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How Humanity Failed Rwanda: The 100-Day Genocide

Authors: Yong Hwee Shi, Ang Hui Min

Region Head: Yong Hwee Shi

Editor: Tan Chok Geow


The warfare in Rwanda was not between soldiers; the weapons used were not sophisticated machinery. Spurred by hate propaganda from radio stations, civilians wielded machetes and firearms to slaughter about 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus in 3 months. Contrary to popular belief, the genocide was not an eruption from long-lasting ethnic tensions between the Hutu majority and Tutsi minority (refer to Fig. 1), but a systematic extermination planned to retain power. We study factors that characterised the massacres, and how humanity failed Rwanda by ignoring the humanitarian crisis.

(Fig. 1) Timeline of Ethnic Tensions Since the Early 1900s (“Rwandan Genocide”, 2009)

The Process Behind the Extermination: Not A Spontaneous Eruption, But A Systematic Plan Long In The Making

The genocidaires have already begun their preparations long before the genocide began. Despite the start of peace talks in Arusha, the deep-rooted distrust of either parties persisted. The Hutu extremists were convinced that actions had to be taken to prevent their loss of power (Human Rights Watch, 2006, p. 9).

In a methodological manner, the Hutu extremists began the two-year long process of preparations. A military report planted a staunch definition of the Tutsi as an enemy of the people was widely circulated. Over 75% of the confessed killers after the genocide admitted that they have heard the phrase “the Tutsi is the enemy” (Human Rights Watch, 2006, p. 9).

In 1993, the Rwandan Patriotic Force (RPF), consisting of Tutsi rebel forces, breached the ceasefire in an offense and advanced close to the capital, Kigali (Reed, 1996). This attack was widely analysed to be a means for the RPF to gain an upper hand in negotiations by demonstrating their military capability (Kuperman, 2003). While it did fulfil its intent, it reminded the Hutu extremists to not underestimate the RPF and ramp up their efforts.

Colonel Bagosora, the chief of staff in Rwanda’s defence ministry then and a Hutu extremist, constructed a civilian self-defense force, composed of recruits who would still remain among residential areas and be well-trained with weapons. Bagosora’s efforts to frame the act of violence and massacre as a form of self-defence against the Tutsi blurred the lines of morality and served to be extremely crucial in the virulent outbreak (McGreal, 2008). The systematic organization of civilians as militants and distribution of weapons laid the groundwork for one of the worst bloodshed the world has ever witnessed.

Local Factors: The Rwandan Media Goading The Massacres With Hate Propaganda

The power of the media in this genocide was monumental. In 2003, three senior figures in the Rwandan media -- the founders of Kangura and RTLM[1] were convicted for their crimes in the Genocide (“UN tribunal convicts 3”, 2003).

Kangura was an anti-Tutsi magazine founded in 1990. They propagated extremist views such as the need for the country to be ridded of the Tutsi (Kabanda & Annan, 2007, p. 1). As many Rwandans were illiterate, RTLM was set up to communicate these views to the civilians. RTLM strategic programming gave an opportunity for ordinary citizens to have a voice and cultivated a loyal listening base (Dallaire & Annan, 2007, p. 16).

After the assasination of the President of Burundi by Tutsi militants in 1993, the RTLM leveraged on it by unfolding events in a highly sensationalised manner. The emphasis on Tutsi brutality served to elicit fear and justified acts of violence towards the Tutsi.

At the height of the killings, the RTLM was used to provide clear directives to the assassins. After the directors of Radio Rwanda fled, the extremists utilised the control of the media space by detailing the locations where the Tutsi were seeking refugees on air, allowing the extremists to efficiently carry out these killings (Foreges & Annan, 2007, p. 49).

“It was beyond rules. It was beyond limits. And it was an overt instrument of genocide.” wrote General Dallaire, the force commander of UNAMIR[2], on his recount of the role of the RTLM (Dallaire & Annan, 2007, p. 18). The lethal combination of arming their citizens and the spread of propaganda had desensitised the population.

The examination of the role of the media can also be well-extended into its effects of gender roles during the genocide. Gender norms and duties paled in the presence of riveting ideologies, women were just as susceptible as men to the broadcasts and served to play various roles in the provocation of violence. However, contemporarily viewed as victims, women were misunderstood to have been held at the mercy of violent male killers (Fielding, 2013, p. 8). This has led to a skewed pursuit in accountability and media portrayal of female perpetrators which can be pernicious in the reconstruction of a post-genocide society (Fielding, 2013, p. 10).

External Factors: How The International Community Turned Their Backs On Rwanda

After the RPF offensive in February 1993, Rwanda requested UN deployment to verify that military supplies were not crossing from Uganda to the RPF in Rwanda (Melvern, 2014). In June 1993, UNOMUR[3] was established to facilitate this verification and the signing of the Arusha Accords, which outlined a power-sharing agreement (Melvern, 2014). UNAMIR was later established to monitor elections and secure the transitional government (Melvern, 2014).

There is a common trend in these interventions: the mandate of UN troops was restricted to monitoring the peace agreements. As UN troops were forbidden to intervene in any way outside of this mandate, most peacekeepers stood by during the slaughter. Moreover, in the midst of the chaos, any hope for the power-sharing government was crushed. The mandate was not only limiting—it became irrelevant.

This points out a clear lesson: A clear, updated mandate is an important precondition for effective international intervention in humanitarian crises. However, there was a bigger hurdle to cross. Pleas by General Dallaire to the Security Council for a stronger mandate and more numbers fell on deaf ears (Shiffman, n.d.). By the end of April 1994, UNAMIR was almost fully withdrawn (Willard, 2018).

There was a complete lack of will to put down the civil war and the genocide, with the Security Council not placing the conflict on its agenda for 3 years after the conflict started (Keating, 2015). The UN member states also refrained from calling the actions genocide, which would have necessitated UN action on legal obligations (Maritz, 2012).

There were reasons behind their lack of political will. Firstly, the atrocities committed by the civilians horrified the world, especially when 10 Belgian peacekeepers were murdered (Boffey, 2018). The UN also directed that peacekeepers defend themselves, making peacekeepers more eager to leave Rwanda. Secondly, after the UN’s dismal peacekeeping mission in Somalia, the member states became overtly wary of intervening in humanitarian crises (Maritz, 2012).

That said, the member states had bargaining chips, weapons and troops to address the issue swiftly. The Hutu regime was reliant on humanitarian assistance from the UN, which saved many Rwandans from certain death. UNAMIR was tasked to ensure the repatriation of 900,000 Rwandan refugees, and the UNDP Trust Fund for Rwanda aimed to fund Rwanda’s rehabilitation in 1994 (UN Security Council, 1995). If the UN had pressurized the génocidaires to cease the genocide in return for continued aid, it could have been more difficult to convince other Hutus to join the self-defense plan (“Rwanda, remembered”, 2004).

Besides issuing warnings, member states were more than capable of resorting to force. According to General Dallaire, only about 5,000 troops were needed to stop the killings (“Rwanda, remembered”, 2004). Furthermore, it is puzzling that countries with more sophisticated technology, weapons and war experience would fear civilians armed with domestic tools. Because the UN member states were too cautious, much of the violence that could have been prevented was not.

One thing is clear: the UN is only as effective as its members willed it to be. Foreign intervention in internal affairs is always hard to justify due to the principle of sovereignty. If a nation is reluctant to intervene, they cannot be forced to get involved. Without a clear mandate and political will of nations, countries cannot fully depend on international organisations to protect their people.

Rwanda Today: Is President Kagame’s Iron Grip a Necessary Evil?

Nearly two decades on, Rwanda has managed to achieve stability, but at a price of tight censorship. Today, there is no Hutu or Tutsi, as everyone is identified as a Rwandan. Race is abolished on identification cards and any dialogue on race or the genocide is criminalized.

This appears to be necessary for Rwanda. Drawing insight from Burundi, a neighbouring country with similar composition of ethnic tribes, their approach to permit discussion have led to occasions of violence (Mwachiro, 2012). With the perpetrators of the genocide still alive, papering over the cracks may just give the traumatised Rwandans the time they need to heal. Rekindling discussion can be gradually phased in the years to come.

As an international community, the lessons learnt can perhaps help the UN improve their interventions in humanitarian conflicts. More attention should be focused on this objective, instead of contending blame. The consequences of the failures in Rwanda will continue to reverberate through the gravesites of the genocide victims, knowing that timely and decisive action could have averted this previously unimaginable brutality between civilians.

[1] RTLM stands for Radio Télévision Libre Des Mille Collines [2] UNAMIR stands for United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda [3] UNOMUR stands for United Nations Observer Mission Uganda–Rwanda


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