Address of David Russell, Director of Survivors Fund (SURF), at The Berkshire Rwandese Community Event at Reading Civic Centre to mark the 19th Anniversary Commemoration of the 1994 Rwandan Genocide against the Tutsi, 11th April 2013
Never before in modern history has the world witnessed such an intensity of killing as that which occurred in Rwanda during the 100 days of genocide in 1994. That killing was committed under the watch of the UN, which did not prevent the genocide, nor stop the killing once it had begun.
As we have seen today, through the testimonies of survivors such as Clare (on the film below at 4:00), survivors are living and dying from the consequences of genocide. Clare tragically died a few weeks after the filming of her testimony, which was to be her last testament. The antiretroviral drugs that she so critically needed to treat her HIV were not available then in Rwanda in 2003. Two years later, SURF was able to secure funding from the British Government to support 2,5000 women survivors raped and infected with HIV through a Care and Treatment Project, but that programme came too late for Clare.
Whether young or old, widow or orphan, infected or affected by HIV, the situation for many of the 400,000 survivors in Rwanda remains to be challenging today. The legacy of genocide touches almost every aspect of their lives. Many are impoverished and face complex health problems, such as HIV and recurring trauma, as a direct result of the violence perpetrated against them during the genocide. Many are still without shelter, without access to education and in need of support to bury relatives. Some survivors are still threatened with violence by former perpetrators.
The work of Survivors Fund (SURF) scratches the surface of the true scale of support still required by this most vulnerable and marginalised group. The Government of Rwanda Assistance Fund for Survivors (FARG) has been most critical in delivering support at scale for survivors. However, it is massively overstretched too. It has this year been able to increase the number of young survivors it supports to university to nearly 5,000. However, there are a further 35,000 young survivors due to graduate from secondary school in the next three years. Only a fraction will receive such support from FARG.
With many of them caring for other orphans, the likelihood of them ever being able to secure a decent job to support their surrogate families without a university education becomes ever more remote as each year passes. SURF’s work with AERG, the National Student’s Association of Genocide Survivors, addresses this critical need. But it is a modest programme reaching only a small number of the population in need
With the decision last month of the UK Government to withhold bilateral aid to Rwanda, the pressure on the budget of the Government of Rwanda will only increase. This is then likely to place pressure on programmes such as FARG. As such, the work of SURF is more important today than ever, to monitor and advocate for the funding still so critical to survivors, from both the Government of Rwanda and the international community. And to develop such projects that can enable survivors to more effectively support themselves, to achieve kwigira, self-reliance, which is the theme of this year’s commemoration.
Through such support, thankfully there are success stories of those survivors that have overcome the greatest obstacles to rebuild their lives. Their strength is astounding, having not only helped themselves to a better life, but helping those less fortunate than themselves as well. One such survivor is Odette Kayirere, now Executive Secretary of AVEGA, the Association of Widows of the Genocide. Odette personally received the Guardian International Development Achievement Award for her work supporting thousands of widows and orphans in the Eastern Province, and helped AVEGA last year to secure the Gruber Foundation Award for Women’s Rights.
With support from SURF, and funding from the UK Department for International Development, Odette and AVEGA have this year opened new offices in the Southern and Northern Provinces of Rwanda to support over 10,000 genocide widows who previously had no access to the many services of AVEGA, which includes counselling, legal aid, advocacy and critically livelihood development. As many widows are now ageing, without the families that traditionally would support them, the need for AVEGA’s help, and SURF’s support, is ever more critical.
It is for that reason that our work ahead will focus on advocating for reparation for survivors of the genocide in Rwanda.
Apologies for failing to do more to intervene in the genocide have been offered by the Belgian Government and President Clinton (but interestingly never to date by the UK Government, despite its Ambassador at the time, David Hannay, advocating for a reduction and even withdrawal of the UN Assistance Mission for Rwanda, before and actually during the genocide). The United Nations Security Council has explicitly accepted responsibility for failing to prevent the genocide. However, such responsibility and apology has never translated into anything more meaningful.
Whereas spending on the UN International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) has amounted to more than $1 billion since it was established by UN resolution after the genocide in 1994, to administer justice on behalf of the international community, less than $1 million has been disbursed by the UN agencies and programmes to support survivors of the genocide.
Unlike the International Criminal Court, which was established after the ICTR by the Rome Statute in 1998, the ICTR did not have any mandate to make awards of reparation to victims of cases that it has heard. Famously, it took advocacy from AVEGA and SURF amongst others, even to ensure that women survivors raped and infected with HIV called as witnesses to Arusha, had access to the antiretroviral treatment made available to those on the stand that were proven to be the perpetrators of their rape.
Our focus is now on addressing the shortcoming of the ICTR, that it could not provide reparation to victims of the genocide, which its own President has acknowledged will be “forever a stain on its reputation.”
2014 marks the 20th anniversary of the genocide, and the closure of the ICTR. We believe there is a unique opportunity to address the issue of reparation and call for an explicit form of restorative justice for survivors to be prioritised by the UN Security Council. We hope to be aided in this advocacy by the Government of Rwanda which has been elected as a non-permanent member of the Security Council, over which it is presiding for the first of two one month periods this month.
In delivering this reparation, it will address the tens of thousands of awards of compensation made to survivors during gacaca, community genocide trials, which perpetrators are unable to honour due to being destitute. It will address the commitment made by the Government of Rwanda in its national strategic plan to establish an effective system for compensating victims of the genocide. It will address the resolution that has been unanimously passed by consecutive UN General Assemblies since 2004 to call on the UN Secretary–General to deliver greater assistance to survivor of the genocide. Most importantly, it will address the hope of survivors that their pain and loss will be acknowledged meaningfully through a reparation programme – as has been the case for survivors of the Holocaust, victims of apartheid in South Africa, and most recently for victims of Thomas Lubanga, the first war criminal convicted by the International Criminal Court.
This is a once-in-a-generation moment…. SURF is not leading the campaign for reparation single-handedly, but we are committed to support our partner organisations to do so. The first step will be commissioning a study to undertake research in Rwanda and make a recommendation on the form of reparation that will be agreeable to survivors and the Government of Rwanda. We hope that this will be undertaken in the coming months.
Once the reparation programme is established, the next step will be a call on the member states of the UN to honour its resolution to assist survivors in a form that that will recognise and realise the right of genocide survivors in Rwanda to reparation, demonstrate its commitment to continue to fight impunity, and in so doing make a vital contribution to reconciliation in Rwanda.
Reparation will not solve all the problems of survivors, but it will at least deliver a degree of restorative justice for survivors. That will be achieved by enabling survivors to rebuild their own lives, with a home, an education, healthcare, security. If reconciliation is truly possible, it will only be built on this foundation of justice. It is towards this end, that the work of SURF is now focused.
To conclude, the story of Rwanda is a remarkable one. How the country has rebuilt itself since the genocide is astounding. I wish not to detract from that, but recognise that we have a role to raise awareness of the side of the story that is not often told. To celebrate the incredible stories of triumph over adversity of those survivors that have rebuilt their lives, but also to ensure that we continue to remind the world of those survivors that have yet to do so, and advocate for the means to address their needs.
With the support of the British public, and donors including Comic Relief and the Big Lottery Fund, SURF has achieved remarkable things over the past fifteen years. For that we are eternally grateful, as I can assure you survivors are too. The challenge ahead is to ensure that we build on this foundation to deliver an even more secure and just future for survivors.