Screen Shot 2014-02-27 at 10.11.32 PMDuring the Rwandan genocide of April to July 1994, an estimated half a million to one million people were killed: over 5,000 people every day and over 200 every hour.

That this horror could happen for just 24 hours, let alone for three whole months, is hard to comprehend. That mankind is capable of this sort of atrocity — including the indiscriminate killing of men, women, and children for no reason besides ethnicity — is mind-boggling. That this happened just two decades ago is difficult to believe. But perhaps the fact that these events took place while the international community looked on and did nothing— despite having the opportunity and resources to act— is perhaps the hardest thing to accept.

John Mukum Mbaku, a Senior Fellow at the Africa Growth Initiative, referenced the Bosnian War and other struggles in the area as potentially detracting attention from the crisis. Western leadership and media, Mbaku told The Politic, were “fixated on what was going on in the Balkans and as a consequence, Rwanda was not a policy priority for them.”

It is important to note the fact that Rwanda did not constitute a national interest for any of the parties that could have played a role in mitigating the crisis, such as the U.S. or France. Belgium, the country’s former colonizer, was the largest contributor to UNAMIR, the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda. However, after 10 Belgian soldiers perished in clashes on April 7, the country switched to evacuating expats out of Rwanda as quickly as possible.

A French soldier, part of the international force supporting the relief effort, adjusts the concertina wire surrounding the airport while Rwandan refugee children watch.

A French soldier, part of the international force supporting the relief effort, adjusts the concertina wire surrounding the airport while Rwandan refugee children watch.

It was under UNAMIR’s supervision that the Tutsi-based Rwandan Patriotic Army (RPA) signed the Arusha Accords of 1993 with Juvenal Habyarimana, an officer from the Hutu tribe who, after leading a successful coup in the 1970s, became the president of the country. While this was a power-sharing deal, the extremist factions of the north-western Hutu saw it as nothing but surrender to their rivals, the Tutsis.

During Habyarimana’s years in power, he had managed to stop the large-scale Tutsi killing for a lengthy period of time. However, the seeds of animosity had been sown well and early. The power-sharing deal turned out to be the catalyst for a plan to exterminate the Tutsis.

Nothing was done to stop the stream of anti-Tutsi propaganda in mass media channels, particularly in the radio. The shooting down of Habyarimana’s plane on April 6, 1994 — a murder which to this date remains unsolved — set off the killing. Hutu militias attacked the Tutsi community around the clock; the aim was to rob, rape, and murder. The African Rights and Human Rights Watch believes that something in the region of 250,000 Tutsis were killed in the first two weeks alone.

The most astounding knowledge today is how, or rather why, the international community remained silent for so long while humans were murdered with machetes and grenades. Some academics, such as Dominique Maritz, author of the paper “Rwandan Genocide: Failure of the International Community,” argue that the UN in particular wanted to avoid another Somalia — a case of peacekeeping gone horribly wrong, as multiple foreign soldiers were killed in the violence in Mogadishu the year before the Rwandan genocide. We can only ponder why the UN at that point did not differentiate between the two cases.

Another key factor was the limited response from the Western press. International media did not have the presence in Rwanda that may have created a greater reaction. Nonetheless, those who had the ability to send in their forces to prevent death and destruction were not entirely unaware of the situation in the central African country. One has to attribute some of this reaction to the knowledge that, if any official acknowledged that genocide was indeed taking place, then under the 1948 United Nations Genocide Convention, the international community would have been legally bound to take action. David Simon, a professor of political science who teaches a class called ‘Rwandan Genocide in Comparative Contexts’ at Yale, eloquently described the “intimacy” of the killing as the distinguishing factor in Rwanda. He called the case an almost “paradigmatic” example of genocide, so closely did it fit the definition of the term as set by the Genocide Convention. After Somalia, there was a lingering hope that Rwanda would solve its own issues, but this did not happen.

It took until May 4 — nearly a month into the killing — for Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the UN Secretary General, to declare that a “real genocide” was taking place. Meanwhile, nearly half a million Tutsis were already dead.


Perhaps the most significant question arising from the crisis is one of the prevention of genocide and human rights violations more broadly. Can a future Rwanda take place? What can be done to stop it? Who must take action, and when?

The Rwandan case led to the adoption of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) principle, accepted by the UN General Assembly in 2005. This principle underlines the concept of sovereignty as a privilege rather than a right, and it attributes a responsibility to the international community to act in cases where ethnic cleansing, genocide, war crimes, or crimes against humanity are taking place.

On paper, the R2P doctrine seems to be exactly what the international community was looking for. The original 70-plus page document released by the UN delineates the responsibilities of people around the globe when such crimes are taking place, and it contains the specifics for action if necessary. This is outlined in the document’s three pillars: the responsibility to prevent, react, and rebuild.

Ambassador Mark Lagon of the Georgetown School of Foreign Service believes that the R2P doctrine requires the addition of a fourth pillar: the possibility of unilateral intervention if the Security Council blocks officially sanctioned methods of intervening. He gives the strong example of NATO bombing Serbia in an attempt to stop the ethnic cleansing taking place in Kosovo in 1998, an action that the Security Council did not officially approve. While such a principle would lead to greater action in the future, it is also extremely controversial. It would lead to interventions taking place on a much wider scale — with stated reasons serving as a guise for other national interests.

Ambassador Lagon elaborated that a fourth R2P pillar would allow for an evolution, rather than a disintegration, of the relationship between organizations such as NATO and the Security Council. His reiteration that he did not believe the Security Council would be left simply ineffective shows that, at least in terms of intent, the body still has a big role to play as humanitarian interventionist law is re-evaluated.

Mbaku, meanwhile, spoke about the necessity of early warning mechanisms. He said that these mechanisms would “provide the international community with enough information to take decisive action.” The result, he hopes, would be that “such conflicts between groups… do not result in genocide, crimes against humanity, and/or ethnic cleansing.” R2P’s emphasis on prevention is another reason why the document earned so much support during its conception.

Technology can help to generate early warnings. The advent of Twitter, Facebook, and other forms of social media, as well as the greater interconnectedness and globalization of today’s world, hold the potential to make early intervention and hopefully prevention more likely. One need not look further than Egypt and Libya, where social media aided the toppling of dictators Hosni Mubarak and Muammar Gaddafi. Whether to get the word around about protests, or to reach those outside the borders of the countries and inform them of what was going on, social media was instrumental in these two cases.

In spite of the perspective gained from cases like Rwanda, Srebrenica, and others, the international community has been woefully inept at dealing with crises, even since the adoption of R2P. The ongoing civil war in Syria, in which a brutal regime continues attacking its own people, is just the most current example. There are complications in the case — with intervention through a Security Council resolution being blocked by Russia — but complications should not prevent action during pressing crises.


Regardless of whether intervention takes place, a crisis like the Rwandan genocide often leaves the afflicted area in a position of dire need for rebuilding. In Rwanda, this began with the establishment of gacaca tribunal courts, which allowed respected community members to serve as judges and systematically try those who had allegedly committed crimes. In Peter Uvin’s 2003 case study for the International Institute for Democracy and Electoral Assistance, he emphasizes the confession procedure as the most innovative feature of the gacaca tribunals. Guilty parties were encouraged to come forward in exchange for significantly reduced sentences, which cultivated a culture of confession for criminals and played a key role in easing the reparation process for genocide survivors.

The justice system serves as a key indicator of the innovation with which the country has dealt with its affairs since 1994. Amadou Sy, a Senior Fellow at the Brookings Institution who also worked at the IMF, underscored the difficulty of rebuilding an economy in the wake of a genocide. He explained that Rwandans had to “restart their economy, from the ground up.” The initial boost from the foreign aid and assistance — albeit too late for any sort of genocide prevention — led to a 13 percent growth rate in real GDP in 1996. Then, the country turned its focus toward a vision for the future. The results have been remarkable. Between 2006 and 2011, customers of electricity more than doubled in Rwanda, and those living under the poverty line moved from 57 percent to 45 percent.

Even more significant, Sy argued, was “the seriousness given to implementation of policies in Rwanda.” On his visit to the country in 2012 as part of an IMF delegation, the focus on executing reform set Rwanda apart from other countries in East Africa, like Kenya, Tanzania, and Burundi. Sy also praised the vision of the government, known in Rwanda as ‘Vision 2020’, to create a highly effective service-based economy and transition from a primarily agrarian economy. He called this plan both “ambitious” and “remarkable,” reflective of a strong governmental drive to achieve economic growth.


The economic achievements since the genocide cannot be negated in any capacity. For all its suffering in those terrible three months in the summer of 1994, the country now provides a model of not just how to achieve growth in a nation marred by poverty, lack of education, and unavailability of basic amenities, but also how nations can emerge from the darkness of a genocide and claim their place in the quickly-growing, globalized economy.

The events of two decades ago are far from forgotten, and we are moving frustratingly slowly to prevent such occurrences in the future. Nevertheless, the world is making progress. Shahryar Khan, the former UN Secretary-General’s Special Representative to Rwanda during the genocide, with whom I spoke in Pakistan two winters back, said, “They suffered terribly, there is no doubt. But also, look at them now, and tell me how they could have done better.”

We as an international community, however, could have done better. We must identify and prevent genocide and crises in the future to avoid the need for such massive rebuilding.