THE BLOG
04/08/2014 12:01 pm ET | Updated Jun 08, 2014

20 Years After Genocide in Rwanda, Violence Against the Global Poor Still a Reality

SIMON MAINA via Getty Images

Twenty years ago this week, an entire nation in Africa quietly slipped off the edge of civilization and into the abyss of mass murder -- and did so without most of us paying the slightest attention. Like a silent tsunami suddenly rising with terror from the sea, Rwanda was engulfed by a tidal wave of genocidal violence in April of 1994. And as Tutsi children, men and women begged the génocidaires for mercy, and pleaded for the world to take notice, they got neither.

As we now turn toward somber remembrances befitting the 20th anniversary of this tragedy, I find myself returning to my own experiences in the shadow of the genocide -- and to an urgent, hidden crisis of mass violence playing out with deadly silence today.

Immediately after the genocide in 1994, I was sent on loan from the U.S. Department of Justice to direct the tiny United Nations Special Investigations Unit in Rwanda. Against a backdrop of lush hills and rich red soil, my team and I investigated scores of massacre sites where nearly a million murders had been carried out in a spasm of horrific, state-condoned violence over a period of about 10 weeks. We turned over mass graves in fields, villages, churches and stadiums, and gathered survivor testimony and physical evidence in the hope of bringing the leaders of the genocide to justice.

Wading through the knee-high mass of corpses and rotting clothes, we sifted through the desperate personal effects of very poor people hoping to survive a siege. By the time we arrived, anything of value had long been stripped away from the massacre sites, leaving only those things that people clutch in death but robbers do not steal -- pictures from a wedding day, a French bible with a loving inscription, a small calendar with pictures of faraway places.

It was through these haunting glimpses of the humanity of its victims that the Rwanda genocide became terribly, unforgettably real for me. What also emerged for me with simple, brutal clarity was an insight into the nature of violence.

At their point of most desperate need, these impoverished Rwandans huddled against the advancing machetes of their neighbors did not need someone to bring them a sermon, or food, or a doctor, or a teacher, or a microloan. They needed someone to restrain the hand with the machete -- and nothing else would do. None of the food, medicine or water wells that people of goodwill had sought to share with the poor in Rwanda over the years could stop the tidal wave of violence crashing down upon them.

And now, in the 20 years since that nightmare, what I see across the developing world is a more gradual but massive tide of rising everyday violence that will end up crushing far more of world's poorest across the globe. Tragically, like those who perished in Rwanda, our poorest global neighbors are today calling out for mercy from those who seek them harm, and for the world to take notice -- and they are getting neither.

Indeed, a 2008 UN study found that, stunningly, 4 billion of the world's people live outside the protection of the law. That is, their law enforcement systems cannot and do not shield them from violent people.

While a lucky subset of elites in the developing world can pay for the safety their broken justice systems cannot provide, their impoverished neighbors cannot.

And so billions of the poorest people throughout the developing world know in a terrible and personal way the same truth the Rwanda genocide taught me: Violence has the power to destroy everything -- and is unstopped by our other responses to poverty.

The utter dysfunction of justice systems in the developing world has unleashed an epidemic of everyday violence against the poorest. This is not the violence of war or genocide -- which, as newspaper headlines attest, still deserves and demands our global attention -- but common criminal brutality that is already against the law.

Indeed, World Bank data suggest that, globally, women and girls ages 15 to 44 are at greater risk of being killed or disabled by everyday gender-based violence than by cancer, traffic accidents, malaria and war combined -- with poor women and girls absorbing the vast majority of the abuse (with, for example, a stunning 71 percent of Ethiopian women experiencing physical or sexual violence, and nearly half of young women in Caribbean countries reporting forced sexual initiation). Today, more human beings are crushed by the violence of everyday slavery (about 30 million) than in any other time in human history. Countless millions will be tortured, abused and stripped of all they hold dear in arbitrary and unjust detention, carried out by the everyday practices of abusive police.

The world did not wake up in time to help our Rwandan neighbors when they were most desperately threatened by violence; and likewise, the world overwhelmingly does not yet realize that endemic to being poor is a chronic vulnerability to violence. As a result, the world is not getting busy trying to stop it. As one example of many, the issue of violence against the poor did not garner even a single mention in the original millennium development goals, the world's blueprint for combating poverty. And, in a perfect tragedy, that failure to mainstream the problem of violence into our struggle against poverty has allowed the bullies to relentlessly pull the rug out from so many of the other things we seek to do to help the poor.

The moment of brutal clarity in Rwanda has stayed with me: the microloans and education and clean water and medical care and economic development the world is seeking to give to our poorest neighbors today cannot stop the plague of violence that is devastating them. It's not that these forms of traditional assistance are unimportant; rather, they are so important that we must make sure that the benefits of food, clean water, education, medicine and other aid are not undermined by relentless, everyday violence.

It's time to change the conversation about global poverty. Throughout the developing world, poor people often name violence as their "greatest fear" or "main problem." It's time to listen to them. Whenever we speak of poverty, we must confront the predatory violence that is endemic to that poverty, and affirm that even the poorest among us deserve to be safe from everyday terror.

We did not respond when our neighbors in Rwanda desperately needed our help. On the 20th anniversary of that tragedy, my most urgent hope is that we have learned to recognize the uniquely devastating legacy of violence and are better prepared to help those threatened by the sudden tsunami of tomorrow, but also those slowly drowning in the rising tide of everyday violence today.