Rwanda

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  • by Anup Shah
  • This Page Last Updated Wednesday, October 25, 2006

During the horrific genocide in Rwanda, 1994, the Rwandan media played a major part in supporting, or creating an atmosphere to sanction the terrible human suffering that ensued. A detailed report from Human Rights Watch in 1999, looked into how the killing campaign was executed, using oral testimony and documentation from a wide variety of sources. It explained how this was planned for a long time and how the international community was aware of what was going on yet ignored it, and were even present during the systematic killings.

“At least half a million people perished in the Rwandan genocide,” the report notes. “Perhaps as many as three quarters of the Tutsi population. At the same time, thousands of Hutu were slain because they opposed the killing campaign and the forces directing it.”

But one issue about the whole tragedy was how it was portrayed in some of the mainstream media of some western countries. The genocide was often attributed to ancient tribal hatreds. However as Human Rights Watch notes, “this genocide was not an uncontrollable outburst of rage by a people consumed by ‘ancient tribal hatreds.’” Instead:

This genocide resulted from the deliberate choice of a modern elite to foster hatred and fear to keep itself in power. This small, privileged group first set the majority against the minority to counter a growing political opposition within Rwanda. Then, faced with RPF success on the battlefield and at the negotiating table, these few powerholders transformed the strategy of ethnic division into genocide. They believed that the extermination campaign would restore the solidarity of the Hutu under their leadership and help them win the war, or at least improve their chances of negotiating a favorable peace. They seized control of the state and used its machinery and its authority to carry out the slaughter.

Leave None to Tell the Story; Genocide in Rwanda, Human Rights Watch, March 1999

Richard Robbins, professor of anthropology at the State University of New York also agrees, saying “If we examine cases of purported ethnic conflict we generally find that it involve more than ancient hatred; even the ‘hatreds’ we find are relatively recent, and constructed by those ethnic entrepreneurs taking advantage of situations rooted deep in colonial domination and fed by neocolonial exploitation.” The case of Rwanda is instructive he adds. In his book, Global Problems and the Culture of Capitalism (Allyn and Bacon, 1999, 2002), pp. 269-274, he looks at some of these deeper political and modern causes of the genocide in Rwanda, a summary of which is provided here.

Perhaps there is no better case than Rwanda of state killing in which colonial history and global economic integration combined to produce genocide. It is also a case where the causes of the killing were carefully obscured by Western governmental and journalistic sources, blamed instead on the victims and ancient tribal hatreds.

A country the size of Belgium, with a population of 7 million people (overpopulated according to most reports but Belgium supports over 10 million people), Rwanda experienced in 1994 one of the worst genocides of the twentieth century. Some 800,000 people, mostly but not exclusively Tutsis, were slaughtered by the Hutu-run state. Contrary to media and many government reports, the genocide was the result of Rwanda’s political and economic position in the capitalist world system. It involved such monetary factors as its colonial history, the price of coffee, World Bank and International Monetary Fund policies, the global interests of Western nations, particularly France, the interests of international aid agencies, and Western attitudes towards Africa (Shalom 1996).

Richard H. Robbins, Global Problems and the Culture of Capitalism, (Allyn and Bacon, 1999, 2002), p.269

Rwanda is bordered with the Democratic Republic of Congo to the west, Uganda to the north, Tanzania to the east, and Buruni to the south

The Rwanda area had been dominated by hunter gatherers (the Twa) since 1000 A.D. Hutu speakers began to settle in the area, with farms and a clan-based monarchy that dominated the Twa. Around the sixteenth century, new immigrants from the Horn of Africa, the cattle-raising Tutsi arrived and set up their own monarchy. Hutu and Tutsi were a type of class distinction, rather than based on physical differences. Tutsi were typically more dominant and controlled wealth such as cattle, while Hutu were without wealth and not tied to the powerful. But, people could move from being Hutu, to Tutsi, and the other way round, depending on their wealth and status. In addition, inter marriage was not uncommon, and power was attainable by both groups.

“When the Germans assumed control of the area after the Berlin Conference of 1884” as Robbins goes on (p. 270), “they applied their racist ideology and assumed that the generally taller, lighter-skinned Tutsis were the more ‘natural’ leaders, while the Hutus were destined to serve them. Consequently the Germans increased Tutsi influence.”

As Human Rights Watch also detailed, revisionist history was written by the Europeans:

Because Europeans thought that the Tutsi looked more like themselves than did other Rwandans, they found it reasonable to suppose them closer to Europeans in the evolutionary hierarchy and hence closer to them in ability. Believing the Tutsi to be more capable, they found it logical for the Tutsi to rule Hutu and Twa just as it was reasonable for Europeans to rule Africans. Unaware of the “Hutu” contribution to building Rwanda, the Europeans saw only that the ruler of this impressive state and many of his immediate entourage were Tutsi, which led them to assume that the complex institutions had been created exclusively by Tutsi.

Not surprisingly, Tutsi welcomed these ideas about their superiority, which coincided with their own beliefs. In the early years of colonial rule, Rwandan poets and historians, particularly those from the milieu of the court, resisted providing Europeans with information about the Rwandan past. But as they became aware of European favoritism for the Tutsi in the late 1920s and early 1930s, they saw the advantage in providing information that would reinforce this predisposition. They supplied data to the European clergy and academics who produced the first written histories of Rwanda. The collaboration resulted in a sophisticated and convincing but inaccurate history that simultaneously served Tutsi interests and validated European assumptions. According to these accounts, the Twa hunters and gatherers were the first and indigenous residents of the area. The somewhat more advanced Hutu cultivators then arrived to clear the forest and displace the Twa. Next, the capable, if ruthless, Tutsi descended from the north and used their superior political and military abilities to conquer the far more numerous but less intelligent Hutu. This mythical history drew on and made concrete the “Hamitic hypothesis,” the then-fashionable theory that a superior, “Caucasoid” race from northeastern Africa was responsible for all signs of true civilization in “Black” Africa. This distorted version of the past told more about the intellectual atmosphere of Europe in the 1920s than about the early history of Rwanda. Packaged in Europe, it was returned to Rwanda where it was disseminated through the schools and seminaries. So great was Rwandan respect for European education that this faulty history was accepted by the Hutu, who stood to suffer from it, as well as by the Tutsi who helped to create it and were bound to profit from it. People of both groups learned to think of the Tutsi as the winners and the Hutu as the losers in every great contest in Rwandan history.

The polished product of early Rwando-European collaboration stood unchallenged until the 1960s when a new generation of scholars, foreign and Rwandan, began questioning some of its basic assumptions. They persuaded other scholars to accept a new version of Rwandan history that demonstrated a more balanced participation of Hutu and Tutsi in creating the state, but they had less success in disseminating their ideas outside university circles. Even in the 1990s, many Rwandans and foreigners continued to accept the erroneous history formulated in the 1920s and 1930s.

History, Leave None to Tell the Story; Genocide in Rwanda, Human Rights Watch, March 1999

After Germany’s defeat in World War I, Belgium took over colonial control, intensifying the split between Hutu and Tutsi “by institutionalizing racist doctrines.” Bullet-pointing Robbins mostly (p.270):

  • They replaced all Hutu chiefs with Tutsis and issued identity cards that noted ethnic identity, making the division between Hutu and Tutsi far more rigid than it had been before colonial control. Human Rights Watch also noted this:

    The very recording of the ethnic groups in written form enhanced their importance and changed their character. No longer flexible and amorphous, the categories became so rigid and permanent that some contemporary Europeans began referring to them as “castes.” The ruling elite, most influenced by European ideas and the immediate beneficiaries of sharper demarcation from other Rwandans, increasingly stressed their separateness and their presumed superiority. Meanwhile Hutu, officially excluded from power, began to experience the solidarity of the oppressed.

    History, Leave None to Tell the Story; Genocide in Rwanda, Human Rights Watch, March 1999

  • The Belgians also gave the Tutsi elite the responsibility to collect taxes and administer the justice system.
  • The Tutsi chiefs used this new power granted them by Belgian rule to gain Hutu land. However, excluding the wealth and status of Tutsi chiefs, the average financial situation of Hutus and Tutsis was about the same.
  • Both groups were subject to the harsh colonial rule of Belgium in which forced labor was common, taxes were increased, and the beating of peasants by Belgian colonists became standard practice.
  • Furthermore, the colonial rulers transformed the economy, requiring peasants to shift their activities from subsistence or food crops to export crops, such as coffee.
    • Coffee production had the effect of extending the amount of arable land, since it required volcanic soil that was not productive for other, particularly food, crops.
    • As we shall see, this had far-reaching consequences and would contribute to the conditions that precipitated the genocide.

The colonial break for freedom also had its effects as former colonial powers played off Hutus and Tutsis between each other:

  • Tutsis campaigning to break from colonial rule in the 1950s meant that Belgium started to favor Hutus more so because Belgium believed they would be easier to control. The Belgians began replacing Tutsi chiefs with Hutu.
  • “In 1959, when clashes between Hutu and Tutsi broke out,” Robbins writes, “the Belgians allowed Hutus to burn down Tutsis houses.” (p. 270)
  • Furthermore, “Belgians allowed the Hutu elite to engineer a coup, and independence was granted to Rwanda on July 1, 1962.”
  • Anywhere from 10,000 to 100,000 Tutsis were killed in violence preceding independence, while some 120,000 to 500,000 fled the country to neighboring countries such as Burundi and Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). From there, Tutsi guerillas engineered raids into Rwanda.
  • Within Rwanda, Hutu rulers established ethnic quotas limiting Tutsi access to education and government employment.

A military coup d'état in 1973 bought Juvenal Habyarimana into power, promising national unity. He did this by establishing a one-party state, totalitarian in nature. Yet, “foreign powers appreciated the fact that Habyraimana ‘ran a tight ship,’ even requiring all Rwandans to participate in collective labor on Saturday.” (p. 271). Many reforms were also put in place, such as modernizing the civil service, making clean water available to virtually everyone, raising per capita income, and seeing an inflow of money from Western donors.

Some projects, however, “often imposed by multilateral organizations, were fiascoes and probably contributed to Hutu-Tutsi enmity” Robbins adds. For example,

In 1974 the World Bank financed a protect to establish cattle ranches over an area of 51,000 hectares. The bank hired a Belgian anthropologist, René Lemarchand, to appraise the project; he warned that the Hutu were using the project to establish a system of patronage and spoils that served to reduce the size of Tutsi herds and grazing areas and to increase Tutsi economic and political dependence on the Hutu, and that the project was aggravating Hutu-Tutsi conflicts. Lemarchand’s warnings were ignored.

Richard H. Robbins, Global Problems and the Culture of Capitalism, (Allyn and Bacon, 1999, 2002), p.271

But more economic woes would result in more social problems, in particular the coffee price collapse:

Soon, whatever progress Rwanda was making to climb out of the pit of its colonial past was undermined by the collapse of the value of its export commodities—tin and, more important, coffee. Until 1989, when coffee prices collapsed, coffee was, after oil, the second most traded commodity in the world. In 1989, negotiations over the extension of the International Coffee Agreement, a multinational attempt to regulate the price paid to coffee producers, collapsed when the United States, under pressure from large trading companies, withdrew, preferring to let market forces determine coffee prices. This resulted in coffee producers glutting the market with coffee and forcing coffee prices to their lowest level since the 1930s. While this did little to affect coffee buyers and sellers in wealthy countries, it was devastating to the producing countries, such as Rwanda, and to the small farmers who produced coffee.

Richard H. Robbins, Global Problems and the Culture of Capitalism, (Allyn and Bacon, 1999, 2002), p.271

The cheap coffee is good for consumers, but for producers, such a quick drop had a devastating effect. “If you are a coffee consumer,” continues Robbin, “especially one who likes the new premium, freshly roasted varieties, you will pay between eight to ten dollars per pound. Of that, fifty to seventy cents represents the world market price of which thirty to fifty cents goes to the farmer who produced the coffee. The remainder goes to mid-level buyers, exporters, importers, and the processing plants that sell and market the coffee. For Rwanda, the consequences of the collapse of coffee prices meant a 50 percent drop in export earnings between 1989 and 1991.”

The elite suffered from this too, which required additional means to maintain power.

The sudden drop in income for small farmers resulted in widespread famine, as farmers no longer had income with which to purchase food. The consequence for the Rwandan state elite was just as devastating; the money required to maintain the position of the rulers had come from coffee, tin, and foreign aid. With the first two gone, foreign aid became even more critical, so the Rwandan elite needed more than ever to maintain state power in order to maintain access to that aid.

Maintaining access to aid, however, particularly from multilateral organizations, required agreeing to financial reforms imposed by those organizations. In September 1990, the IMF imposed a structural adjustment program on Rwanda that devalued the Rwandan franc and further impoverished the already devastated Rwandan farmers and workers. The prices of fuel and consumer necessities were increased, and the austerity program imposed by the IMF led to a collapse in the education and health systems. Severe child “malnutrition” increased dramatically, and malaria cases increased 21 percent due largely to the unavailability of antimalarial drugs in the health centers. In 1992, the IMF imposed another devaluation, further raising the prices of essentials to Rwandans. Peasants up-rooted 300,000 coffee trees in an attempt to grow food crops, partly to raise money, but the market for local food crops was undermined by cheap food imports and food aid from the wealthy countries.

Richard H. Robbins, Global Problems and the Culture of Capitalism, (Allyn and Bacon, 1999, 2002), pp.271-272

While economic collapse was looming, military threats emerged from a group of Tutsi refugees known as the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). “While the economy was collapsing, the RPF … invaded the country to overthrow the Habyarimana regime. Thus the state was confronted with crisis from two directions: economic collapse precipitated by the fall in coffee prices and military attacks from Tutsi who had been forced out of the country by ethnic rivalries fueled by colonial rulers.”

The Habyarimana regime was able to parley the invasion by the RPF into more foreign aid. Former colonial powers were to still have a part to play in the events that then unfolded.

The French, anxious to maintain their influence in Africa, began providing weapons and support to the Rwandan government, and the army grew from 5,000 to 40,000 from October 1990 to mid-1992. A French military officer took command of a counterinsurgency operation. Habyarimana used the actions by the RPF to arrest 10,000 political opponents and permitted the massacre of some 350 Tutsi in the countryside.

In spite of increased state oppression and the French-supported buildup of the armed forces, in January 50,000 Rwandans marched in a prodemocracy demonstration in Kigali, the country’s capital. Hutu extremists in Habyarimana’s government argued to crush the opposition on a massive scale, but instead, he introduced democratic reform and allowed the political opposition to assume government posts, including that of prime minister. However, he also authorized the establishment of death squads within the military—the Interahamwe (“those who attack together”) and the Impuzamugambi (“those with a single purpose”)—who were trained, armed, and indoctrinated in racial hatred toward Tutsi. These were the groups that would control most of the killing that was to follow.

Richard H. Robbins, Global Problems and the Culture of Capitalism, (Allyn and Bacon, 1999, 2002), pp.271-272

By now, various human rights groups were warning of the existence of these death squads. However, the limited response by the international community gave Rwandan extremists the belief they could get away with massacres. As Human Rights Watch adds:

From 1990 on, influential donors of international aid pressed Habyarimana for political and economic reforms. But, generally satisfied with the stability of his government, they overlooked the systematic discrimination against Tutsi which violated the very principles that they were urging him to respect. They discussed but did not insist on eliminating identity cards that showed ethnic affiliation, cards that served as death warrants for many Tutsi in 1994.

When the Rwandan government began massacring Tutsi in 1990, crimes that were solidly documented by local and international human rights groups and by a special rapporteur for the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, some donors protested. At one point, the Belgian government went so far as to recall its ambassador briefly. But none openly challenged Rwandan explanations that the killings were spontaneous and uncontrollable and none used its influence to see that the guilty were brought to justice.

In addition, the lack of international response to the 1993 massacres in Burundi permitted Rwandan extremists to expect that they too could slaughter people in large numbers without consequence.

International Responsibility, Leave None to Tell the Story; Genocide in Rwanda, Human Rights Watch, March 1999

Various propaganda techniques were being used by Habyarimana’s inner circle, such as setting up a radio station (“a potent source of power in a country that is 60 percent illiterate,” Robbins notes (p.272)) to denounce attempts at peace between the government and the RPF, while also inciting more hatred. “Acts of violence against Tutsis increased,” as Robbins continues, “after the president of neighboring Burundi was killed in an attempted coup by Tutsi army officers. Hutus were incited to kill Tutsis, and the RPF responded by killing Hutus: some 50,000 peasants were reported killed, slightly more Tutsis than Hutus.”

The shooting down of a plane which killed Habyarimana provided the final step to start the genocide:

As Habyarimana continued to negotiate with the opposition under international pressure to reach a settlement, his plane (a gift from President Mitterrand of France) was shot down, killing him and everyone on board. Within an hour of Habyarimana’s death, roadblocks were put up throughout Kigali as militia and death squads preceded to kill moderate Hutus, including the prime minister, whose names were on prepared lists. Then the death squads went after every Tutsi they could find, inciting virtually everyone in the civil service to join in the killing. The Hutu extremists set up an interim government committed to genocide. Yet, even when it was clear to most people that the genocide was orchestrated by an authoritarian state, journalists as well as U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali would characterize the slaughter as “Hutus killing Tutsis and Tutsis killing Hututs.” Building on Western stereotypes of savage Africans, Mayor Ed Koch of New York City, characterized the genocide as “tribal warfare involving those without the veneer of Western civilization.”

As long as the killing could be characterized as interethnic violence, the core states, whose actions had created the situation for the killings and whose economic policies precipitated the violence, could distance themselves from the conflict. U.S. and European leaders, in fact went to great lengths not to use the word genocide, for to call it genocide may have required military intervention as agreed on in the United Nations Genocide Convention of 1948. It wasn’t until months later, after some 800,000 Tutsis had been killed, that government leaders in the West began to acknowledge the genocide.

Richard H. Robbins, Global Problems and the Culture of Capitalism, (Allyn and Bacon, 1999, 2002), pp.272-273

As Human Rights Watch also adds to Robbins points above, major powers did not act when they knew what was happening, in advance:

The Rwandans who organized and executed the genocide must bear full responsibility for it. But genocide anywhere implicates everyone. To the extent that governments and peoples elsewhere failed to prevent and halt this killing campaign, they all share in the shame of the crime. In addition, the U.N. staff as well as the three foreign governments principally involved in Rwanda bear added responsibility: the U.N. staff for having failed to provide adequate information and guidance to members of the Security Council; Belgium, for having withdrawn its troops precipitately and for having championed total withdrawal of the U.N. force; the U.S. for having put saving money ahead of saving lives and for slowing the sending of a relief force; and France, for having continued its support of a government engaged in genocide. In contrast to the inaction of the major actors, some non-permanent members of the Security Council with no traditional ties with Rwanda undertook to push for a U.N. force to protect Tutsi from extermination. But all members of the Security Council brought discredit on the U.N. by permitting the representative of a genocidal government to continue sitting in the Security Council, a council supposedly committed to peace….

Faced with escalating costs for peacekeeping operations, the U.N. staff and members wanted not just success [to offset the failure in Somalia just a few years earlier], but success at low cost. Demands for economy, loudly voiced by the U.S. and others, led to the establishment of a force only one third the size of that originally recommended and with a mandate that was also scaled down from that specified by the peace accords. Peacekeeping staff had proposed a small human rights division, which might have tracked growing hostility against Tutsi, but no money was available for this service and the idea was dropped.

Belgium, too, wanted to save money. Although it felt concerned enough about Rwanda to contribute troops to the force, it felt too poor to contribute the full battalion of 800 requested and agreed to send only half that number. Troops from other countries that were less well trained and less well armed filled the remaining places, producing a force that was weaker than it would have been with a full Belgian batallion.

As preparations for further conflict grew in February 1994, the Belgians were sufficiently worried by the deteriorating situation to ask for a stronger mandate, but they were rebuffed by the U.S. and the United Kingdom, which refused to support any measure that might add to the cost of the operation.

The concern for economy prevailed even after massive slaughter had taken place. When a second peacekeeping operation was being mounted in May and June, U.N. member states were slow to contribute equipment needed for the troops. The U.S. government was rightly ridiculed for requiring seven weeks to negotiate the lease for armored personnel carriers, but other members did not do much better. The U.K., for example, provided only fifty trucks.

International Responsibility, Leave None to Tell the Story; Genocide in Rwanda, Human Rights Watch, March 1999

Declassified documents from the U.S. show that the U.S., contrary to their own claims otherwise at the time, knew of the coming genocide, but chose not to do anything about it. Many critics have long said the U.S. knew about this and as Radio Netherlands also commented:

Declassified US documents show that evidence of an impending genocide was in general circulation well before the slaughter began. The hundreds of pages of material, released this week by a research group at George Washington University called the National Security Archive, indicate that US officials not only knew what was going on but also chose not to use the world “genocide” because that would have obliged them to intervene.

“The documents confirm what was already known,” says Rwanda researcher Alison de Forge of Human Rights Watch, “but the fact that it is from a US source and that it is in writing will seem more impressive to some Americans.”

Rwanda Genocide: What The US Knew, Radio Netherlands, August 23, 2001

Human Rights Watch’s description of how the major powers reacted and explained the situation to the world is worth quoting at length:

From the first hours after the killings began, U.S., Belgian, and French policymakers knew that Tutsi were being slain because they were Tutsi. [General] Dallaire [commander of the U.N. peacekeeping force] delivered that same information in a telegram to U.N. headquarters on April 8 [1994]. Early accounts by journalists on the spot also depicted systematic, widespread killings on an ethnic basis. The simultaneous selective slaughter of Hutu opposed to Hutu Power complicated the situation but did not change the genocidal nature of attacks on Tutsi and, in any case, killings of Hutu diminished markedly after the first days. Given the pattern of killings, given previous massacres of Tutsi, given the propaganda demanding their extermination, given the known political positions of the persons heading the interim government, informed observers must have seen that they were facing a genocide.

They knew, but they did not say. The U.S. may have been the only government to caution its officials in writing to avoid the word “genocide,” but diplomats and politicians of other countries as well as staff of the U.N. also shunned the term. Some may have done so as part of their effort at neutrality, but others surely avoided the word because of the moral and legal imperatives attached to it.

Instead of denouncing the evil and explaining to the public what had to be done to end it, national and international leaders stressed the “confusing” nature of the situation, the “chaos” and the “anarchy.” After a first resolution that spoke fairly clearly about the conflict, the Security Council issued statements for several weeks that left both the nature of the violence and the identity of its perpetrators unclear. Secretary-General Bhoutros Bhoutros-Ghali spoke of the genocide as if it were a natural disaster and depicted Rwandans as a people “fallen into calamitous circumstances.”

Some policymakers could not get byeond the old cliches, like one official of the U.S. National Security Council who described the genocide as “tribal killings,” an explanation echoed by President Bill Clinton in June 1998 when he talked of “tribal resentments” as the source of troubles in Rwanda. In a similar vein, an adviser to French President Francois Mitterrand suggested that brutal slaughter was a usual practice among Africans and could not be easily eradicated. Other diplomats, more up to date, promoted the idea of a “failed state,” ignoring all indications that the Rwandan state was all too successful in doing what its leaders intended. They seemed unable to dissociate Rwanda from Somalia, although the two cases had few points of comparison beyond their common location on the African continent. Most journalists simply exploited the horror and made no effort to go beyond the easy explanations. A leading columnist for the New York Times even managed on April 15, 1994 to put the new and the old cliches in the same sentence, referring to a “failed state” and to a “centuries-old history of tribal warfare.”

International Responsibility, Leave None to Tell the Story; Genocide in Rwanda, Human Rights Watch, March 1999

Yet, as professor of economics, Michel Chossudovsky notes, the U.S. had strategic and economic motives in Central Africa, and “Washington’s objective was to displace France, discredit the French government (which had supported the Habyarimana regime) and install an Anglo-American protectorate in Rwanda under Major General Paul Kagame. Washington deliberately did nothing to prevent the ethnic massacres.” If true, this would suggest that France, Belgium and America have a lot of blood on their hands, too. In addition, this might also shed light on some hostilities and differing stances in the U.S.’s build up to the war on Iraq (2002-2003). There, France and Belgium (who Chossudovsky also mentions), along with Germany were strongly opposed to an invasion. It is commonly believed that they had their own interests in Iraq. It would be a long time before historians will eventually uncover whether this was another “great game” between powers being played out at the expense of other people.

It is interesting to note how various leaders and elite of the “core states” as Robbins calls them, referring to the colonial and imperial past which created a European-centered world system, almost continue, subtly, the beliefs and old stereotypes common to that era. Whether this attitude itself had a bearing on the lack of response or not, is hard to tell, but that it was used as justification or reason for slow action or uncertainty while also simplifying the complex causes provides a glimpse at how certain world issues are explained or understood in the mainstream.

The genocide only ended when the RPF eventually defeated the Rwandan government’s armies and took control of the country. But fleeing Hutu elite used radio broadcasts to incite fear in Hutu that chose to remain, saying that they faced retaliation and reprisals from returning Tutsi and RPF forces. As a result millions of Hutu fled Rwanda ending up in refugee camps in various bordering countries and as Robbins describes (p.273), “becoming a country in exile for the Hutu extremists who fled with them, using their control over the fleeing army to maintain control of the Hutus in the refugee camps.” Some 80,000 Hutus died in cholera epidemics in the camps. It was a couple of years later, in 1996, that Hutus began to return, when the RPF formed a government of reconciliation.

The Human Rights Watch report has a lot more details on the events at the time of the killings. The Propaganda section of the Human Rights Watch report, for example, provides some in-depth analysis of how the media in Rwanda was used and played a role in the genocide, and how propaganda was employed in a variety of ways.

Coming to terms with the genocide has not been easy for the Rwandan people. A tribunal was set up in an attempt to bring perpetrators of the crimes to justice. However, the decimated judicial system was unable to cope with the immense number of people accused of participating in the gross human rights violations—some 100,000.

The UN Security Council was asked to assist, resulting in the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. This tribunal could only practically try the most prominent suspects and so a traditional community justice system known as gacaca, originally for settling disputes and minor offenses, and used alongside official justice systems, was established with some 11,000 community courts to try lower level crimes.

Three important features of this approach included

  1. Rewarding those who confess by halving their prison sentences (leading to over 60,000 confessions)
  2. Maintaining the traditional aspect of apology, and
  3. Reparations to victims, through a compensation fund or community service.

Despite widespread interest and progress, there have been some concerns. For example, there is fear of political manipulation of the gacaca system by the Tutsi-led government and elites. In addition, some victims understandably do not wish to take part. In response, Charles Kayitana, of the Gacaca Commission, says as far as the government is concerned, there is no alternative:

To participate in Gacaca and to accept to reconcile, you have to accept the bitterness of it because tolerating someone who killed your people is a serious pill to swallow. And we believe a pill that is bitter is sometimes the one that heals.

Charles Kayitana, quoted by Robert Walker, Rwanda still searching for justice, BBC, March 30, 2004

More fundamentally, as observed by Alana Erin Tiemessen, writing in African Studies Quarterly at the University of Florida, the international approach in Rwanda through the Tribunal has been of retributive justice, while the gacaca system is an attempt at restorative justice. This latter approach is to heal and restore relationships within the community and is seen as a more populist, or citizen-based approach, where as the Tribunal is seen as remote.

The gacaca system is even supported by the prisoners themselves as fair and appropriate. In contrast, the prisoners have reacted to the Tribunal with low acceptance. Tiemessen notes one prisoner as saying, “why is it that the tribunal gives them more lenient sentences than us, they are the ones who told us to kill on radio … how come we are paying the higher price?” noting that the Tribunal does not support the death sentence, while the gacaca system does. (The more “luxurious” living conditions of prisoners held by the Tribunal did not go unnoticed, either.)

Noted near the very top, by Robbins, was how some attributed the conflict to “over-population” yet Rwanda, the size of Belgium, had a population some 3 million less than Belgium. A “Malthusian” theory of population growth and overpopulation being major causes of environmental degradation, hunger, poverty and war is quite common, perhaps because of the simplicity in its model. While some important research is to be understood from this perspective, most cases around the world finds environmental degradation, poverty, war and hunger to be found in geopolitical and economic causes, as has been the case throughout much of the history of recent centuries. For more on this aspect, see this site’s section on population.

One of the causes of the “core-initiated economic collapse” was structural adjustment, mentioned further above. In this case, this contributed to a terrible result. The world over, those similar structural adjustment policies have been pressured onto third world countries, leading to predictable economic, political and social problems. This site’s section on structural adjustment, details that aspect more so.

And as Robbins summarized, “the Rwandan disaster was hardly a simple matter of tribal warfare or ancient hatreds. It was the case of an excolonial, core-supported state threatened with core-initiated economic collapse and internal and external dissension resorting to genocide to remove the opposition that included, in this case, both Tutsis and moderate Hutus.”

Very rarely do we find these detailed accounts and context in mainstream explanation, and colonial style stereotyping still appears to be prominent as some of the quoted leaders above prove.

The Rwanda example then, is both an example of how media was used to push a propaganda of hatred for the purpose of genocide, but also how understanding the issue was typically explained in simplified terms omitting many of the deeper causes, which are also common contributing causes of problems elsewhere in the world.

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  • by Anup Shah
  • Created: Sunday, June 08, 2003
  • Last Updated: Wednesday, October 25, 2006

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October 25, 2006Small note added on the attempt to use truth commissions and traditional justice systems