Rwanda: A Genocide Planned and Executed by Colonial Powers and Ominous Failure of UN “Peace Keeping” Mission

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The word genocide permeates the daily news broadcasts about the conflict in Darfur. Politicians, activists and well meaning people of all stripes apply the word to Darfur, and then claim that only an international military operation can dam the flood of violence and blood that threatens this large, strategically located, oil rich African nation.

And who should make up this benevolent “protection” force? None other than the soldiers of the same governments who in 1994 sat idly by while 800,000 Rwandans were killed. At the time, the diplomats of the powerful western countries and the UN were unendingly creative in their quest not to characterize the wholesale slaughter of Tutsis in Rwanda as genocide, thereby absolving themselves of any responsibility to stop the conflict.

Today, under the banner of “Never Again”, these same interests claim that only altruistic intentions lie behind their push for intervention in Sudan. However, the history of the Rwandan genocide, and the inaction and callousness of the United Nations and its backers, shows the world the need to “never again” be fooled by the myths of “humanitarianism” and “international peacekeeping” created by imperialism, and carried out by its most loyal servant, the United Nations.

Colonial History 

“Look, this was one of the worst instances of violence and killings that had occurred after the Second World War.”- Iqbal Riza, Deputy Chief of UN Peace Keeping Operations at the time of the Rwandan Genocide.

In 1994, the forces of colonialism and imperialism in Rwanda led to one of the most horrifying human tragedies in history. Between 800,000 and 1,071,000 Rwandans were killed in 100 days. This happened despite the presence of a UN “peacekeeping” force in the country and that fact that months before the killing started, the UN, US, France and Belgium held detailed information about the organization and planning of the genocide. These same forces that now proclaim themselves as the benevolent saviors of Africa publicly claimed no knowledge of the situation, while privately some elements were directly involved in the slaughter.

German imperialism sank its’ fangs into Rwanda in 1885, releasing its’ grip only after the First World War. Without a lapse in the bloodsucking, Belgium was given Rwanda and Burundi to exploit as League of Nations “protectorates” in 1916. Rwandans were treated as second and third class citizens in their own country at the hands of Belgian colonialism, and in 1926 the colonial administration began sub-dividing the population into Tutsi and Hutu, issuing identity cards to formalize the ethnic divisions. Under the colonial system, the Tutsi minority was elevated to the educated political class, while the Hutu majority was relegated to the peasant class, largely barred from education and well paying jobs in the colonial administration.

“It is often remarked that the violence between Hutus and Tutsis goes back to time immemorial and can never be averted, but Belgian records show that …before around 1960, violence [along] ethnic lines was uncommon and mass murder of the sort seen in 1994 was unheard of.” – Stephen D. Wrage, Genocide in Rwanda: Draft Case Study for Teaching Ethics and International Affairs

In 1959, a Hutu rebellion characterized by  colonial ethnic divisions led to the deaths of tens of thousands of Tutsi’s and the migration of 150,000 Tutsi’s into the neighbouring countries of Burundi, Tanzania and Uganda. By 1962, the Hutu struggle against the apartheid-like divisions forced Belgium to withdraw from the colony all together, allowing the Hutu majority to gain political power, declaring official independence on July 1st 1962.

The Hutu majority, politically led by the Parmehutu party, reversed the racist class assignments in Rwandan society, suppressing and scapegoating the Tutsi minority. Following the 1973 coup led by Juvenal Habyarimana, Rwanda became a one party state operating under the strong, totalitarian central control exercised by the MRND. It also became one of the main African client states for French imperialism which considered Rwanda “an interesting pole of political and economic influence in the region.”

Outside of Rwanda, the children of the Tutsi refugees had participated in the liberation struggle against Iddi Amin in Uganda, and galvanized themselves into a political and military force, the Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF), under the leadership of Paul Kagame.

France and Politics of Rwanda

On October 1st 1990, Kagame ordered the RPF into Rwanda, fighting under the banner of the right of return for the Tutsi refugees and sparking a civil war in Rwanda that lasted until the summer of 1994.

During their initial attack, the RPF (largely thought to be backed by English speaking imperialists) came within reach of the capital, Kigali. In order to ensure the survival of their client regime, the French government deployed 1,100 soldiers, some from an elite French paratroop unit, in one of the more than 16 unilateral French military interventions in Rwanda between 1960 and 1994. While French soldiers were fighting alongside the Rwandan army, French military “instructors” were training new recruits, increasing the size of the Rwandan Army from 10,000 to 30,000 in just a few years.

French soldiers in Rwanda were not only responsible for fighting on the front lines, they also interrogated prisoners and policed the civilian populations. James Gasana, former Rwandan Minister of Defence, stated that the Rwandan army could only use the heavy weapons given to them by France after they had received French permission to fire. On some occasions artillery would be placed and readied by French troops, who would then stand back and let the Rwandan soldiers push the button. The evidence of Frances’ deep involvement in the civil war, and unflinching support for Habyarimana’s regime is further shown by the appointment of Lt. Col. Jean-Jacques Maurin. In April of 1992, Maurin was made an advisor to the Rwandan chief of staff, effectively placing control of the Rwandan army in French hands. French soldiers were so deeply integrated into the Rwandan army that a French officer asked the Rwandan government to award French troops medals for their January 1991 defence of Ruhengeri in northern Rwanda.

“It was considered that it would only take one of these regimes to be overthrown … to create a chain reaction that would compromise the security of all the countries bound to France and to discredit the French guarantee.” – Hubert Vedrine, advisor to French President Mitterand.

France valued their puppet state of Rwanda so highly that between 1990 and 1994, the French government supplied the Rwandan army not only with soldiers and trainers, but machine guns, artillery, armored vehicles and six Gazelle helicopters. During February of 1993, the French government was sending more than 20 tons of arms a day into Rwanda.

During the same month, the RPF had made significant territorial advances against the Rwandan army. Members of the MRND government and the Hutu Power movement began discussions in cabinet meetings about the development of an “Organization of Civilian Self Defence” to “protect” the country if the army failed to stop the RPF advance.

The “Civilian Self Defence” forces, which President Habyarimana publicly supported in March 1993, were to be trained and armed by the Rwandan government and on the orders of the government would begin the slaughter of “disguised RPF” members and their “accomplices”. The government had calculated that they required 4,995 machine guns and 499,500 bullets, as well as traditional weapons (bows and arrows, spears and machetes) in order to carry out the plan. French military trainers were to play the leading role in organizing and training the new militias.

United Nations Assistance Mission in Rwanda (UNAMIR) 

When French President Francois Mitterand learned that the increasing arms shipments and presence of French troops was not enough to ensure the survival of Habyarimana’s regime, he began pushing for a UN force to intervene in Rwanda. His hope was that a UN ceasefire would be able to stop the RPF advance long enough for France to devise a method of saving their client regime.

On August 4th 1993, the Arusha Accords, a cease fire agreement brokered by the US, France and Belgium, laid out a basis for a power sharing transitional government in Rwanda. The UN backed transitional government was to be supported by a UN “peacekeeping” force of 2,548 troops who would monitor the ceasefire and establish a weapons free zone in the capital city of Kigali. However, from the first moments of the UN mission, the foot dragging of the permanent members of the Security Council meant a full 5 months passed before the entire “peacekeeping” force arrived. A clear sign of things to come.

Every aspect of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Rwanda (UNAMIR) reeked of the callous and foul disregard for human life that is the hallmark of imperialism and “international peacekeeping”. While the UN was hashing out the original UNAMIR mission, the US and UK were vocally and persistently blocking any attempts to increase the mission above a token force, citing the “expense” of international humanitarian missions. The US whined that ‘just because it was the richest country in the world didn’t mean that they were responsible for footing the bill on international “peacekeeping”’.

The UNAMIR mission clearly reflected the financial priorities of the powerful nations. All of the UN vehicles used in Rwanda were second run vehicles from the previous UN mission in Cambodia. Only 8 of the 300 sent were usable.

In March of 1994, UNAMIR’s medical supplies ran out and there was not enough money in the mission’s operating budget to buy any more. No replacement parts, no batteries, no medicine. This was the depth of western humanitarian concern in Africa.

“So you knew where the weapons were, and you knew you needed to act quickly. What did you do?”

“Nothing” – PBS Frontline interview with Colonel Luc Marchal, UNAMIR Commander 

On January 10th 1994, Luc Marchal, the second in command of UNAMIR had a meeting with a senior leader and planner in the governing MRND party. This informant, “Jean Pierre”, exposed the planning, training and organizing for a widespread genocide of Tutsis throughout Rwanda. The informant not only explained in detail how the militias were organized, he told the UN officer about the weapons caches in Kigali, even bringing Marchal to see one for himself. This information was passed on to the UN Office of Peace Keeping Operations, then under the leadership of Kofi Annan, as well as the US, French and Belgian ambassadors.

Following the January 11th telegram informing the UN offices in New York about the impending genocide, the UN special representative in Kigali arranged a diplomatic meeting between himself, the US, Belgian and French ambassadors, and Rwandan President Habyarimana. France had prevented the ambassadors of Belgium and the US from asking President Habyarimana about the preparations for violence, and the UN prevented their soldiers from seizing the weapons, claiming such an operation was beyond their mandate.

France the Principal Planner of the Genocide 

France clearly understood the risk of genocide in Rwanda. The French commanding General in Rwanda had been told by Colonel Rwagafilita of the Rwandan Army that the Tutsi, “are very few in number, we will liquidate them.” This blatant display of genocidal intentions did little, if anything, to sway French imperialism. For France, letting the Hutu government wipe out the Tutsi minority meant an end to the massive military costs of supporting the Rwandan army against the RPF and would allow France to focus on other colonial projects like Zaire.

“In 1992, I was invited to go to France …I met … senior officials, who told me very clearly, very openly, that if the RPF (Rwandan Patriotic Front) did not stop fighting, if we continue making advances into Rwanda, that we should bear in mind that we shall find none of our relatives alive…” – RPF Leader, Paul Kagame

On April 6th 1994, a plane carrying Rwandan President Habyarimana and Burundian President Cyprien Ntaryamira was shot down above the Presidential Palace in Kigali, killing both men. Within 45 minutes, roadblocks went up in Kigali and the wholesale slaughter of Tutsis had begun.

During a meeting in the ambassador’s office in the French Embassy following the assassinations, French Ambassador Martres explained who had been picked to form the new provisional government, all of them members of the extreme right wing Hutu Power movement. Theoneste Bagosora, the man chosen by France to lead this new government stated, “I have come back to declare the Apocalypse.” With their puppets in place, and with full knowledge of what was about to happen, the French diplomats and military fled Rwanda, taking only the wife and family of Habyarimana with them.

As the French designed provisional government unleashed the Interahamwe and Impuzamugambi militias to murder Hutu opponents and slaughter the Tutsis, the UN forces were ordered not to use force to stop the bloodshed.

On April 9th three days after the genocide began, and in spite of a UN arms embargo, France shipped 5 tons of ammunition to the Presidential Guard in Rwanda, a shipment that France vehemently denies despite its interception and subsequent release by UN forces.

Two days later, 2,000 Tutsis gathered in École Technique Officielle seeking safety from the Interahamwe and Impuzamugambi militias. Despite the fact that armed militia members were circling around outside the school chanting “Hutu Power”, the Belgian soldiers were ordered to retreat to the airport and leave the civilians behind. All 2,000 people inside were massacred. Four days later the UN Security Council voted to reduce the size of the UN force from 2,548 to 270.

UN Failure and Genocide 

The UN, US, France, Belgium and all other western countries spent the next 3 months denying their knowledge of the situation on the ground, and carefully phrasing every statement as to avoid using the word genocide. Even the April 30th Security Council resolution condemning the killings steered clear of the word genocide. If anyone had labeled the situation as genocide, they would be legally obligated under the UN Charter to intervene and stop the genocide, as well as arrest and try the people responsible for it. This was a financial price the Security Council members were not willing to pay, regardless of the Red Cross reports that had estimated tens of thousands of deaths by the time the UN pulled out.

“I would say, everybody was in damage control, ‘Let’s try to evade the reality of what’s going on,’ whether it was Europe or New York or Washington. They didn’t want to know the full dimensions of this thing and, thereby, assume the responsibility of having to deal with it.” – PBS Frontline interview with James Woods, United States Deputy Assistant Secretary for African Affairs.

Without a doubt, the Clinton administration had ample knowledge of the situation in Rwanda. James Woods, the Deputy Assistant Secretary for African Affairs compiled a briefing list for the Clinton administration of possible crises on the African continent. Despite his briefing showing the potential for genocide, he was instructed to remove Rwanda from the list because “U.S. national interest is not involved and we can’t put all these silly humanitarian issues on lists.”

A US National Security Archive report states, “That the Clinton administration decided against intervention at any level was not for lack of knowledge of what was happening in Rwanda.” That the Clinton administration decided not to act, however, was solely for a lack of economic incentive. Rwanda is slightly smaller than the state of Maryland. It is landlocked, lacks any oil reserves, has only marginal natural gas and mineral reserves, and 90% of its economy depends on tea and coffee exports. Clearly not a strategic interest for history’s largest empire.

On May 3rd 1994, just less than one month after the start of the genocide, President Clinton signed Presidential Decision Directive 25 which expressly sought to limit US involvement in international humanitarian interventions. The reasons were strictly financial. The US had been responsible for a full third of all UN “peacekeeping” costs around the world, a cost that had more than tripled over the preceding few years. US imperialism was clearly telling the world, ‘unless our economic interests are at stake, you won’t find us ready to lend any ‘helping hands’ to anyone, even if they are dying at a rate of 1,000 every 20 minutes’, as was the case in Rwanda.

When the UN Security Council realized that they could feign ignorance no longer and were readying to vote on sending another UN force to Rwanda, US Secretary of State Madelaine Albright delayed the vote for 4 full days at a time when an average of 8,000 innocent Tutsis were being hacked to death with machetes a day.

Even after May 17th when the Security Council finally voted to send 5,500 mainly African troops to Rwanda, the US stalled on sending armored personnel carriers (APCs), bickering over who would pay for the paint jobs and mechanical work needed. Months after the genocide had ended and the APCs finally arrived, they lacked radios and guns. In fact, the Security Council took so long to mobilize a force for the mission that they authorized the French Army, the same one responsible for training the Interahamwe and Impuzamugambi militias that carried out the genocide, to begin a “peacekeeping” mission in southern Rwanda.

The French mission, Mission Turquoise, was- on paper- a mission to create a “safe haven” in southern Rwanda for refugees fleeing into Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo). In actuality, Mission Turquoise saw French forces help only their Hutu allies across the border, hoping to give the Hutu a relatively secure base from which to continue their civil war and genocide for control of Rwanda. Throughout the entire operation, French forces allowed the militias into the refugee camps to slaughter the Tutsis who were supposedly being given safe haven. In total, an estimated 50,000 people were killed by the Interahamwe and the Rwandan army after French forces coaxed Tutsis from their hiding places, claiming that the French had come to bring them peace.

In mid-July 1994, the RPF captured Kigali. The Hutu government and hundreds of thousands of Hutus fled to Zaire, thus bringing the civil war and the genocide to an end. The final death toll in Rwanda was at least 800,000 killed in 100 days.

No to UN/US in Africa 

Unfortunately, the destructive, inhuman forces of imperialism unleashed in Rwanda did not dissipate after the end of the genocide, but spilled over the Rwandan borders and engulfed the central African region in the first and second Congo Wars, in which 3.4 to 4.4 million were killed in the second war alone.

The racist and divisionary policies and strategies of imperialism that set the stage for the Rwandan genocide are the same as those that set the stage for both Congo Wars. Those same forces now threaten to open a new front in the era of war and occupation, the battle for Africa. Amidst the hue and cry over Sudan and Darfur and the establishment of an illegitimate US/Ethiopian-backed government in Somalia, the true intentions of imperialism in Africa threaten to once again soak the continent in blood. Anti-war activists and peace loving people across Canada and around the world must not let themselves be duped. Imperialism knows no humanitarianism. All working, poor and oppressed people must unite behind African self-determination and demand:

Imperialists Hands off Africa!
No to UN Intervention in Africa!
No to War and Occupation in Africa!

By Mike Chimenti , a young construction worker, journalist and social justice activist in Vancouver. 

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