Alison Des Forges

Ten years ago today, our beloved colleague Alison Des Forges died in the crash of Flight 3407 traveling from Newark to her home in Buffalo. Alison had recently been in Uganda to meet with her research team that, to my great fortune, included me. A colleague and I had just finished documenting a series of massacres by the Lord’s Resistance Army, headed by Ugandan rebel leader Joseph Kony. While in Kampala, Alison had helped us finalize our report on what became known as the “Christmas Massacres.” As she went over the material, I remember her advising me to let the horror of the stories, and the victims’ own voices, speak for themselves. 

Alison was a rock for Human Rights Watch’s Africa division, where she served as a senior advisor and led our Great Lakes work for nearly two decades. Always full of wisdom and guidance, she showed us the importance of being humble, respectful, discreet, persistent, and attentive to details when documenting abuses or confronting perpetrators. She never lost sight of the fact that human rights work was about being human. She asked about our families, laughed often, and acknowledged the dignity of survivors as well as suspected rights abusers.

Alison is best known for her work on Rwanda. In the months leading up to the 1994 genocide, she saw the dangers of planned violence, alerted the world, and urged action. As the genocide unfolded, and in its aftermath, Alison listened to countless accounts and documented the mass violence – and the international community’s indifference and failure to act. Her 789-page book, “Leave None to Tell the Story,” became the definitive account of the genocide. She went on to press for those responsible for the violence to be brought to justice, appearing as an expert witness in 11 trials for genocide at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, three trials in Belgium, and at trials in Switzerland, the Netherlands, and Canada.

Unflinchingly impartial, Alison insisted that the rebel Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) forces, which defeated the genocidal regime, should also be held to account for their crimes, including the killing of thousands of civilians during and just after the genocide. Alison’s principled commitment to credible justice for victims of all crimes eventually prompted the RPF-led Rwandan government to ban her from the country in 2008

Since Alison’s death, important progress has been made in bringing perpetrators of the genocide to justice, including former high-level government officials and other key figures behind the massacres. Yet very few RPF members have been held to account for the war crimes and crimes against humanity they committed. 

As Human Rights Watch continues to press for justice for these crimes, and document the current, challenging human rights situation in Rwanda and elsewhere on the continent, we miss Alison deeply. We strive to live up to the example she set for us, and with each new challenge, we ask ourselves, “What would Alison do?”