The Belgian Congo and Historical Precedents of Genocide in Rwanda and Violence in the Region

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Jack Donnelly, in Chapter 13, “Humanitarian Interventions Against Genocide,” examines several case studies of international efforts to prevent genocide in different regions of the world.In two of the case studies presented by Donnelly, he points out the root of the political, geopolitical, economic crises which led to humanitarian crises was caused largely by colonial rule.  It is historically well-established that European colonial rulers routinely violated human rights.

In some historical contexts, one could argue that colonial rule set a modern historical precedent for states to use extreme violence and genocide to achieve practical political goals, especially in a vulnerable, post-colonial states such as Rwanda.

Donnelly even acknowledges in his case study of the Rwandan genocide that, “Ethnic conflict in Rwanda was in large the creation of Belgian colonial rule…Belgians exacerbated tensions between the two main groups in the territory, the majority Hutu and the minority Tutsi.” (1.)

Although some of the activities conducted under Belgian colonial rule are arguably outside of the realm of genocide, the administration under Leopold II nonetheless set the precedent for extreme violence to achieve political goals.

Extreme state-sponsored violence against natives became normalized early on in the Belgian-Congo, starting under the Belgian monarch, King Leopold II.

If natives failed to meet  the unreasonably high quotas for natural resources, mainly rubber, mercenaries “would be sent in to slaughter the men, burn huts and rape women. These soldiers cut off the hands of their victims, whether dead or alive…” (2).

Historians have argued that practices like this would indeed fall under the realm of genocide.  One historian, Dean Pavlakis, of the University of Buffalo, accurately noted that, “…the 1948 UN Convention on Genocide includes deliberate killings, for whatever motive, of members of an ethnic group with the intent to destroy them as such, “in whole or in part,” (3.)

Regardless of whether the atrocities committed in the Belgian Congo can be construed as genocide or not, it nonetheless normalized violent state behavior and additionally normalized the practice of dividing individuals along ethnic lines, in this case, between the Hutu’s and Tutsi’s.

Most would likely agree, like other significant historical events, there is virtually always more than one causal factor.

Genocide occurs because the right political, economic, social, and cultural factors (as well as others) coalesce at the right time.

Other factors clearly contributed to the gruesome violence between the Hutu’s and Tutsi’s, however it is difficult to ignore the role of Belgium and its colonial past, particularly under King Leopold II, and the historical precedents that those administrations left when looking at genocide in the region.

Even if it can be concluded that a historical precedent of genocide was not set, Belgian colonizers nonetheless shaped many of the cultural, economic, social, and political factors that caused the genocide in Rwanda.

More research clearly needs to be done to discern and understand the relationship between colonial rule and genocide in post-colonial states.

(1)–Donnelly, “Humanitarian Intervention Against Genocide,” p. 198.

(2)–http://www.independent.co.uk/news/world/europe/belgium-confronts-its-heart-of-darkness-6151923.html

(3)–http://www.yale.edu/gsp/colonial/belgian_congo/

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