Ideas·CBC Massey Lectures

'Justice cannot bring back the dead': Payam Akhavan recalls Rwanda horrors

In his third Massey Lecture, Payam Akhavan revisits the genocide in Rwanda, talks about the work he did there, and what can be done to prevent such abuses from happening again.

'It was unfolding in plain sight, and the world watched on television, and did nothing'

In his third Massey Lecture, Payam Akhavan revisits the genocide in Rwanda, talks about the work he did there, and what can be done to prevent such abuses from happening again. (CBC)

CBC Massey Lecture 3: The Will to Intervene

Estimates vary but somewhere between 800,000 and one million people were killed in Rwanda in just 100 days back in 1994.

Most were Tutsis, massacred by Hutus, who were often their neighbours. And Payam Akhavan, human rights lawyer, McGill prof and this year's Massey Lecturer, was stunned that there was no will to intervene.

"It was a Holocaust in the making, but not one concealed behind the walls of concentration camps," he said. "It was unfolding in plain sight, and the world watched on television, and did nothing."

"Rwanda did not need to happen.": Payam Akhavan on RTLM's role in spreading the hatred, and preparing the stage for genocide 1:48

Akhavan did something, though.

In 1995, a year after the killings, he travelled there to help set up the newly established International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR). The tribunal hoped to bring criminals to justice, which can be a daunting task, something Akhavan explained in his lecture about Bosnia.

According to the ICTR, the tribunal indicted 93 individuals, 62 of whom were sentenced.

Anatole Nsegiyumva, left, and Theoneste Bagosora, right, appear before the court of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda in Arusha, Tanzania in December 2008. Bagosora, the main organizer behind the 1994 slaughter in Rwanda, was convicted of genocide and sentenced to life in prison. Nsegiyumva was also found guilty of genocide and sentenced to life in prison. (Sukhdev Chhatbar/Associated Press)

"The problem isn't that radical evil is unstoppable. The problem is that we usually don't really care about hatred and violence unless it affects us directly," Akhavan explains in his third lecture.

"Rwanda taught me that there is nothing inevitable about radical evil. Radical evil is a political construction. It's a political choice. It is predictable and is therefore preventable."

Key dates in Rwandan genocide, aftermath

  • April 6 1994, evening: Rwandan president Juvenal Habyarimana's plane is shot down. He is killed in the crash, which was blamed on Tutsis.
  • April-July 1994: Between 800,000 and one million people are killed, mostly Tutsis. Akhavan called it "a rate of mass murder far more efficient than the Nazi concentration camps."
  • July 19 1994: After victories from the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front, the genocide ends.
A Rwandan soldier looks at hundreds of skulls displayed at the Bisesero memorial in western Rwanda in 1999. (Jean-Marc Bouju/Associated Press)
  • 1995: Opening of the ICTR in Arusha, Tanzania, with offices in Kigali, Rwanda.
  • July 9 1997: First ICTR trial begins, against Jean‑Paul Akayesu. Akayesu was mayor of Taba, Rwanda, where many Tutsis were killed.
  • December 31 2015: Closure of the ICTR.

Key quotes in Akhavan's third lecture

  • "The dehumanization of others is always a precondition for their destruction. We cannot harm those for whom we have empathy. The killer, the torturer, must first convince himself that his cruelty is in the name of a greater good, a glorious act of cleansing and purification. The demonization of others is less about the reality of the victim, and more about the needs of the perpetrator; it is often no more than a projection of his own fragile self-image. As Jean-Paul Sartre famously said: "If the Jew did not exist, the anti-Semite would invent him."
Akhavan spends the bulk of his third Massey Lecture talking about the 1994 genocide in Rwanda and its aftermath. (Sinisa Jolic/CBC)
  • "Extreme violence is impossible without hate propaganda. Such hatred though is instrumental, not impulsive. We may feel deep-seated resentment towards others, but the transformation of such impulses into an instrument of systemic violence, far from being a spontaneous crime of passion, requires careful premeditation and planning."
(Sinisa Jolic/CBC)

​Payam Akhavan's CBC Massey Lectures will be rebroadcast in August 2018.

The lectures are also published in book form by House of Anansi.


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.