Lessons To and From the Road to Hell: Ten Years after the Rwandan Genocide

Lessons To and From the Road to Hell: Ten Years after the Rwandan Genocide

For better or worse, in democracies, politicians respond to the domestic pressure, which is seldom altruistic.

It was ten years ago this month, on April 6, 1994, that the Mystère Falcon jet carrying Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana and his Burundian counterpart, Cyprien Ntaryamira, was fired upon by unknown assailants as it approached the Kigali airport. The plane crashed onto the grounds of the presidential palace at 8:30 p.m., killing everyone on board. The crash turned out to be the signal for a carefully planned conspiracy: within less than an hour, the second in command of the Rwandan Armed Forces, Colonel Théoneste Bagosora, had seized power and dispatched the Presidential Guard to erect the first road blocks. The soldiers were soon joined by members of the majority Hutu ethnic group's interahamwe ("those who stand/fight together") militia. Shortly afterward, armed bands of soldiers and militiamen fanned out across the city, killing moderate Hutu leaders, including Prime Minister Agathe Uwilingiyimana, as well as any members of the minority Tutsi who were unfortunate enough to cross their paths. In one hundred days, between April 6 and July 18, when the mostly Tutsi Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), having won nearly complete control of the country and driven the killers into neighboring Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), declared an end to the conflict, some 800,000 individuals were murdered. The Hutu extremists had tried to kill every last Tutsi and every Hutu who would not join in the orgy of violence. Despite the crudity of their armaments-most of the génocidaires were armed with machetes and crude farm implements rather than guns, much less poison gas-the murderers achieved the dubious distinction of having carried out the fastest mass killing in human history: the toll worked out to be 333 deaths per hour, 5 deaths per minute.

Despite the years and the events that have intervened, the international community has not yet forgotten the horror of Rwandan genocide: the coming weeks will, no doubt, be filled with many a pious remembrance of the tragic events. Unfortunately, it does not seem like the world has reflected to any great depth on those catastrophic events either. Ultimately the real tragedy would be if lessons about how it all happened went unlearned.

The natural question when faced with so much human misery and so many people killed is: who is to blame? The alleged mastermind of the genocide, Colonel Bagosora, is now on trial in Arusha, Tanzania before the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), a court established by the United Nations Security Council to try those accused of the most grievous crimes against humanity. Lesser suspects, depending on the gravity of their offenses, are being processed by the fledgling Rwandan judiciary or by elected lay judges in the innovative village courts called gacaca ("on the grass") after their meeting places set up by the RPF government of President Paul Kagame. But, in a sense, the real culprits are not individuals, but a whole series of institutional failures that have yet to be adequately probed. While nothing can be done to prevent the evil in the hearts of men and women-only the eventual acts arising from those malignant designs can be combated by the tools of statecraft-something can be done about the failures that can potentially facilitate the eruption of fresh horrors like the Rwandan genocide. 

The first failure was with the Rwandan state itself. Unlike the infamous cases of "failed states" like Somalia, Liberia and Sierra Leone, where the violence came as a result of the collapse of governmental apparatus and the ensuing chaos, the killings in Rwanda occurred precisely because the génocidaires managed to seize control of state institutions and use them to serve murderous schemes that had been planned months ahead. In fact, Rwanda was and is one of the most tightly organized countries in the world: the smallest administrative unit in the rigidly hierarchical system consists of a a mere ten households. While much has been made of the role of Rwanda's Belgian colonial rulers in creating a legacy of ethnic resentment by discriminating against the Hutu in favor of the Tutsi, it is also undeniable that the post-independence Hutu regimes, especially that of Habyarimana who seized power in 1973, ferociously oppressed the Tutsi, ultimately driving some 600,000 into exile, where many joined the RPF rebels. The RPF's invasion of Rwanda in 1990 further radicalized the Hutu government, which decided that the only way to hold on to power was to eliminate all Tutsis as rebel "accomplices." While it is never popular to "blame the victim," the truth is that, in the final analysis, every political community must accept responsibility for assuring its own viability and stability. Rwanda's post-colonial leaders, both Hutu and Tutsi, who should have been aware of the precarious foundations on which their new state rested given the lack of a national sense of identity that was only exacerbated by ethnic fears and hatred, did little to ameliorate communal tensions, much less to build a common society. In retrospect, the full folly of the 1960 UN Declaration on the Granting of Independence to Colonial Countries and Peoples, which stipulated that "the inadequacy of political, economic, social or educational preparedness should never serve as a pretext for delaying independence," is manifest. The principle of "modernization first, democratization later" invoked recently by ITNI editor Nikolas Gvosdev in his series on democracy finds perhaps no more compelling proof than the state failure and violence that has been the lot of all-too-many of the post-colonial states of Africa and Asia.

The second failure in the bloodbath can be laid at the doorstep of neighboring African states and their leaders who studiously refrained from any action when confronted with the atrocities taking place. The Zairean government even supported the Rwandan génocidaires and allowed them to shelter in its eastern rainforests, prompting the victorious RPF to invade Zaire and, ultimately, overthrow the regime and stoke what has been described as Africa's world war, a conflict that has claimed at least 3.5 million lives. Whatever pieties may be recited nowadays by Western leaders shamed by their failure to prevent the killings, it is unlikely that the major powers are any more likely today to intervene in similar remote crises where no significant national interests are at stake. After the primary responsibility of the society in turmoil itself, the mantle most naturally falls to "frontline" countries to ensure order in their neighborhoods. The ongoing difficulties in Rwanda's neighbors-especially Congo, Burundi and Uganda-testify both to the utility of a certain enlightened self-interest in subregional stability and to the need to develop such mechanisms in areas of the globe like Africa and Southeastern Asia where such security arrangements have been largely non-existent. At the end of last year, twenty-eight African states made a tentative step forward by ratifying a protocol that brought an African Peace and Security Council into existence last month. By next year, that body might have an army to command since leaders of the African Union agreed three weeks ago-at least on paper-to form five brigades of soldiers, police and military observers-15,000 people in all-to be based in each of the five regions of the continent. Whether or not the economic means necessary to establish the standing force and the political will required to overcome the traditional African reluctance to "interfere" in "domestic matters" materialize remain to be seen.

The UN, too, bears a significant burden of responsibility for the genocide. In the weeks leading up to outbreak of violence, as the haunted Canadian general who commanded the UN peacekeeping forces, Roméo Dallaire, admitted in his account of the genocide,[i] the UN was increasingly aware of that the slaughter was being planned with hit lists being drawn up and machetes being issued to every third adult Hutu male. Seven times Dallaire requested authorization from the UN Secretariat's Department of Peacekeeping Operations-headed by then-Undersecretary-General Kofi Annan-to undertake missions to deter the conspirators, and seven times he was ordered to stand down. In the end, the UN force strength was cut from 2,600 men to 450 and its mission was specifically limited by Dallaire's New York-based superiors to the evacuation of foreign nationals from the conflict zone. While the full story of the UN's sins of omission remains to told, Professor Michael Barnett of the University of Wisconsin, who as a political officer at the U.S. Mission to the UN covered Rwanda during the period, has constructed a damning indictment of the political and ethical paralysis of the international body's bureaucratic culture[ii]-and evidence suggests little has changed, an inconvenient fact often ignored by the UN's advocates, including the current Secretary-General, for whom the Rwandan disaster proved to be no bar to career advancement.

Should the role of the United States have been different from what it was? While, especially in hindsight, specific actions (or inaction) on the part of the Clinton administration during the genocide may be subject to debate, the general thrust of its policy was politically correct-that is, it was realistically attune to the limitations it faced. For a host of diplomatic and military reasons, direct unilateral intervention was never seriously contemplated. In fact, in the wake of the debacle in Somalia, it is doubtful if the American people would have supported any kind of direct U.S. military intervention, whether unilateral or under some multilateral aegis, in a country far outside America's strategic interests. As human rights lawyer Samantha Powers has noted in her study of American foreign policy and genocide,[iii] even the domestic U.S. lobby for Africa had its attention turned elsewhere as the Rwandan tragedy unfolded: around the time the massacres were in full swing, Randall Robinson of TransAfrica was engaging in a hunger strike to protest the automatic repatriation of Haitians fleeing the coup that had ousted Jean-Bertrand Aristide, while six members of Congress were getting themselves arrested in front of the White House in demonstrations over the same policy. The late Senator Paul Simon, then chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on Africa and one of the few members of Congress to urge the administration to be more engaged, sadly recalled later: "If every member of the House and Senate had received 100 letters from people back home saying we have to do something about Rwanda, when the crisis was first developing, then I think the response would have been different." For better or worse, in democracies, politicians respond to the domestic pressure, which is seldom altruistic.