism. According to Kimonyo, the laws relating to genocide ideology have been effective in preventing revenge attacks against genocide survivors. Kimonyo noted that prior to the enactment of these laws there were several attacks on survivors, particularly in the Gikongoro prefecture in the Southern Province where many Tutsi were massacred at the height of the genocide. In the fight against genocide, Kimonyo argued that “genocidal regimes need to be defeated militarily first” in order to save lives, before engaging other mechanisms.

Another panelist, Amb Olivier Nduhungirehe, a former Deputy Permanent Representative of the Mission of Rwanda to the United Nations (UN) and the current Minister of State in Rwanda’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs, spoke about some of the efforts implemented by the African Union (AU) and the United Nations to help prevent genocide in Africa and around the world. These include the Office of the UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, the African Standby Force, the AU Peace and Security Council, AU Panel of the Wise, and the International Conference for the Great Lakes Region Committee on Prevention of Genocide (ICGLR).

While acknowledging the efforts by the AU and UN to protect civilians in conflict zones, Ambassador Nduhungirehe maintained that despite all the protection mechanisms in place, member states are still failing to protect non-combatants in situations of armed conflict, thereby underscoring the importance of the Kigali Principles on the Protection of Civilians. The Kigali Principles were first adopted in Kigali, Rwanda in May 2015 by Rwanda, Ethiopia, Italy, the Netherlands, Uruguay, Sri Lanka, and Uganda to help strengthen peacekeeping in countries affected by conflict. Ambassador Nduhungirehe said that although “it is good to contribute troops,” a critical question to ask is “what are they doing to effectively protect civilians?” This question is one that troop- and police-contributing countries in Africa and elsewhere, and financial contributing countries that support these operations need to contemplate as they decide whether or not to endorse the Kigali Principles.

As we close the curtain on the annual Kwibuka period here in Rwanda, the Ubumuntu Conversations have challenged those of us who attended to play our part, however small, in making the world more peaceful. These conversations are particularly important for the younger generation of Rwandans, many of whom were in the audience. Because a significant proportion of Rwandan youth was born after the genocide, they are likely not to comprehend their country’s history fully. The situation may be far worse for those who were orphaned by the genocide or those born as a consequence of rape during that conflict, since this cohort may lack the familial ties crucial to learning this history. Ubumuntu Conversations are therefore critical in helping these young people understand the past and keep the flame of peace burning in Rwanda and across the continent.

The author would like to thank the Aegis Trust in Rwanda for providing some of the information that has been used in the publication of this article and for permission to reproduce photographs that were taken during the Ubumuntu Conversations at the Kigali Genocide Memorial Peace School in Kigali, Rwanda.

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