In April 1994, the world was understandably dialled-in to the theatre of South African elections. The last remaining pillar of apartheid – and the symbolic end of racial hatred in South Africa – was finally coming down under enormous fan-fare and hope. And so few people even noticed the event that sparked the collapse of Rwanda, and with it the entire African Great Lakes region.
The surface-to-air missile that hit Juvénal Habyarimana’s plane on his return to Rwanda, ought to have caught the international eye more than it did – it was, after all, the assassination of a sitting President. But soon enough it no longer mattered, there were more important things to worry about – within hours, roadblocks were constructed, refugees crowded toward the borders (250,000 refugees arrived in Tanzania alone within 48 hours of Habyarimana’s death), the police and army morphed into vigilantes, neighbours hunted each other in the streets, and ten thousand people were being killed each day – hacked down with machetes – in the fastest moving atrocity the world has ever been witness to.
Responsibility for the assassination remains in dispute, but it was accepted at the time to be the actions of an ethnic Tutsi rebel group, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). The ethnic majority Hutus saw this as the first open attack in an idle, but simmering, civil war, and so began circulating ‘kill lists’. Suddenly the two communities, living side-by-side, intermarrying, speaking the same language, and largely indistinguishable from each other, were demarcated in plain sight; one side targeted for murder, the other duty-bound to do the murdering.
Violence and unrest in Africa was not a surprise at the time, but the scale and willingness to participate was. Tutsis sheltering in churches were often killed or informed on by their own priests, and Hutu husbands began killing their Tutsi wives (failure to do so before the mob arrived would result in both of their deaths – one for being Tutsi, the other for sympathising with the enemy).
Rape became a tool of war in newly sadistic ways, with thousands of aids patients released from hospitals and conscripted into ‘rape squads’; charged with the single purpose of infecting as many Tutsi women as possible. Three months later when the violence eased, as many as half a million women had been raped, upwards of a million people were killed, seventy percent of the Tutsi population murdered (as well as ten percent of the Rwandan population as a whole), and fifty percent of the entire country were displaced.
These are the type of numbers that don’t straightforwardly process in the human mind. What was easier to comprehend was the risk – when the violence came there was already UN peacekeepers in place monitoring the Arusha Accords (a tentative power sharing agreement and peace settlement). These forces, the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR) Led by Canadian Major-General Romeo Dallaire, were reporting to anyone willing to listen that, “Time does seem to be running out for political discussions, as any spark on the security side could have catastrophic consequences.”
But no one – at least in the necessary positions of power – needed to be told this. In the years before the violence, ‘death squads’ were openly roaming the streets in pre-skirmishes, and in the three months before the genocide erupted the CIA had been reporting on the likelihood of this happening, and even predicting half a million people would die as a result.
World leaders like American President Bill Clinton would look back on Rwanda and call it their ‘greatest regret’, and perhaps the speed and cruelty of the violence caught them off guard. But what nagged at their consciences was something a little more deliberate and calculating. In 1993, as the build-up to genocide was unmistakably underway, South Africa, Egypt, Russia and France were fighting-out a battle of their own – trying to outbid each other in order to supply arms and military hardware to the Rwandan government’s increasing needs.
As late as 1994, France continued to make illicit weapons sales to Rwanda, in strict violation of a United Nations arms embargo. Human Rights Watch then later reported South Africa, China, the Seychelles, Zaire (DRC) and France for further arms embargo violations, for resupplying the Rwandan military. This allowed, even as the violence eased-off at its epicentre, for a regional contagion of killing. With the genocide crossing borders at will, soon 150,000 people were killed, and over a million displaced in neighbouring Burundi. A year later, as people and their grievances crossed into the Congo, what was soon to be known as Africa’s First World War broke out. The conflict rumbled forward for the better part of a decade, with 3.8 million people dead.
At its peak, the Rwandan genocide sucked-in nine neighbouring countries, and twenty different armed groups. The literal heart of Africa was burning to the ground, and this was only possible because foreign governments couldn’t resist the opportunity to make a little profit.
More immediately, Major-General Romeo Dallaire, on the ground as this all unfolded, has maintained since that he could have halted the genocide in its early stages, saving millions of lives, with as little as five thousand properly equipped, and mandated, United Nations’ troops. This might have a touch of hyperbole to it, but long form studies have concluded, on multiple occasions, that at least twenty five percent of the deaths could have been avoided under a ‘realistic military intervention’.
Newly freed from the shadow of the Cold War, and with a fresh hope for humanitarian cooperation and morally guided decision making, the proper place for international action was the United Nations. And yet when the debate came before the Security Council, they inexplicably chose to adopt resolution 912 which rather than increasing the peacekeeping presence on the ground, actually reduced troop numbers from 2558 to 270. With the obligations inherent in the Genocide Convention looming in people’s minds, these debates turned near-comical as member-after-member carefully avoided any reference of the term “genocide”.
Instead an obfuscating language was introduced to the world, as the same countries that would champion the Genocide Convention – before and after Rwanda – talked about a million deaths as “sporadic violence” and as only isolated “acts of genocide”; watering things down just below the threshold of where they would be legally-bound to intervene.
Meanwhile on the ground, the UNAMIR troops that remained – hopelessly understaffed – were also under-resourced and only mandated in a ‘monitoring’ capacity. Meaning as long as the genocidaires didn’t threaten them directly, they simply had to watch as the killing continued around them. And in the moments when they were attacked (once significantly alongside Prime Minister Agathe Uwilingiyimana) they chose not to respond for fear of inciting a larger response.
On 19 June, the French government announced Operation Turquoise, a military intervention in Rwanda under a United Nations mandate. The Hutus, against whom the tide of conflict was starting to turn, saw this – based on previous military and governmental support from France – as the arrival of allies, not enemies. So on the edge of retreat, the radio broadcasts inciting violence returned with a new vigour, and a new offensive was launched.
The United Nations requisitioned ‘Report of the Independent Inquiry into the Actions of the UN during the 1994 Genocide in Rwanda’ diplomatically saw it to be “unfortunate that the resources committed by France and other countries to Operation Turquoise could not instead have been put at the disposal of UNAMIR II”. A nice way of saying things would have resolved a lot quicker if France didn’t actively prop-up the Hutu government.
The genocide in Rwanda officially ended in July 1994, not because international outrage grew too loud to ignore, but rather because a Ugandan-backed Tutsi force of rebel troops fought their way into the Capital Kigali, and removed the Hutu government by force. They were led by current President Paul Kagame.
Set up to prosecute those involved in the killings, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) was established in November 1994. In a country that almost to-a-person became either perpetrator or victim, only ninety people have been convicted. A problem evermore pronounced by the near-complete lack of non-governmental aid agencies inside Rwanda at the time, limiting the real-time reporting of these crimes.
The United Nations post-mortem shifted its sights to the global community, blaming the escalation of the violence on a “lack of resources and political commitment”. The sad truth about Rwanda is that it ought to have been expected. The record of the United Nations, and of individual member states, when it comes to intervening in mass atrocity crimes, is incredibly poor.
Five months before the genocide started, eighteen American soldiers were killed in the Somalian capital, Mogadishu. The withdrawal of all U.S. troops was almost immediately underway… a year later the United Nations followed suit. Left behind was a decades old civil war, a country razed of infrastructure, 1.5 million people on the brink of immediate starvation, and 4.5 million people requiring emergency humanitarian aid in what United Nations Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar described as “the most serious humanitarian crisis of our day”.
More alarmingly, the will of the international community was exposed as fragile. And so the genocidaires in Rwanda had a guide post before them: the language of the international community is unlikely to correspond to actions, the expressed moral outrage of foreign governments will always be dwarfed by their fear of their own soldiers dying in defence of that concern, and when things turn messy domestic political considerations will take precedence with United Nations members near-universally lacking the stomach for difficult conflicts.
In Rwanda the international community was not caught flat footed as the theory goes, but simply betrayed by their own reversion to habit. Somalia offered encouragement for those planning genocide in Rwanda – since then this incentive to violence has only increased in moments when those charged with addressing international mass atrocities have preferred to watch as the killing rolls on.
Sure outliers exist, but for every Kosovo and Libya, there is also Uganda, Sudan, Iraq, Iran, Indonesia, Guatemala, Timor, Bosnia, Cambodia, Burundi, the Congo, Ethiopia, El Salvador, Sri Lanka, China, Algeria, Angola, North Korea, Syria, Georgia, Yemen, Kurdistan, Guinea-Bissau, Central African Republic, Lebanon, Egypt, Eretria, Mali, Chechnya, Kuwait, Bahrain, Liberia, Sierra Leone, Zimbabwe, Kenya….
*Jed Lea-Henry is a writer, teacher and academic. Born in Australia, educated at La Trobe University and Deakin University, Jed Lea-Henry is the author of: ‘A Poggean Approach to Mass Atrocities: Addressing Indeterminacy and Failures of Political Will for Humanitarian Intervention and the Responsibility to Protect’.