Comments Off on Thinking about the genocide in Rwanda, 20 years later

Thinking about the genocide in Rwanda, 20 years later

President Paul Kagame and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon lit the torch that will burn 100 days (picture by AP)
President Paul Kagame and UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon lit the torch that will burn 100 days (picture by AP)

Today marks the 20th anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda. Within 100 days, extremist Hutu killed 800,000 Tutsi and moderate Hutu. The level of brutality still shocks today – on average 10,000 lives lost, day after day. Dignitaries from around the world commemorated the tragedy in this small African country earlier today. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki Moon and current President Paul Kagame lit a torch which will burn for 100 days – the length of the genocide.

The Rwandan genocide lasted from April to July, 1994 (picture: telegraph.co.uk)
The Rwandan genocide lasted from April to July, 1994 (picture: telegraph.co.uk)

The crash of President Juvenal Habyarimana’s plane on the evening of April 6, 1994 – the starting point of the genocide – sparked what would come to be known as one of the most gruesome incidents of the 20th century. Decades of increased tensions, ethnic profiling, and low-intensity conflict preceded the genocide. The Hutu aversions of the once favored Tutsi led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands civilians. The killings only ended when the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) seized control of the country in July 1994. While current tensions are comparatively low, the consequences of the genocide can still be felt across most of Africa’s Great Lakes region.

Yet, we have to remember that the Rwandan genocide didn’t come unexpected. While each situation has its own root causes and dynamics, genocide and ethnic cleansing usually have clear signs. Tensions are rising, in-group – out-group thinking dominate the media and public speech, state institutions become more polarized and collapse, and first acts of violence are committed.

The UN Blue Helmet came to stand for the failure of the international community to respond.
The UN Blue Helmet came to stand for the failure of the international community to respond.

The international community failed to react appropriately in Rwanda and elsewhere (Bosnia and Darfur come to mind). As UN Secretary-General said at the commemoration today “We could have done much more, we should have done much more.”

Nevertheless, the international community of today is not the same as the one of 20 years ago. Big steps forward have been taken. The International Criminal Court (read our blog post) shows the world has united against impunity. A former head of state has been convicted of war crimes, and an arrest warrant has been issued for a sitting head of state. The deterrent effects of these actions has been proven. The international community has further endorsed “The Responsibility to Protect” or R2P, showing that absolute state sovereignty is a thing of the past. UN and regional organizations deploy human rights monitors to troubled areas and international NGOs report human rights violations to a broader public. And while peacekeepers in Rwanda were called back and told not to step in to protect the people once the genocide started, their mandate specifically allows them to protect civilians today.

Civilians crowd to enter the United Nations Peacekeeping Mission base in Bor, South Sudan. (picture CBS News)
Civilians crowd to enter the United Nations Peacekeeping Mission base in Bor, South Sudan. (picture CBS News)

It is this “new” international community that needs to be aware of the signs of genocide and mass violence. There are many cases in which international response is lacking. The situation in the Central African Republic, for example, comes to mind, or the one in Syria, Sri Lanka, and South Sudan. The world needs to move away from waiting and hesitating, putting national interests and the fear of risk and complexity involved with such missions before human life. The results clearly show the consequences of indifference and indecisiveness: Failing to uphold the promise “never again”.

Disclaimer: The views and opinions expressed in this blog are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect those of the Reiff Center For Human Rights and Conflict Resolution or Christopher Newport University.