Alison Des Forges: A Heroine for Human Rights

A diminutive, seemingly frail
woman, barely five feet tall, she was nonetheless a giant in the field
of human rights. At age 66, when most women are contemplating a quiet
retirement with their grandchildren, she maintained a torrid pace that
the 20-somethings in the office found difficult to sustain. Alison Des
Forges, who led Human Rights Watch's work in Rwanda and the Great Lakes
region of Africa for nearly 20 years, was killed in the plane crash in
Buffalo on February 12.

The loss is huge--for the people of Rwanda, her family, and me
personally. We worked closely together during our two shared decades at
Human Rights Watch. To cite just one example, I will never forget my
visit to Rwanda with her two years after the 1994 genocide, when the
wounds were still raw and tensions high. Hearing of a new massacre in a
remote part of the country, we dropped everything--typical for
Alison--and drove there to investigate what had happened. We found a
few survivors and interviewed them, but as we started to leave we
bumped into the military patrol that had probably committed the
massacre and was not eager for us to be snooping around. During a tense
two-hour standoff on a hilltop in the middle of nowhere, Alison calmly
and persistently negotiated our exit. Then, afraid that our captors
would change their mind or ambush us en route, we drove as fast as we
could on a two-hour ride back to the relative safety of the nearest
town. The episode was vintage Alison--determined to get at the truth,
deeply devoted to the Rwandan victims of atrocities, and seemingly
oblivious to her own well being.

In the prelude to the genocide, I watched Alison struggle to warn
the world of the rising ethnic tensions in Rwanda. When the killing
broke out and hundreds of thousands of Tutsis and moderate Hutus were
hacked, shot, and burned to death, Alison worked desperately--first to
explain to the uninformed who the Tutsi and Hutu even were, then to
convince the indifferent not to turn their backs on the slaughter.
Alison saw that the raging slaughter was not the latest manifestation
of "age-old hatreds" about which nothing could be done, as the
defenders of indifference maintained, but the product of a deliberate
scheme, embarked upon by a small group of ruthless leaders who could be
identified, pressured, and stopped.

Later, her 800-page chronicle of the genocide, "Leave None to Tell the Story,"
based on four years of field research, demonstrated how carefully the
genocidaires had tested the political waters before ratcheting up the
killing. Worried about jeopardizing the international aid on which
Rwanda depended, they at first allowed the genocide to unfold only
gradually, checking to see how the international community would react.
It barely did. The major powers, unwilling to risk another humanitarian
intervention in Africa so shortly after the Somalia debacle of 1992-93,
dithered. At the White House, Alison convinced then-National Security
Advisor Anthony Lake to issue a statement, which she largely wrote, but
sending the Marines was never in the cards. Lake blamed a lack of
popular pressure, as if the responsibility to stop mass murder required
no more than a glance at the latest polls.

When the killing finally stopped, not because of Western
intervention but because the rebel Rwandan Patriotic Front won the
civil war, Alison devoted herself to bringing the authors of these
atrocities to justice (although she was often just as passionate in her
defense of the wrongly accused). To note that she testified some dozen
times as an expert witness before the International Criminal Tribunal
for Rwanda is only to begin to acknowledge her role.

Prosecutors came and went, rarely willing to put in more than two
years in distant Arusha or Kigali, but Alison was always there,
patiently explaining to yet another green lawyer the complexities of
how the genocide unfolded. Never formally on the prosecutorial staff,
always simply offering her services as a member of the Human Rights
Watch staff, Alison became, in essence, the tribunal's chief
strategist--not just an expert witness on the stand but an
indispensable guide behind the scenes.

Alison's commitment to principle was most apparent in her efforts to
bring to justice not the genocidaires, who had few sympathizers, but
the leadership of the Rwandan Patriotic Front, who had morphed into the
current, internationally popular Rwandan government, led by President
Paul Kagame. To a world wracked by guilt at having done nothing to stop
the genocide, Kagame was a hero, the man whose brilliant military
strategy had ousted the genocidaires. Bill Clinton, whose indifference
to the genocide was the low point of his presidency, has often squired
Kagame to be feted at various conferences and conclaves, as if to make
amends. But Alison could not forget the 30,000 people murdered by
Kagame's RPF during and in the immediate aftermath of the genocide.
That toll is in no way equivalent to the estimated 800,000 genocide
victims, as Kagame's apologists are quick to note, but it is no small
number, either, and should not be ignored. To do so, Alison pointed
out, looks like selective victor's justice, not a tribunal dedicated to
the even-handed application of the law.

The very week of her death, Alison was corresponding with Hassan
Jallow, the chief prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunal
for Rwanda, about the importance of not ignoring the RPF crimes. The
prosecutor had understandably held those crimes to the end, knowing
that their pursuit would mark the end of the Rwandan government's
cooperation with the tribunal. Now, however, with the tribunal's
mandate nearing its end, Jallow still has not issued a single
indictment for RPF crimes. I joined Alison in pressing him to pursue
these cases, but whether he has the courage to take on the supposedly
"new African leader" Kagame remains to be seen.

Alison's principled insistence on justice for all, on following the
facts wherever they lead, on using her integrity and careful research
to defend rights, made her countless friends in Rwanda but incurred the
wrath of Kagame and his cohorts. In the last few months, as the public
debate about prosecuting the RPF crimes was coming to a head, the
Rwandan government twice denied Alison entrance to the country she
loved. The move was a backhanded tribute to her effectiveness, and an
implicit concession of how much Kagame has to hide.

For a woman who seemed to live on planes, it was sadly ironic that
she died on one. She was heading home to see her husband Roger, whose
patience with her peripatetic existence and support for her endless
work should qualify him for sainthood. Alison was returning from
Europe, where she had been pressing governments to respond to the
latest crisis in Central Africa, this time in eastern Congo, where two
separate conflicts are taking a renewed civilian toll. Alison was
seeking a stronger UN peacekeeping presence, a force not simply asked
to protect civilians but actually equipped to do so. Europe had the
troops at hand--it had even set up two "battle groups" precisely for
this purpose--but when it came time to deploy them, European leaders
could find only excuses for inaction.

My inbox has been flooded with expressions of disbelief and
despondency from Alison's admirers around the world. The human rights
movement has lost one of its true heroes. But we are far stronger for
the many years she spent among us and for the example she set for us
all--of passion, persistence, honesty, and principle. She will always
be a role model, for me and so many others around the world.


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