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2009-02-16

Human Rights Investigator and Rwandan Expert Alison Des Forges Dies in New York Plane Crash

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Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board say Continental Flight 3407 was on autopilot before it crashed in icy weather near Buffalo, New York on Thursday. Among those who died was Alison Des Forges, one of the world’s foremost experts on Rwanda. In May of 1994, a few weeks into the killings of Tutsis in Rwanda, she was among the first voices calling for the killings to be declared a genocide. In 1999, she wrote what is considered an authoritative account of the Rwandan genocide called Leave None to Tell the Story: Genocide in Rwanda. We speak to Kenneth Roth of Human Rights Watch. [includes rush transcript]

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: Investigators from the National Transportation Safety Board say Continental Flight 3407 was on autopilot before it crashed in icy weather near Buffalo, New York Thursday. Officials say the flight from Newark Airport dropped 800 feet in just five seconds before crashing into a house. All forty-nine people on board and one person in the house were killed.

Among those who died was 9/11 widow Beverly Eckert. She was a member of September 11th Families for Peaceful Tomorrows. Also on that plane, Alison Des Forges, one of the world’s foremost experts on Rwanda. She was sixty-six years old. Dr. Des Forges was a historian of Rwanda, a human rights investigator, a senior adviser at Human Rights Watch, a recipient of the MacArthur Foundation Genius Grant, and an expert adviser to the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda.

In May of 1994, a few weeks into the killings of Tutsis in Rwanda, she was among the first voices calling for the killings to be declared a genocide. In 1999, she wrote what is considered an authoritative account of the Rwandan genocide called Leave None to Tell the Story: Genocide in Rwanda.

This next clip from Human Rights Watch is of Alison Des Forges. She was speaking in 2004.

    ALISON DES FORGES: Why didn’t the world react? That is a question that’s almost as difficult to answer as why did Rwandans engage in the killing, because the evidence was so clear. The argument that people didn’t know, particularly at the highest levels of governments, that as Clinton told the Rwandans, you know, “Your voices didn’t penetrate into my office,” that’s not true. They knew. We know now from intelligence records just how much they knew, that within hours they were aware that the killing was being done on an ethnic basis, systematically, that there were lists, that the killers were going through the capital city choosing out people from certain households and executing them. They knew this.

    People had the impression that this was tribal warfare, that this was a repeat of something that had gone on forever, for centuries. And none of that was true. What was true was that this was a genocide fully as modern as the Holocaust, in the sense that it was state-organized and state-driven. At least half-a-million people were killed, and they were killed in a hundred days. Does it have to be 800,000? Does it have to be a million to cross the threshold of a horror? Isn’t half a million enough?

AMY GOODMAN: Alison Des Forges on the occasion of the tenth anniversary of the Rwandan genocide. She later became very critical of the Tutsi-led Rwandan government headed by Paul Kagame and its role in the mass killings in both Rwanda and neighboring Congo after 1994. Last year, she was barred from entering Rwanda.

Last Thursday, Alison Des Forges was returning to her home in Buffalo after briefing European diplomats on the situation in Rwanda, Uganda and the Democratic Republic of Congo, when her plane crashed.

I’m joined right now in the firehouse studio by Kenneth Roth, the executive director of Human Rights Watch, who knew Alison Des Forges for almost two decades.

We welcome you to Democracy Now!

KENNETH ROTH: Thank you, Amy.

AMY GOODMAN: And condolences on the loss of Alison. When did you first meet her?

KENNETH ROTH: I really have known her for nearly twenty years. She was one of the founding members of the advisory committee that we set up when we launched what at the time was Africa Watch but became the Africa division of Human Rights Watch. And she started off as a volunteer, very quickly was working full-time for us covering Rwanda. And at some stage, I actually had to insist that she take a salary, because it was ridiculous that she was devoting all of her time to this work and wasn’t being paid a cent.

So I’ve worked with her very closely during the genocide, afterwards trying to seek justice for the genocide, trying to make sure that the crimes of Paul Kagame are not forgotten, as you mentioned. And, you know, up until the end — I mean, this was not a young woman. She was sixty-six years old, you know, barely five feet tall, but she was working like a twenty-year-old and really was a giant in the field whom we’re really going to miss, all of us.

AMY GOODMAN: You also went with her to Rwanda.

KENNETH ROTH: Yes.

AMY GOODMAN: When?

KENNETH ROTH: I was there with her just two years after the genocide. And it was a very typical Alison experience, because we had heard of a massacre in a very remote area of Rwanda. This was a period when there were still quite serious tensions in the country and you still found political killings. So we hopped in a jeep and just drove out there and ended up finding a few survivors of the massacre and interviewing them in the middle of nowhere.

And then, as we were leaving, as night was falling, we bumped into the military patrol that probably was responsible for the slaughter, and they were not happy that we were there. And we proceeded to have a tense two-hour standoff with them on this hill, with Alison basically negotiating our exit. And ultimately, we got out and drove very, very quickly back to the nearest town. But it was a scary situation, but it illustrated Alison. She was fearless, she was willing to drop everything to try to protect people, and she was incredibly committed to this work.

AMY GOODMAN: She was warning before the killings began.

KENNETH ROTH: Yes, you know, in fact, she led an international commission that Human Rights Watch set up, which highlighted the ethnic tensions that the increasing tendency toward violence in the months before the genocide. So she really, I think, was the first to sound the alarm.

Once the genocide broke out, I was working very closely with her, and it was frustrating, because, first of all, no one even knew who the Tutsi and the Hutu were. There was some very basic education that had to be done at even the leading newspapers of the world. But second, as Alison just mentioned in that clip that you showed, there was this easy explanation that people offered for doing nothing, and that was that the killing was the product of age-old animosities, that this had been going on forever and there’s nothing you can do. But in fact it had not been going on forever. This was a very deliberate plan organized by a group of people that could be identified, pressured and stopped.

And indeed, Alison’s 800-page account of the genocide, perhaps the most important conclusion of it, is that with very little effort, the international community could have halted the genocide. But it was the cowardice of the Clinton administration, in particular, that didn’t want another African venture after the disaster in Somalia a couple of years earlier, that just closed its eyes to the slaughter of what was about 800,000 people.

AMY GOODMAN: She was very critical of President Clinton, even when he, what, landed on the tarmac in Rwanda, said “sorry”?

KENNETH ROTH: Yeah. Well, he said, "Sorry. If only I had known." And that is the least credible excuse I’ve ever heard. He knew exactly what was going on. Indeed, Alison was in the White House briefing Anthony Lake at the time, who was the National Security Adviser. They knew exactly what was happening, but they simply didn’t want to risk the political capital that would be involved in sending the Marines into Africa yet again, when they had had such a terrible experience in Somalia.

But Somalia at that stage was chaotic. Rwanda was interesting, because it’s such an organized state, and it is very aid-dependent. And one thing that Alison found was that even the perpetrators of the genocide were extremely worried about what the consequence of this killing would be for the international assistance coming to Rwanda. So they were testing the waters. And when they found that there was no reaction, they proceeded with the genocide. But it would have taken so little to stop the genocide, but even that little bit didn’t come out of Washington or other European capitals.

AMY GOODMAN: One of the things that was remarkable to watch at that time and to listen to was the State Department, was the Clinton administration not wanting to invoke that word "genocide."

KENNETH ROTH: Right.

AMY GOODMAN: How did they talk about it?

KENNETH ROTH: Well, the “g” word has legal consequences, because under the international treaty banning genocide, there is a duty to suppress it. And so, the Bush administration — or the Clinton administration feared that if they said "genocide," they would be obliged to act. So they ended up resorting to, you know, “acts of genocide” or sometimes just using the formulation, you know, “ethnic slaughter” or “age-old ethnic animosities,” anything that would avoid what they saw as a legal obligation to act. But the words didn’t matter; the legal obligation was there, and they simply flouted it. They did nothing.

AMY GOODMAN: And so, the lessons that Alison took from that — of course, it doesn’t just happen over a ten-day period, and it’s over. And now we see what has happened in eastern Congo, which is actually what Alison Des Forges was focusing on now, is that right? And Human Rights Watch just today has released a report.

KENNETH ROTH: Yeah. Well, interesting — I mean, Alison, the last thing she was doing was really helping us prepare the report that was released today, which highlights a particular aspect of the conflict in eastern Congo involving the so-called Lord’s Resistance Army. And there actually are two parallel conflicts, one involving Rwanda very directly, the other more Uganda-oriented. But Alison was deeply involved in all of this work.

And I think one real attribute of her was how principled she was, because even though she was the foremost chronicler of the genocide, even though she served as an expert witness some dozen times before the international tribunal set up to try the genocidaires, she, at the same time, as a matter of principle, did not want people to forget the crimes committed by what at the time was called the Rwanda Patriotic Front, the rebel group combating the genocidaires, which then evolved into the current Rwandan government led by Paul Kagame. That group murdered some 30,000 people during and in the immediate aftermath of the genocide. It then was responsible for a massive slaughter in eastern Congo. And Alison didn’t want those crimes forgotten. She was pressing the Rwandan international prosecutor to this day to pursue these cases. And I think it’s that action on Alison’s part that led Paul Kagame to try to block Alison from entering the country over the last six months.

AMY GOODMAN: Now, Paul Kagame does get a lot of support from the United States. Is that right?

KENNETH ROTH: Yes. I mean, I’ve been to conferences where Bill Clinton is squiring Paul Kagame around, and you can just see the guilt playing out. You know, Clinton did nothing to stop the genocide, so the least he can do is to usher around the president whose military force at the time was responsible for ending the genocide. But it makes me sick to see this, because Clinton again is, you know, deliberately oblivious to the blood on Kagame’s hands. And even though Kagame is widely admired as a good administrator — he’s helped build up the country economically — this is a man who has presided over forces that committed mass murder, and he should be held to account.

AMY GOODMAN: Explain where that mass murder was committed and how it extends into the eastern Congo now.

KENNETH ROTH: Well, the part that potentially could be prosecuted by the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda involves some 30,000 people who were killed in Rwanda during the genocide and in the immediate aftermath, not by the genocidaires but by Paul Kagame’s forces. Then, in chasing the organizers of the genocide into eastern Congo, at the time what was called Zaire, that action led to far more bloodshed. And indeed, Human Rights Watch has documented murder by Rwandan forces as far away as Kisangani, which is a — at the time a Zairian town that was, you know, hundreds of kilometers away from Kigali.

But this is — Paul Kagame is a man who has not — has not stopped at mass murder when he saw it serving his political purposes. And it is sickening to see how closely Washington, London and other European capitals still hold him, I think largely out of guilt at having done nothing to stop the genocide, but oblivious to the principles that Alison Des Forges stood for, that no one should get away with these kind of atrocities, regardless of what they might have done with their lives.

AMY GOODMAN: And now Rwanda taking Nkunda, who was an ally of Kagame, and now saying that he is the enemy.

KENNETH ROTH: Well, there was a rebel force, a Tutsi-led rebel force, in eastern Congo that had been led by Laurent Nkunda. And a couple months ago, it was threatening Goma, the principal town in eastern Congo, with again the possibility of massive bloodshed. Alison was very involved in putting pressure on Paul Kagame to rein in this force, and indeed he ultimately did succumb, arrested Laurent Nkunda and has now arranged a sort of alliance with the Congolese government to allow the successor of this force to proceed against the Hutu militia who remain in eastern Congo.

The problem is that the successor, a guy by the name of Bosco Ntaganda, is himself an indicted war criminal, indicted by the International Criminal Court. And so, once more, you see sort of a compromise of convenience, ignoring justice for mass atrocities in the name of getting something done. And this, too, was something that Alison was working to reverse at the time of her death.

AMY GOODMAN: The UN has authorized a force, a UN force, to go in, but they haven’t gone.

KENNETH ROTH: Well, in eastern Congo today, there is a peacekeeping force of 17,000 called MONUC, which is actually the largest peacekeeping force on the planet today but is inadequate to the task, because it is such a vast area that it must cover. And so, at the urging of Alison and others, the Security Council recently authorized the deployment of 3,000 more, but ideally 3,000 well-equipped rapid reaction troops who could actually protect civilians rather than simply watch them be killed, as seems to have been the case so far. That force has been authorized, but not deployed.

And indeed, what Alison was visiting European capitals for just before her death was to try to convince them to deploy particularly so-called European battle groups. These are forces that are precisely created for this purpose, but that the Europeans are refusing to deploy, because they just don’t want to get involved in eastern Congo. So the end result is, you know, whether it’s the conflict involving Laurent Nkunda’s former troops or the Lord’s Resistance Army, the two parallel conflicts taking place in eastern Congo, in each case, the main victims are civilians, and the international community has troops there but is not doing what it takes to save these civilians.

AMY GOODMAN: When was the last time you spoke to Alison Des Forges, or folks at Human Rights Watch, on what she was wanting right now from her trips and her conversations with the European delegates?

KENNETH ROTH: Yeah. Well, I was talking with Alison just in the week before her death, and we were, on the one hand —-

AMY GOODMAN: She was emailing a report, right, from the airport, before she got on that flight?

KENNETH ROTH: She was always working. I mean, she was incredible. And she was so dedicated to the people of Rwanda and the people of Central Africa. But just in the last week, she was concerned about some people in the United States who were being unfairly accused of having been participants in the genocide, and NBC was doing a documentary that seemed to have been exploited by the Rwandan government to pursue these people unfairly. She was also in contact with Hassan Jallow, the chief prosecutor for the International Rwanda Tribunal, trying to convince him to go after Paul Kagame’s crimes before his tribunal shuts down. So she had, you know, a number of things in the work besides trying to protect the people of eastern Congo.

AMY GOODMAN: She tried to get into Rwanda twice and was denied?

KENNETH ROTH: Yes. I mean, she had been going to Rwanda, you know, forever. And, in fact, Human Rights Watch has an office in Kigali. But beginning in September, when she would show up at the border, inexplicably she would be barred. And I remember calling the chief immigration officer and asking what was going on, and I would get, you know, bureaucratic mumble jumble.

But clearly, what was happening was that Paul Kagame, the Rwandan president, saw that the endgame was coming with the Rwanda tribunal, that it was going to be over the next several months that his fate was going to be determined and those of his allies within the former Rwanda Patriotic Front, and he knew that the principal proponent of justice for those crimes was Alison Des Forges. And his pathetic effort at retaliation was to bar her from the country that she loved.

AMY GOODMAN: Ken, you were just in Washington around -— talking about issues like state secrets. What is this latest on the Obama administration twice invoking the state secrets privilege over the past two weeks, most recently in a closely watched spy case weighing whether a US president can bypass Congress and establish a program of eavesdropping on Americans without warrant?

KENNETH ROTH: Yeah. I mean, this was a huge disappointment. Clearly, President Obama has begun to change a number of the disturbing aspects of the Bush administration’s counterterrorism policy, whether it’s, you know, insisting on a single interrogation standard for the whole US government and basically taking the CIA out of the torture business or vowing to close Guantanamo. But there are some parts that either they haven’t focused on yet or they’ve made the wrong decision.

And one of them is the one, Amy, that you mention, which is they seem to be continuing the Bush administration’s policy of relying on the doctrine of state secrets to cover up inquiries by civil litigants into what went wrong with the Bush administration’s policies, whether that’s snooping on Americans or torturing suspects. But the Bush administration regularly used the claim of state secrets in order to basically block these sort of civil litigation efforts. And unfortunately, President Obama’s administration seems to be continuing that practice. We don’t know whether this is just, you know, continuing on autopilot or whether there’s a deliberate decision that has been made. But it’s been a big disappointment.

AMY GOODMAN: What else are you demanding now of the Obama administration?

KENNETH ROTH: Well, I was just in Washington talking in particular about the question of how do you close Guantanamo, because the President has vowed to do so. He’s begun a review of the cases there. And Human Rights Watch and others have been pushing him to adopt a policy of either prosecute or release. Clearly, many people there are there by mistake or are small fish and should just be released. Some of them are serious criminals, and they should be prosecuted in regular courts, not these substandard military commissions.

The problem is that there are some in Washington who are pushing a third option. They want President Obama to continue having the possibility of detaining people without criminal charge or trial. And in our view, that would simply be continuing Guantanamo. It may be moved to, you know, Fort Leavenworth, Kansas or Florence, Colorado, but it would be the same thing by a different name. And so, we’re urging the President to resist that, to adopt a clean policy of prosecute or release. But he’s not there yet. I think he’s leaning in that direction, but there’s pressure coming in from the other direction, and we’re trying to resist that pressure.

AMY GOODMAN: And what are you doing on Israel and the Occupied Territories, with the latest assault on Gaza?

KENNETH ROTH: Yeah. Well, Human Rights Watch was barred from Gaza during the war, as was most anybody else, but we did have observers just on the outside, who, for example, broke the story about Israel’s use of white phosphorus, and they broke the story about Israel’s use of these high-explosive artillery shells, which basically can injure people within a 300-meter radius, an utterly inappropriate weapon to use in heavily populated areas such as Gaza.

Right now, we have four people on the ground, and we are closely looking at how the war was conducted. And we’re looking, you know, obviously at the claims that Hamas was shielding or hiding among civilians, but we’re also looking at the allegations that Israel was using extraordinarily excessive force, that it was firing indiscriminately, and that its claims to care deeply about protecting Gazan civilians were simply not true. We will be issuing a series of reports over the next few weeks with our conclusions, but this is a very deep preoccupation of ours at this stage.

AMY GOODMAN: I wanted to read you an excerpt of a piece by Mouin Rabbani, who’s been very critical of Human Rights Watch in dealing with Israel and Gaza. This is just two paragraphs from what he has said. He said, "The Middle East has always been a difficult challenge for Western human rights organizations, particularly those seeking influence or funding in the United States. The pressure to go soft on US allies is in some respects reminiscent of Washington’s special pleading for Latin American terror regimes in the 1970s and 1980s. In the case of Israel such organizations [also] face a powerful and influential domestic constituency, which often extends to senior echelons of such organizations, for whom forthright condemnation of Israel is anathema.”

And then he writes, “In the years since 2000, [HRW] pursued a consistent — and consistently effective — formula: criticize Israel, but condemn the Palestinians. Challenge the legality of an Israeli aerial bombardment, preferably in polite, technical terms, and vociferously denounce the Palestinian suicide bomber in unambiguous language — especially when raising questions about the latest Israeli atrocity. In [HRW] publications, explicit condemnations and accusations of war crimes were almost wholly monopolized by Palestinians. With Israeli citizenship a seeming precondition for the right to self-defense, the right to resist was for all intents and purposes non-existent.”

That was a piece from Mouin Rabbani. Your response, Kenneth Roth?

KENNETH ROTH: Well, Amy, he obviously gets into a number of things there, but let me make three quick points. I mean, first of all, his claim about, you know, pressure from US funders is just pure fiction. I mean, Human Rights Watch, in the last four or five years, when we’ve, I think, been most criticized for our work about Israel, where we’ve been, you know, denouncing war crimes by Israel, we’ve doubled in size. It has had zero impact on our funding. And we’ve been very fortunate in that we have attracted a group of funders who believe in the principles that we uphold and understand you can’t have principles for the rest of the world and not apply them to Israel. So we’ve built an organization that can survive that kind of criticism and has very well. Thank you very much.

And second, we don’t hesitate at all to call Israeli actions war crimes when they are. I mean, it’s obviously easier to denounce as a war crime, say, Hamas’s efforts to shoot rockets into civilian areas. That’s, you know, blatantly obvious. It doesn’t take a huge investigation to figure that one out. Israel, it does take more of an investigation. If they are firing into a civilian area, you need to figure out what were they shooting at, could they have hit it deliberately, were they using the right weaponry. Yes, these are more complicated investigations. But if you look, for example, at the investigation that Human Rights Watch did in southern Lebanon, we were very capable of deeply criticizing Israel and calling things war crimes when they were. We have a long history of that.

So these sorts of criticisms — I mean, frankly, we get them from both sides. You know, the people who reflexively support Israel regardless say that we must be biased against Israel, and we hear that all the time. People like Mr. Rabbani, who, you know, think we can never do enough, want to criticize us from the other perspective.

Final point, he says that we don’t uphold the right to resist. And that again — I don’t even know where he’s coming from there. Human Rights Watch never takes a position on why a war is fought, regardless of the side. We look at only how a war is fought. We apply the Geneva Conventions, and we say, you know, whatever your cause is, whether it’s suppressing terrorism or fighting for an end to occupation, that’s your business. Our business is to look at how you fight and, as objectively and carefully as possible, to hold both sides to the requirements of the Geneva Conventions. That’s what we do, day in and day out.

AMY GOODMAN: One of the things I’ve been — that — on Democracy Now! we’ve been broadcasting the voices of Israeli Jews who have been fiercely critical. Just a few days ago, we had Avraham Burg here, who was the former speaker of the Israeli Knesset, a former Labor Party leader, who was fierce in his criticism. Avi Shlaim, the Oxford University professor, former Israeli soldier, who has been fierce in his criticism. Neve Gordon, the professor of political science at Ben-Gurion University, whose family was under the gun, the Hamas rockets in the Negev — they were in a bomb shelter — was debating Lanny Davis of the Israel Project, and here he was, afraid for his family, but they were marching in the Tel Aviv peace protest, and they were saying that this assault is unacceptable. This latest assault, did it shock Human Rights Watch?

KENNETH ROTH: What was shocking to me was just the magnitude of the destruction that Israel seemingly deliberately tried to impose on the Gazan people. You know, maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised, because if you look at the blockade over the last year or so, this was designed to destroy the Gazan economy. You know, this was far more than Israel’s legitimate interest in keeping arms out of Gaza. This was an effort to simply squeeze Gaza. They didn’t want people starving, because they knew that that would lead to outrage, so basic levels of humanitarian assistance went in. But other than that, there was no commerce allowed. And the economy ground — just basically ground to a halt. And that was a form of collective punishment that Human Rights Watch has repeatedly criticized. I guess, in that light, it’s not surprising that once formal armed conflict breaks out, there also seemed to be an effort to force the people of Gaza to suffer, because we’ve seen already that Israel didn’t simply target Hamas militants. It had targeted a number of symbols of Hamas, political symbols, police stations, the parliament building. And, you know, Israel has said, “Oh, well, we were just attacking anything that indirectly supported Hamas.” But by that theory, Hamas would be entitled to, you know, attack post offices within Israel or attack the Knesset, because these might provide some kind of indirect support to the Israel Defense Forces. I mean, this is the wrong standard. International law is clear that unless something is directly supporting a military effort, it is inappropriately ever to target it. And Israel seemed to breach that basic requirement time and time again.

AMY GOODMAN: Kenneth Roth, I want to thank you for being with us, executive director of Human Rights Watch. We’ll go out of this segment with the words of Alison Des Forges, who died last Thursday night in the Continental plane crash near Buffalo, New York.

    ALISON DES FORGES: The legacy of the Rwandan genocide, it’s as if you took a picture of a family and ripped it down the middle and then tried to fit the halves back together again. Even with the best glue in the world, it’s never going to be the same. People betrayed their deepest values in order to kill, in order to rape, in order to pillage their friends and neighbors and their own family members. Whether you look at it from the point of view of the victim or the point of view of the perpetrator, these are not things that can ever be forgotten.

    Justice is not going to erase the memory of the crimes, but it will provide people with some level of closure. At least they’ll know it has been dealt with, it has been talked about, someone has been held responsible, and perhaps even, ideally, the victim has received some form of compensation. So this is very important. It’s very important that the truth be known, that the people who were killed be remembered, and that their killers be acknowledged.

AMY GOODMAN: Alison Des Forges was the investigator for Human Rights Watch of the Rwanda genocide, moved onto eastern Congo, and died last night [sic.] coming home to Buffalo, New York on the Continental flight that crashed into a house just outside Buffalo.

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