The Rwandan Genocide is considered to be a significant example of genocide and crimes against humanity in the 20th century, alongside others, such as: Armenian Genocide, Holodomor, Nanking Massacre, Holocaust, Cambodian Genocide, and the Bosnian Genocide. A genocide is defined as a mass killing of a certain group of people based on their religion, ethnicity or cultural background. A crime against humanity is considered to be when a group of people are subjected to humiliation, suffering and death on a mass scale by another group. The Rwandan Genocide occurred in the country of Rwanda in 1994 with most of the killings occurring in an approximate 3-month span from April until July of that year. This makes it one the last major genocides of the 20th century, alongside the Bosnian Genocide. The country of Rwanda is located in central Africa near other nations, including the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Uganda, Tanzania and Burundi. The genocide and crimes against humanity that occurred in the country are considered to be the result and actions of an ethic clash that occurred between the Hutu and Tutsi people that lived there. Historians generally agree that as many as 1 million Rwandan Tutsis were killed by Hutu extremists during the events of the genocide.
LEAD UP TO THE RWANDAN GENOCIDE
As stated above, the Rwandan Genocide is considered to be the result of longstanding tensions and ethnic conflict in the country of Rwanda. As such, in order to understand the events of the genocide itself, it’s first important to understand the history of Rwanda as it relates to the ethnic conflict. The two main ethnic groups at the center of the conflict were the Hutu and Tutsi. Both groups moved into the territory of Rwanda sometime between 700 BC and 1500 AD, well before the arrival of Europeans during the Age of Imperialism. European imperialism in Africa occurred mostly throughout the 19th century and is often referred to as the Scramble for Africa. This saw the major European nations of Britain, France, Germany and Belgium compete with each for control over territory in Africa. The first nation to colonize Rwanda was Germany which gained control of the African nation after the Berlin Conference in 1884.
In general, the Hutus and Tutsi were very similar but Europeans differentiated the two groups from each other based on a few characteristics. For example, from the perspective of Europeans Tutsi people were taller, had narrower noses and were lighter skinned. As such, the European colonizers considered them to be racially superior to the Hutu. This practice was common during the timeframe of the Age of Imperialism because Europeans believed in the central ideas of Social Darwinism. In general, Social Darwinism is a belief that some races of people are superior to others and therefore should be able to rule or command over others. As such, Europeans viewed themselves as superior to the people of Africa and treated them as such. As well, they extended this belief to some African groups, such as the Tutsi who were considered superior to the Hutu.
This ‘ranking’ of people in Rwanda is where the major conflict and tensions begin. At the time of European imperialism and throughout the majority of the 20th century, the Tutsi only made up about 15% of the total population in Rwanda. Therefore, despite making up about 85% of the population, the Hutu people were treated as second class citizens and lacked access to positions of power in Rwandan society. This created conflict because the minority Tutsi ruled over the majority Hutu who resented their lack of power.
Germany ruled over Rwanda until the end of World War I when it was given to Belgium. Germany had lost World War I to the Allied Powers of Britain, France and Russia and as part of the Treaty of Versailles, it was forced to give up all of its overseas colonies, including Rwanda. As such, Rwanda was under the imperialistic control of Belgium until 1962 when it gained its independence. For its part, Belgium maintained the power structure in Rwanda and allowed the Tutsi to remain in power over the Hutu. This continued to create tensions between the two groups and soon after Rwanda gained independence in 1962, the country erupted into civil war. For the next 30 years the Hutu and Tutsi movements in Rwanda clashed, which led to escalating tensions that finally erupted in genocide in 1994.
MAJOR EVENTS OF THE RWANDAN GENOCIDE
A ‘Hutu Power’ movement emerged throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s in the years before the outbreak of the genocide. This movement was centered on removing Tutsi people from the country and positions of power and claiming the country for Hutus. An important group from this movement was the Interahamwe which was a radical Hutu youth group. The Interahamwe would go on the play an active role in the massacres and overall genocide against the Tutsi. This Hutu movement laid the foundation for the outbreak of the genocide in 1994.
In general, historians view the assassination of the Rwanda President in 1994 as the first major event and spark of the Rwandan Genocide. Juvénal Habyarimana served as President of Rwanda from 1973 until his assassination on April 6th, 1994. Habyarimana was a Hutu but in the months before his assassination his government had been negotiating an end to tensions with the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). The RPF was a political party and paramilitary group dominated by Tutsi refugees who had fled Rwanda in the years before during increased tensions. Led by Paul Kagame the RPF were hated by the more extremist elements of the Hutu movement in Rwanda. As such, some Hutus in Rwanda were angry with President Habyarimana for negotiating a cease-fire with the RPF. On April 6th, 1994, the plane that Habyarimana was flying in was shot down as it landed at the airport in Kigali, the Rwandan capital. While there was some dispute about who shot down the plane, it is now generally viewed as being carried out by Hutu extremists who were angry with the president.
A United Nations force had been sent to Rwanda in October of 1993 during the crisis of the civil war that had been erupting at that point. Officially called the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR) it was established in hopes of preventing the crisis from escalating into a larger conflict. Canadian Romeo Dallaire was put in charge of the mission and tasked with carrying out a peacekeeping mission in Rwanda to aid in establishing peace between the Hutu and Tutsi.
Soon after the assassination of Rwandan President Habyarimana, UNAMIR sent 10 Belgian peacekeepers to protect the Rwanda Prime Minister Agathe Uwilingiyimana. The United Nations had hoped she would become the interim leader of Rwanda in hopes of bringing an end to the crisis. However, the Belgian peacekeepers soon became overwhelmed by a large crowd of Hutu supporters and were forced to surrender. As a result, Uwilingiyimana was assassinated and the Belgian soldiers were tortured and executed. Over the next two days (April 6th and 7th) Hutu extremists systematically killed many prominent figures in Rwanda including politicians and journalists. The genocide had begun.
Almost immediately after the assassination of Habyarimana, Hutu extremist leaders ordered the beginning of the attack against ethnic Tutsis. They blamed the assassination of the president on the RPF and the Tutsi. For example, Interahamwe members in Kigali were told to begin the slaughter against Tutsi men, women and children. In response, Hutu members of the military and the Interahamwe created roadblocks throughout Kigali. They forced people wishing to pass through the roadblocks to show their identification that proved whether they were Hutu or Tutsi. Any Tutsis captured at the roadblocks were killed immediately. At the same time, the Hutu extremists also carried out raids throughout the city in which they forced their way into people’s homes. Tutsis were also killed at this time and their possessions stolen. Ordinary citizens also participated in the killing, as hatred and mistrust of the Tutsi was a longstanding belief by some Hutu. While people died of many different types of causes, the most well-known and prominent was by use of machete. Another key feature of the Rwanda Genocide was the use of rape against Tutsi women. HIV rates in the country increased dramatically due to the high levels of rape and assault that occurred.
One of the more brutal examples of killing during the Rwanda Genocide was the events on April 12th when more than 1,500 Tutsis were slaughtered while seeking refuge in a Catholic church. The Interahamwe and other Hutu extremists used a bulldozer to destroy the building and killed any of the people who tried to escape with rifle, grenades and machetes.
Historians disagree to some extent on the amount of victims during the genocide but it is generally agreed that about 800,000 died and it may have been as much as 1 million. The majority of victims were Tutsis but some Hutus were also killed for being considered ‘Tutsi-sympathizers’. Another point of significance, is that the death rate during the Rwandan Genocide was very high. Evidence suggests that most of the victims died in the first 6 weeks of the approximately 100 days that it lasted for. This means that the Rwandan Genocide had a death rate as much as 5 times higher than the Holocaust. It is estimated that only 300,000 Tutsi in Rwanda survived the genocide.
The Rwanda Genocide ended in July of 1994 when the RPF invaded Rwanda from neighboring countries and brought an end to the killing. Today the Liberation Day for Rwanda is celebrated on July 4th every year.
In November of 1994, the United Nations created the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR). It was established as a means of holding the perpetrators of the Rwandan Genocide accountable for their actions during the massacre. The court was located in Tanzania and oversaw trials centered around genocide and crimes against humanity. In all it oversaw 50 trials which led to the convictions of 29 people deemed responsible for the genocide. The ICTR was dissolved in 2015 having completed its mandate.
SIGNIFICANCE OF THE RWANDAN GENOCIDE
After the end of World War II and the Holocaust in 1945 the world established the United Nations in an attempt to preserve world peace. Just a few years later, in 1948, the newly created United Nations adopted the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. In part, the document was created to reestablish the basic rights for human beings following the horrible atrocities of the Holocaust. As a result, many in the international community viewed it as the responsibility of the United Nations to intervene in events such as the Rwandan Genocide in order to stop and prevent mass killing. Therefore, the events of the Rwanda Genocide are often seen as a failure of the United Nations and the countries of the world to respond to a crisis.
As stated previously, the United Nations responded to the crisis in Rwanda by sending the UNAMIR force led by Canadian Romeo Dallaire to the country in 1993. However, the UNAMIR was severely hampered from intervening once the genocide began due to limitations placed on it as a peacekeeping force. For instance, the UNAMIR forces were not allowed to carry out missions to intervene weapon supplies for the Hutu extremists. Nor were they allowed to use force to prevent the laughter of Tutsis unless they were being attacked personally. As such, the role of the UNAMIR was mostly as a bystander or viewer of the violence rather than being able to respond. With that said, UNAMIR troops were able to protect some Tutsis in sites that they guarded including the Amahoro Stadium. For his part, Romeo Dallaire considered his mission a failure and later stated that he and the UNAMIR troops acted as a witness to the violence.
Some view the Rwandan Genocide as more than a failure of the United Nations and instead view it as a failure of the entire world. For example, when the violence first began during the genocide 10 Belgian soldiers, who were part of the UNAMIR force, were killed while trying to protect the Rwandan Prime Minister. This caused the Belgian government to withdraw the remainder of their forces from the country. In fact, a European task force arrived in Rwanda just days after the start of the genocide and helped foreigners (especially Europeans and North Americans) escape the country. They didn’t stay to assist the UNAMIR force or stop the slaughter. As such, many now view this as a failure of the world community to intervene and prevent a genocide. The head of the UNAMIR force, Romeo Dallaire, expressed this view years later and accused governments of the world of failing to act in a time of need.
Another significance of the Rwandan Genocide was the role that European imperialism played in creating the divisions that continued to haunt the country decades later. As stated previously, the divisions in Rwandan society were escalated by the German and later Belgian colonizers when they gave power over the country to the minority Tutsi. The European nations did this out of a racist belief that one group was racially superior to the other. This created a lingering resentment that caused divisions in the country up to and including the Rwandan Genocide in 1994.