The Rwandan Genocide refers to the period of approximately 100 days from April 7 until mid-July 1994 when the Hutu ethnic group dominated Rwandan government regime carried out a systematic campaign of extermination of citizens whom it declared to be enemies of the nation which were near exclusively the Tutsi minority. Approximately 800,000 people were killed and approximately 2,000,000 were displaced. The circumstances that led to the Rwandan Genocide are complex and have social, economic, and political origins which will be explained further in detail.
Economic circumstances were not the strongest factors behind the genocide but definitely contributed to the overall status of the nation. Rwanda was a significantly poor nation prior to the genocide and civil war. Approximately 90% of the population lived off the land and the sustained rate of growth and high population density coupled with the inability to afford farming equipment meant that most farmers could not provide for themselves or their families. The economic situation was exacerbated more in the 1980s when government spending limits combined with a sudden drop in market prices for the chief Rwandan exports of coffee and tea crippled the nation’s economy. With no foreign support or natural resources to fall back on, the economic situation remained bleak.
Social and ethnic factor are largely the strongest factors that lead to the Rwandan Genocide. The Twa, Hutu, and Tutsi compose the three ethnic groups of Rwanda. The Twa make up about 1% of the population and have role and have had no role in the politics of the country. The Hutu and Tutsi make up 84% and 15% of the nation’s population respectively and share a common language and culture. As the Hutu and Tutsi groups migrated to where they now and the state of Rwanda developed, social divisions began to emerge: the ruling elite as the Tusti and the masses as the Hutu. Colonization by the Germans and Belgians solidified and in some cases expanded the control of the Tutsi while isolating the Hutu. During the years of European rule the two groups grew further apart as the Tutsi took the right to rule for granted and the Hutu saw themselves as oppressed people. In the mid 20th century European powers left the country and tensions began to rise. The 1957 Hutu Manifesto (also known as the Bahutu Manifesto) announced a unified idea that the Tutsi had a monopoly of power in the nation of Rwanda. In 1959 the Hutu majority overthrew the Tutsi rulers. The revolution was a shock to the Tutsi and many leaders were exiled as the Hutu rushed to establish their political power. The Tutsi regarded the change in power as criminal and illegitimate while the Hutu celebrated what they regarded as a strong win for freedom and liberation. Unsuccessful Tutsi attempts to unseat the new Hutu government over the course of the new decade over deepened a strong sense of distrust and anger. Attacks impelled by the Hutu government in retaliation are thought to be responsible for most of the 20,000 Tutsi deaths that are attributed to the revolution.
Tensions continued to rise between the Hutu and Tutsi until October of 1990 when an established Tutsi force invaded from Uganda sparking the Rwandan Civil War. The Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) was formed to “fight for the right of refugees to return to Rwanda.” The Rwandan government forces, supported by the French military, quickly repelled the onslaught and pushed the RPF fighters back across the border. Soon a guerilla war emerged with the RPF attacking Rwanda from bases across the Ugandan border. These sustained harassments combined with periodic gains of Rwandan territory over the course of the next three years and increasing civil disobedience from the stresses of war were enough to bring the two sides to the negotiating table in August of 1993 with the war ending through the signing of the Arusha Accords which created a power-sharing agreement for the government of Rwanda. International Peacekeepers were sent to Rwanda in December 1994 to assist with the implementation of the Accords under the authority of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR). Around the time of the signing, transgressions committed by the RPF before the signing led to a ending of an alliance between the RPF and the Rwandan opposition further complicating the political landscape.
Political circumstances also strongly contributed to the genocide. On October 21, 1993, neighboring country Burundi saw its first democratically elected president, a Hutu, assassinated by the nation’s army which was Tutsi-dominated. Burundi quickly saw itself thrown into civil war and the affects of the assassination were felt in Rwanda. Distrust, suspicion, and anger only grew for the Tutsi minority. Influential Hutus began to pass the idea that Tutsi were out to get the Hutu and that pre-emptive measures were necessary to ensure the security of the nation and government. Political leaders stated that the Tutsi were foreigners with no right to live in Rwanda, that the Tutsi still enjoyed a higher socioeconomic station and Hutus were still paying for it, and that the Tutsi posed a danger to the Hutu and the Hutu had a right to defend themselves. Rhetoric and propaganda efforts were stepped up to convene the message of an increasing narrow-minded and determined government.
In October 1993, a group of Rwandan military officers met to establish a means of distributing weapons covertly as to avoid attention of the general population and political parties. In 1994 the group met again with the goal of planning for civil defense. They crafted an informal document called “Organization of civilian self-defense” (also known as Organisation de l’Auto-Défense Civile”). This document was essentially the basic plan for executing the genocide. It goes into great detail, even calling for the procurement of 4,995 firearms and 499,500 bullets for participants while encouraging that others get traditional weapons like bows, arrows, and spears on their own. The government began to create weapons and supplies caches and importing and consolidating weapons including over 580,000 machetes from China. The Organization of civilian self-defense document’s main purpose was to organize the population to deal with crime and the possibility of renewed conflict. The actors involved with the plan were to protect public property, denounce the enemy movement, and inform on the intentions and engagements of the enemy and confront when possible. It called for participation from nearly all realms of government including local mayors, the military (including retired military officers), the national police, political party supporters, and members of the ruling Hutu political party all the way up to the President. It created a structured and defined hierarchy with various committees and task forces assigned jobs ensure that when the time came, all of the actors would be able to work together and have the tools and resources necessary to accomplish what was now the clear end goal: the elimination of the Tutsi. In the beginning months of 1994 planning and coordination efforts continued as military officers and government officials met with local government to work on integrating them and handpicked civilians into the plan.
On the evening of April 6, 1994, a plane carrying Rwandan President Habyarimana was shot down. This was the catalyst that triggered the genocide. Members of the military quickly locked down the capital, secured Hutu political power players, and began to eliminate members of the opposition and their families. They were met with little resistance and due to the efforts of the government planners, the national police, local government officials, and ordinary civilians were easily and seamlessly worked into the movement. The UNAMIR was powerless to stop the killings due to their small size and lack of resources and support. After a Belgian contingent of UNAMIR soldiers were killed, Belgium soon withdrew their troops. The international community was hesitate to respond to the growing crisis for a multitude of reasons. To begin with, western nations, in particular the United States, were reluctant to commit ground forces due to the recent events in Somalia. They did not want to rush to intervene in what could have been a civil war as it was not immediately clear that the killings were nearly unilateral. Simply put, the international community did not want to get involved as it was not their fight. It was not until June 1994 that the United Nations Security Council first classified the crisis as a genocide. French forces were authorized to land in Rwanda and establish a safe zone under the auspices of Operation Turquoise. The operation was not incredibly effective as killings still occurred but it help protect civilians to a degree and assist the RPF in trying to end the attacks. After nearly 100 days Rwandan Patriotic Front forces were able to take control of the capital. Fearing possible retaliation, the Hutu government fled the country in addition to up to 2 million civilian Hutu.
In the aftermath of the genocide the United Nations scrambled to respond. The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda was established to prosecute those who were responsible and that directed and aided the attacks. Trials are still on-going to this day. In large part, at least to Rwandan’s, there was a failure of the international community to act. This position can be understood because at least in western nations, the media struggled to report on a story that was met with disinterest by most viewers. The international community was reluctant to get involved in a crisis that would largely not have an impact throughout the world. It is also important to remember that the conflict moved very quickly and it may have been thought that it was in the best interests of third party nations to refrain from committing forces as the conflict would soon end on its own.
Nowadays, tensions have mostly cooled in Rwanda. There is a general feeling that those responsible have brought to justice and that the nation is safe from another genocide in the near future. There are occasionally still isolated ethnic killings from time to time but the country is working hard to recover and heal wounds.
The takeaway from the Rwandan Genocide is that the international community, namely through the United Nations should be more active and vigorous in involving itself in cases of ethnic killings and genocide by promptly and comprehensively investigating any alleged cases and responding swiftly and with due force. It would be absolutely horrible to see a similar event happen again knowing what we know now and how events can escalate with haste. Mistakes were made across the board, especially at the United Nations. Information was passed along via the UNAMIR commander on the ground but it was largely not acted on. The United Nations has a mandate to act via the Security Council in cases of genocide and more pressure needs to be put on non-reactive members to work to look into and end any events that may arise. The international community needs to hold itself responsible for failures to act while at the same time, be ready and willing to intervene if the need arises in the future.