Sunday, February 15, 2009

Human Rights Activist Dies in Buffalo Plane Crash

As we continue to find out more about those who perished when Continental Flight 3407 crashed near Buffalo, New York, on Thursday night, yesterday's New York Times reported that Dr. Alison Des Forges, a human rights activist and historian who in 1994 tried to call the world's attention to the looming genocide in Rwanda and who later wrote what many consider the definitive account of the eventual slaughter of 500,000 Rwandans, was among the passengers on that plane.  Dr. Des Forges was 66.   

According to the Times report, her death was confirmed by Human Rights Watch, the New York-based advocacy group; Dr. Des Forges was senior adviser for the group's Africa division for nearly 20 years.

Dr. Des Forges (pronounced deh-FORZH) spent much of her adult life in Rwanda and the Great Lakes region of Africa. She was among a group of activists who investigated killings, kidnappings and other rights abuses of civilians in Rwanda from 1990 to 1993.

The Times story continues:

In May 1994, several weeks into the mass killing of Rwanda’s Tutsi minority, Dr. Des Forges called for the killings to be officially declared a genocide. By then about 200,000 people had been killed.

“Governments hesitate to call the horror by its name,” Dr. Des Forges wrote in The New York Times, “for to do so would oblige them to act: signatories to the Convention for the Prevention of Genocide, including the United States, are legally bound to ‘prevent and punish’ it.”

Peacekeepers should be sent into the country and economic sanctions imposed, Dr. Des Forges said, concluding, “Can we do anything less in the face of genocide, no matter what name we give it?”

After a Tutsi-led rebel group took power after ending the killings, Dr. Des Forges spent four years interviewing organizers and victims of the genocide. She testified before the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, based in Arusha, Tanzania, and at trials in Belgium, Switzerland, the Netherlands and Canada. She also appeared on expert panels convened by the United Nations and what is now the African Union, as well as the French and Belgian legislatures and the United States Congress.

According to the Times, Dr. Des Forges was also an authority on human rights violations in Burundi and the Democratic Republic of Congo, formerly Zaire.

Dr. Des Forges is survived by her husband, Roger; one daughter, Jessie; a son, Alexander; a brother, Douglas Small Liebhafsky; and three grandchildren.  They -- and the rest of the world -- have lost someone special.


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