From Genocide to Reconciliation, Lessons from Rwanda

image of child's face with the Rwandan flag painted on.

Earlier this year, Rwandan President Paul Kagame spoke to the U.S. National Prayer Breakfast gathering (click to read) and attempted to answer a simple question: after a country loses a million people in a genocide, how do you repair that country? How can you break the cycle of violence, heal the psychological wounds created by a seemingly intractable conflict, and shift to reconciliation?

President Kagame suggested that Rwanda’s experience portends more than a story, “It is also a warning. A warning about what happens when we allow hatred to triumph over humanity”.

Why Rwanda?

So what can a small nation lying in the middle of the African continent have to teach the rest of the world about hatred, violent conflict, and, ultimately, reconciliation? What hope rises from the ashes of one of the bloodiest massacres of the 20th century? And why should those in the Western world not look away from this painful chapter in human history, rationalizing that this could never happen somewhere to them?

This week marks a week-long commemoration of the 30th anniversary of the 1994 Rwandan genocide. In April of that year, the armed Hutus tore apart their country, targeting the Tutsi minority and others who stood in their way. Neighbor turned on neighbor, and by the end of the 100-day killing spree, close to a million people had been murdered.

In the words of President Kagame, when the violence was stopped, “almost every Rwandan was displaced and bereaved. All public institutions had been destroyed. The harvest was ruined and there was no money to rebuild”.

Peaceful solutions to conflicts

In 2017, when we first visited Kigali, Rwanda’s capital, we made it a point to visit the Kigali Genocide Memorial when our host told us that one can’t truly appreciate where Kigali is today without first understanding its past, meaning a past defined by the genocide. It is said that more than 250,000 human remains are buried in the vicinity of the Genocide Memorial. Touring the memorial included the most vivid reminders of man’s inhumanity to man. Like most others, I left that experience deeply moved by the disturbing images of brutality and even more committed to bringing the lessons of mediation to a country hungry in its search for peaceful solutions to conflict.

We have returned to Kigali many times since that first visit. And over the ensuing years, Edwards Mediation Academy has worked with others to bring mediation to Rwanda and, with it, systemic change to the court system and government institutions and the implementation of restorative justice programs. We have worked with Chief Justice Emeritus, Prof. Sam Rugege, and the current Chief Justice, The Honorable Faustin Ntezilyayo. With the leadership of Weinstein International Fellows Bernadette Uwicyeza, Harrison Mutabazi, and Anastase Nahabire, we have trained almost one thousand judges, attorneys, business leaders, and NGO, and government officials. We have partnered with the Kigali Bar Association, the Rwanda Bankers Association, and community leaders to bring mediation skills to the forefront for use in court-annexed mediation programs, community programs, and everyday conflict. It is but one small chapter in Rwanda’s larger story of success.

Image of Rwandans dancing and singing in celebration

Using dialogue and reconciliation to repair the social fabric

We must not forget the lessons

The more important story, the story that the world needs to hear on this commemorative anniversary, is what happens when leaders seek to divide us rather than search for collaboration and nonviolent solutions to conflict.

Again, in the words of President Kagame, “We have turned the corner in Rwanda, but the same ideology that justified the genocide against the Tutsi is still alive and well in our region. And we see the same indifference from the wider world as in 1994. It is as if those expensive lessons are always lost, and we stare blindly as the same type of situation builds up again”.

Unfortunately, the lessons today are all too familiar. Whether we are confronted with wars in Ukraine, the Middle East, Myanmar, Sudan, or other regions of increasing violence and conflict, the answer to violence isn’t continued violence; it is an urgent need to stop the violence and search instead for dialogue and reconciliation.

Outside of Kigali lies a small village, one of many surrounding the capital. During one visit to a local community center and its showcase project of teaching forgiveness to community members, we sat in awe as we listened to the story of two neighbors; one, the perpetrator of violence having murdered his neighbor’s family, and the other, the sole survivor of that murderous rampage. In their quest for reconciliation, the victims of violence were asked for the greater good, to swallow their anger and bitterness, and give the one thing they had left to give: forgiveness. The perpetrator had professed profound regret, expressed sincere apology, and served time for his crimes before seeking to reenter his community.

These two Rwandans had found it within themselves to embrace forgiveness. They stood before us as a living testimonial to the potential of the human spirit and a stark reminder of what can happen when leaders seek to divide rather than unite communities.

The need to pursue dialogue over divides

As we head into election season in 2024, whether the European Parliament elections in June, the U.S. presidential election in November, or any of the other 64 nations holding elections this year, we would do well to remember the lessons of Rwanda.

Again, the words of President Kagame: ‘Healthy nations are those where we always strive to put the politics of unity and peace above all else, no matter how many times we fall short of that ideal. It is the practice of reconciliation, in matters large and small, which creates and recreates healthy nations and turns strangers and enemies into a family of citizens.”

Why Rwanda? The unimaginable cost paid by this small nation stands as a warning of what can happen when divisiveness, hatred, and polarization become the norm. Today, in a sign of national unity, Rwandan ID cards don’t label citizens as Hutu or Tutsi, but simply as Rwandans.

We all need to recommit to the constant work required to pursue dialogue over divides and find ways to connect with those holding different views. Only then will we be able to restore faith in our future and pass along a legacy of tolerance and acceptance to our children. This is the lesson of Rwanda. This is why, during this commemorative week, we are all Rwandans.

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Bruce A. Edwards is an ADR industry pioneer and recent chairman of the board of directors of JAMS, this country’s largest private provider of ADR services. Along with his wife, Susan Franson Edwards, Mr. Edwards cofounded Edwards Mediation Academy, an online education platform dedicated to improving the skills of mediators around the world.

Bruce A. Edwards

Bruce is one of the pioneers in developing mediation to resolve commercial disputes in the United States. He has been a professional mediator since 1986 and has mediated over 8000 disputes. Bruce was a co-founder and former chairman of the board of directors of JAMS. In 2023 he joined Signature Resolution to continue his mediation practice while pursuing his passion for delivering high-quality mediation training through Edwards Mediation AcademyBruce has consistently received recognition for his work as a mediator, most recently being accepted into the inaugural edition of Who’s Who in ADR by ADR Times 2022; once again recognized as a Best Lawyer in the ADR category by Best Lawyers® 2022 and recognized as a Global Elite Thought Leader and Mediator in the US by Who’s Who Legal, 2023.