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Three Lessons from the Rwandan Genocide, 25 Years Later

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“The 1994 tragedy proved that the concept of sovereignty must have limits, and that major powers do have a duty to intervene to alleviate humanitarian crises, such as genocides.”

This month marked the 25th anniversary of the start of the Rwandan genocide. Although Rwanda seems to be doing well today and the wounds have been healing for years, the violence that began on April 7th 1994 and savagely continued for 3 months, left around 1 million people dead. After Auschwitz, the international community vowed to never let a genocide happen again. Yet, it did. The commemoration of this tragedy should be occasion to consider at least three lessons from those horrible events.

In the standard account, the genocide began because President Juvenal Habyarimana’s airplane was shot down, and all passengers died. Habyarimana belonged to the Hutu tribe and had just met leaders of the Tutsi tribe. The Tutsi had been waging guerilla campaigns against the government for years, but Habyarimana had been working on a peace deal with them. Yet, only one hour after the plane was shot down, Hutu militias began targeting Tutsi villages, and this violence would continue for the next three months.

Given the scope of the killings and their chilling efficiency with the machete, we now know that the genocide was not a mere tribal reaction to Habyarimana’s death. It had been organized for months in advance. Predictably, this has given rise to a great deal of speculation. The recently deceased Lyndon Larouche, perennially obsessed with conspiracy theories, incessantly proposed an alternative version of the events. In his account, Britain’s Prince Philip was the mastermind of this horrid event, given that he was president of the World Wildlife Fund at the time. Larouche claims that, in fact, this particular institution has a more sinister goal: population control, perhaps out of Malthusian motivations (an old conspiracy theory that has many versions). In the years preceding the genocide, the World Wildlife Fund was very active in Rwanda, organizing programs for the protection of gorillas. According to Larouche, under the guidance of Prince Philip, the World Wildlife Fund was actually preparing the Hutu militias for the genocide.

Over the years, Larouche became a laughing stock because of his outlandish claims, and this is yet another of his outrageous allegations. There is no evidence whatsoever in support of his conspiracy theory regarding the genocide in Rwanda. But, as it usually happens, one of the great dangers of absurd conspiracy theories is that they divert attention from real conspiracies. And, as it turns out, there may have been a real conspiracy in the Rwandan genocide.

The genocide came to an end because Tutsi militias led by Paul Kagame took control of the country. Ever since, Kagame has ruled Rwanda with a very authoritarian approach. In Kagame’s official version, Hutu militias shot down Habyarimana’s plane because they were opposed to signing a peace deal with the Tutsi, and they were hoping to arouse Hutu tribal feelings. But Kagame himself was from the onset very vindictive, and apparently, he organized the killing of about 100,000 Hutus in the aftermath of the genocide. A French commission investigated the facts and concluded that the plane was not shot down by Hutu militias—but rather, by Tutsi militias that had smuggled antiaircraft equipment from Uganda; this version was later dismissed by French judges.

Kagame has denied these allegations, and, in turn, has accused France of having supported the Hutus. It now seems that this claim does have some basis. It appears that under Francois Mitterrand’s tenure, France had great interest in the exploitation of coltan, an abundant mineral in Rwanda. According to this theory, the French government had done some businesses with the Hutus in order to secure a greater coltan supply, and part of this deal was giving military training to the Hutu militias. France has refused to officially endorse this theory, but there are many testimonies that lend it some credibility, and, to this date, the whole affair remains a source of embarrassment for the French government, which refuses to fully come to terms with its role in that tragedy, although President Macron has recently ordered a more thorough investigation.

Thus, the first lesson we can learn from these tragic events is that absurd conspiracy theories (such as Larouche’s) actually hinder our efforts to arrive at historical truths and consider real conspiracy theories (such as France’s possible participation in the genocide).

The second lesson has to do with the dangers of what Arthur Schlesinger called the, “cult of ethnicity.” Even if major foreign interests were at stake, the Rwandan genocide could not have happened if ethnic identities were not hyped in the years preceding the genocide. The Hutu and Tutsi tribes had had strained relationships in the past, but there had been much intermarriage; and there simply was no reliable way to tell apart a Hutu from a Tutsi—neither physically nor linguistically. However, during colonial days, the Belgians appealed to the old but brutally efficient imperialist tactic of divide et impera, divide and rule. They enhanced a sense of ethnic identity among their colonial subjects in Rwanda (for example, by explicitly stating their ethnicity on their national identification cards), and ultimately privileged the Tutsi, using them as intermediaries to rule the whole country. By 1994, Hutu resentment had built up, and one common trope to motivate Hutu militiamen was to claim that the Tutsi would try to enslave the Hutu, as it had happened in the past. Ethnicity became the obsessive axis in this deadly game.

It would be hyperbole to claim that this cult of ethnicity resonates in the United States. But we should still learn the Rwandan lesson. Race is a social construction. Yet, very much as Rwandans did, some Americans are increasingly fascinated by racial differences and any attempt to downplay these differences (as the original Civil Rights movement did) is frowned upon. Whenever someone repeats Obama’s inspiring words in 2004, “there is not a Black America and a White America and Latino America and Asian America-there’s the United States of America,” backlash usually follows. White nationalists and the far-right would claim that this is race betrayal; multiculturalists and the far-left would claim that this is “colorblind racism.” It seems that at both ends of the political spectrum there is an unhealthy fascination with race and ethnicity. If history is any guide, we should come to terms with the fact that Rwandans played the identity politics game for a long time, and the result was not pretty.

The third lesson we can gather from the Rwandan genocide has to do with the limits of sovereignty. Ever since the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, Western nations have come to embrace the principle of sovereignty: no nation shall interfere in the internal affairs of other nations. Given the nasty history of some nations interfering in other nations (which precisely caused the Thirty Years War that the Treaty of Westphalia concluded), the principle made sense at that particular time.

Furthermore, as colonial and neocolonial powers have all-too-frequently used humanitarian motifs in their “civilizing missions” exploiting nations in the developing world, sovereignty was also a welcome concept as part of post-colonialist efforts. But the Rwandan genocide was the first wake-up call from this enthusiastic approach. The 1994 tragedy proved that the concept of sovereignty must have limits, and that major powers do have a duty to intervene to alleviate humanitarian crises, such as genocides.

As Hotel Rwanda accurately depicts it, there was great cynicism in Western powers’ failure to intervene, even knowing fully well what was going on and fully anticipating the huge death toll. We may well accuse Western powers of hypocrisy and even of racism, as the victims’ skin color did seem to play a role in Western indifference. But this should be occasion not to be cynics ourselves—but rather to believe that the moral ground can indeed be safeguarded by intervening in other nations.

In fact, precisely in response to the shock of the failures in Rwanda, political philosophers have for years discussed the concept of “Responsibility to Protect” (R2P), arguing that despite its potential for neocolonial abuse, the global community needs to agree that in times of humanitarian crises, foreign nations must intervene to restore order and enforce peace. As major crises in Syria, Libya, Yemen and Venezuela are currently taking place, this is a concept that deserves more active discussion. 

So as we solemnly commemorate 25 years since the beginning of a particularly terrible event in recent history, let us recall some of the lessons it can offer today, to a world increasingly concerned with reducing violence and conflict.

Dr. Gabriel Andrade teaches ethics and behavioral science at St. Matthew’s University School of Medicine. He has previously contributed to Areo Magazine and DePauw University’s The Prindle Post.

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