On 9 December 1948, the United Nations unanimously voted to approve the Genocide Convention. The international community had, in short, declared that genocide was a punishable crime, that those responsible could be held to account and that it would intervene to ensure that they were. The story of the 1994 Rwandan Genocide is the story of how the international community failed to uphold that promise, how it stood by as historic tensions came to the surface and how, over one hundred days, 800,000 were murdered, in an event that ranks among the darkest stains on humanity.
The two main ethnicities of Rwanda are the Tutsi and Hutu. By the close of the 20th Century, the Rwandan population numbered seven million, of which approximately 85% identified as Hutu and 14% identified as Tutsi. The Tutsi were traditionally cattle-herders, and, while it is misleading to suggest all Hutus were poor, enjoyed a position of economic preeminence. Accordingly, the Tutsi minority exerted a disproportionate level of influence, and in most areas of Rwanda ruled over the Hutu majority.
This de facto supremacy had been solidified during Rwanda’s colonial occupation. After the 1884 Berlin Conference, Rwanda and neighbouring Burundi were awarded to Germany. The Germans, believing the financially (and often physically) stronger Tutsi to be the superior race, formalised their power over the Hutus. Unsurprisingly, the Hutus came to resent this state of affairs. However, even after Rwanda was assigned to Belgium (despite that country’s colonial history) following Germany’s defeat in the First World War, the Tutsi minority continued to dominate the colony. In 1935, Belgium even went a step further than Germany, and, using phrenology to distinguish between the two groups, awarded all Rwandans ID cards which stated the holder’s tribes. Previously in Rwandan society, a wealthy Hutu could become an honorary Tutsi, but the new policy of ID cards locked Rwandans into one of two groups. Divisions between the Hutu and Tutsi ossified, and a caste system emerged.
Following the end of the Second World War, a Hutu emancipation movement emerged. Fuelled by the resentment towards the social order and supported by the Catholic Church, many in this movement saw the Tutsis as enemies. Outbursts of violence between the two ethnicities became increasingly common, and, much like the British had in India, Belgium sought to avoid becoming entangled in a civil war by withdrawing from Rwanda. Tensions were temporarily eased when Rwanda gained independence in 1962 and Hutus were awarded some stake in society, but the divisions which had been fostered over the last eight decades continued to fester, and these developments were little more than attempts to paper over colossal cracks.
Hutus began launching purges against their perceived enemies, and the new Hutu majority government began to overtly discriminate against the Tutsis. Repeated acts of racial violence throughout the 1970s led to an ever-increasing number of refugees fleeing the country. The international community turned a blind eye. A humanitarian disaster of the 1970s was made worse by a population boom in the 1980s. Rwanda became one of the most densely populated states in Africa, and increased demand for land and fear of resource shortages prompted aggressive skirmishes between the Hutus and Tutsi. Civil war broke out in 1990, as the Hutu led government and militias clashed with militias made of Tutsi refugees, the most prominent of which was the RPF, the Rwandan Patriotic Front. In 1993, the international community finally stepped, and forced a power-sharing agreement between the two Rwandan ethnicities.
Conservative Hutus were outraged and the Hutu Power movement, a campaign which railed against the Tutsis as alien, non-Christian beings who sought to enslave the faithful Hutus, began that same year. On 6 April 1994, a plane carrying the Rwandan and Burundian Presidents was shot down, with no survivors. High ranking Hutu hardliners saw an opportunity to unleash a satanic crusade against the Tutsi population, and so began the Rwandan Genocide. Soldiers, policemen and government backed militias hunted down and murdered their main opponents – Tutsi political leaders and moderate Hutus who might have opposed what followed. Hutu officials organised checkpoints across the country and began using the ID Cards Belgian authorities had used to empower the Tutsis in order to separate Hutus and Tutsi. Any Tutsis who fell into Hutu hands were raped, mutilated and massacred.
Many Tutsis sought sanctuary with the Catholic Church. Yet the clergy, who had forged strong ties with the Hutus during the decades of Tutsi oppression, often favoured the majority Rwandan ethnicity. Choosing sides, many priests called in the killers to churches that were filled with hundreds, or even thousands, of people and handed them over to their butchers. The murderers carried out their orders with machetes, clubs, knives and any other weapons they could lay their hands on.
Radio was used to devastating effect as broadcasts incited the Hutu population to action with hateful messages, which ordered all Tutsis be killed and their possessions taken by the majority. Around 10% of those involved in the violence, or some 51,000 individuals, claimed they acted based on instructions from the radio. Three months after the shooting down of the presidential plane, 70% of the Tutsi population (or 800,000 people) lay dead. While the killings occurred in Rwanda, the RPF renewed its fight against the Hutu government, in an attempt to end the atrocity as quickly as possible. With the progress of the genocide occupying the attention of many officials and soldiers, the RPF was able to move rapidly across the terrain, cutting off supply routes and encircling key settlements. Having surrounded the capital, Kigali, for three weeks, they eventually seized it on 4 July, and ended the Rwandan Genocide. Government officials and perpetrators quickly fled into nearby Zaire.
Despite knowing that acts of tribal violence were being committed within Rwandan borders, the UN Security Council decided to pull out peacekeepers after the killings began in April 1994. Despite the head of the UN contingent in Rwanda, General Romeo Dallaire, warning the world that the Hutus had implemented a plan to kill 1,000 Hutus every twenty minutes, no serious reinforcements were sent in. 5,000 peacekeepers were eventually deployed, but far too late.
Events such as the Rwandan Genocide neither can be nor should be forgotten. Few other calamities have demonstrated the failing of the international community to intervene to stop such monstrosities. The Rwandan Genocide did not come from nowhere – it was the product of a state’s steady disintegration. The killings may have happened suddenly, but the signs of ever-escalating violence both could be and were identified. Atrocities are preventable, provided the international community is more willing to recognise warning symptoms and act than it has been since December 1948.
Berry, John A., and Pott, C., 1999. Genocide in Rwanda: A Collective Memory. Howard University Press
Dallaire, R., 2003. Shake Hands with the Devil. Arrow
Thompson, A., 2007. Media and the Rwanda Genocide. Pluto Press