Rwanda 6 April 1994

Fifteen years ago today, I stood in our kitchen listening to the radio and heard that the presidents of both Rwanda and Burundi were killed in a plane crash. I banged my fists against the wall and screamed a curse. I knew this incident would unleash a bloodbath. Concerned citizens all over the world, who had been aware of the tensions between Hutus and Tutsis over the years, felt the same. Why were we unable to mobilise public opinion? Yes I telephoned individuals and organisations, consulted, raged, but I realised there was no structure to sustain the momentum of fear for the lives of the citizens of Rwanda.

And we know now that demonstrations in the capitals of the world, demarches to governments, avalanches of letters in the press might have moved nations to send troops to Kigali which might possibly prevented the Genocide. Yes, the sending of soldiers would have been criticised as colonial style intervention, and the defense of the intervention would have been feeble. We could only have said that we feared a wave of killings which warranted our action. But we would not have been able to prove our case with the facts on the ground, as the genocide itself would have been prevented. And that is the nature of Genocide. It can only be proven after the fact and even then, there is denial which sets in, even today.

Are we now more equipped morally and physically to act as a human family with a common destiny?

Yes. There is an International Criminal Court, there are tribunals that bring perpetrators from the Former Yugoslavia and Rwanda to justice. And perhaps that may hold back perpetrators of today and tomorrow who fear punishment. But what about us concerned citizens? Are we as powerless to help the hunted people in Darfur? We know the shameful answer.

And nevertheless I want to cite on this day of commemoration a few signs of hope. First of all in Rwanda itself, where through the enormous potential of the human spirit, reconciliation is being achieved all over the country and lessons are being taught to prevent future outbreaks of hatred and the violence it can inspire. The work of Radio la Benevolencija, in which I am involved, has successfully introduced radio soap operas, over the last few years, which teach about how hate based violence is engendered, how to counter it and which promotes reconciliation.

In other arenas, global partnerships are truly taking more concrete form. The latest initiative of Karen Armstrong to arrive at a Charter for Compassion, based on the core teachings of all spiritual traditions and other writings of conscience, points in this direction. I want to call on each and every one of us from these traditions to move fast and form this coalition of concern, to act in unison with responsibility. Our guiding prophets are the bereaved families on both sides of the demarcation lines in Rwanda, Northern Ireland, Israel and Palestine, Sri Lanka and a host of other places torn by hatred and violence. We must form an growing, increasing circle, a widening ripple of concern and conscience, who hold each other hands and work for peace.

I failed on that fateful day, but I must not fail again and again, we must not fail.

I commemorate the dead with a pledge to be an active partner in this emerging global coalition of compassion. Let us draw strength from each other.

To learn more about what you can do to be an active partner in the global coalition of compassion click here.

The Soetendorp Institute


Jacob Soetendorp Institute for Human Values
Van Wijngaerdenstraat 21
2596 TW The Hague
The Netherlands