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Rwandan president, Elie Wiesel discuss global genocides

Tamerra Griffin | 11/7/2013, 1:27 p.m.

Swaths of eager New York and tristate area residents formed a line that nearly wrapped around the entire perimeter of the island at the base of the Astor Place triangle on Sunday, Sept. 29. What they vied for was a space inside the Great Hall at Cooper Union to listen to a panel discussion between two of the most famous names in global genocide history, one credited with bringing an end to arguably the most rapidly escalating genocide, and one who survived the most infamous one: Rwandan President Paul Kagame and Nobel Prize winner Elie Wiesel. In a meeting that was symbolic of transcultural solidarity, the two prominent figures participated in an in-depth discussion about genocide and how people across the world can ensure that its history will not be repeated.

This historic dialogue was hosted by an organization called This World: The Values Network, which was established in an effort to push Jewish moral values to the forefront of mainstream media. Its executive director, Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, moderated the discussion, the theme of which was exploring the role of “strong nations” like the United States in efforts to end genocides.

In 1994, a civil war ignited between two major Rwandan ethnic groups, the Hutus and Tutsis, majority and minority groups, respectively. In 100 days, roughly 800,000 Rwandans were killed, primarily Tutsis, whom Hutu extremists were intent on completely destroying. While former President Bill Clinton was aware of the massive, brutal killings, he instructed the United States not to intervene, a decision that later dealt a swift blow to his reputation in international affairs. He has since publicly apologized, and although President Barack Obama and Kagame have forged a respectful relationship, the Rwandan president, himself a Tutsi, has not forgotten the facts of history.

When Boteach asked Kagame, who was directly involved in overturning the ruling Hutus who were responsible for the killings, if he felt anger toward the U.S., he said simply that while “issues of hypocrisy have been abundant from the inside out” concerning the Rwandan genocide, he learned that it was more productive to focus on how to uplift the country from the inside. In the 13 years of his presidency, he has championed numerous infrastructure and developmental projects, from enacting street cleaning to balancing gender representation in Parliament.

Not all in attendance were in full support of Kagame, however. A few minutes into the dialogue, a young man rose from his seat in the packed auditorium and rattled off evidence suggesting Kagame’s involvement with the M23, a violent rebel group from the Democratic Republic of the Congo. No sooner had he taken a pause for air had he been immediately surrounded by Kagame’s secret service and forced out of the room.

Kagame did not directly address speculation of the Rwandan army fighting alongside the M23, but instead gave context for the conflict.

“The problem has more to do with the failed state of the Congo,” he said, adding that the M23 had existed in the country longer than the 2012 date of their international record.

Wiesel, an author and philosopher, maintained throughout the discussion the importance of not internalizing hatred for others, regardless of the circumstances of oppression.

“Hate is too easy,” said Wiesel on the eve of his 85th birthday. “Hatred doesn’t stop; it spreads.”