In the ten years since the Rwandan genocide leaders of national governments
and international institutions have acknowledged the shame of having failed
to stop the slaughter of the Tutsi population. At the 2004 Stockholm
International Forum, “Preventing Genocide: Threats and Responsibilities,”
many renewed their commitment to halting any future genocide. Honouring that
pledge will require not just greater political will than seen in the past
but also developing a strategy built on the lessons of 1994.
Lesson One: Stop the genocide before it becomes a genocide
The genocide in Rwanda began suddenly after the killing of the president,
but the attitudes and practices that made it possible developed over a
period of years.
For decades the government had practiced discrimination against Tutsi, the
people who would be targeted during the genocide. The post-independence
government categorized citizens by ethnicity and, continuing a practice of
the Belgian colonial regime, required all adults to carry documents
identifying their ethnic group. These identity documents were used to select
Tutsi for slaughter during the genocide.
During the three years before the 1994 genocide, government officials,
soldiers, national police, and leaders of political parties incited and
directed sixteen massacres of Tutsi, each of which killed hundreds of
unarmed civilians. The army also killed hundreds of Hima, a people related
to Tutsi, during a military operation in 1990. In addition, authorities
permitted and in some cases encouraged violence against supporters of rival
Killers and other assailants went unpunished if their victims were Tutsi or
members of parties opposed to the authorities.
The international community, including national and multinational donors,
occasionally expressed concern about the human rights situation but failed
to press effectively for an end to abuses or for punishment of the guilty.
Even the slaughter of hundreds drew little or at most short-lived criticism.
Lesson Two: React promptly and firmly to preparations for massive slaughter
Many Rwandans, diplomats in Rwanda, and United Nations (UN) officials knew
that militia were being recruited and trained to kill, but even when an
informant told UN peacekeepers that the militia were meant to attack Tutsi
civilians, there was no effective intervention to halt militia activities.
During the genocide, the militia mobilized and led the general population in
killing Tutsi, often carrying out orders given them by soldiers and national
The distribution of arms to the civilian population was widely known and
elicited no effective international reaction.
Lesson Three: Pay close attention to media in situations of potential
ethnic, religious, or racial conflict. In cases of impending genocide, be
prepared to silence broadcasts that incite or provide directions for
For three years before the genocide, newspapers like Kangura had identified
Tutsi as “enemies of the nation,” to be scorned and feared. A private radio,
supported by many influential government, military, and political figures,
broadcast the same message with increasing virulence and effect in the nine
months before the genocide was launched. The media went so far as to name
individuals to be eliminated, including the prime minister.
Beginning the year before the genocide, leading Rwandans and international
observers all deplored the media campaign against Tutsi and members of
opposition parties but no one intervened to actually stop the calls to
hatred or to promote the broadcast of countervailing messages of tolerance.
Having had months to build a listening audience, the private radio station
was well-placed to contribute to the killing campaign once it began. The
radio incited listeners to violence against Tutsi and others opposed to the
genocide, and gave specific orders on how to carry out the killing,
including identifying individuals to be attacked and specifying where they
could be found.
Silencing the radio broadcasts would not only have ended this particularly
effective form of incitement and the delivery of specific orders; it would
have showed that the international community rejected the legitimacy of the
genocidal message and those who were delivering it. The United States
considered jamming the broadcasts from an airplane, but found the cost of
about $8,000 an hour too high.
Lesson Four: Be alert to impact of negative models in nearby regions
In late 1993 and early 1994 tens of thousands of Hutu and Tutsi were slain
in neighbouring Burundi, a country demographically similar to Rwanda. These
killings, skilfully exploited by Rwandan propagandists, significantly
increased tensions in Rwanda. Both the slaughter and the absence of
international reaction to it encouraged the planners of genocide to proceed
with the attempt to eliminate Tutsi in Rwanda. Propagandists frequently
talked of the Burundian example on the radio, enhancing the impact of this
negative model on Rwandans.
Lesson Five: Ensure accurate information of what is happening on the ground
In 1994 the governments most involved in Rwanda -France, Belgium, and the
United States – had substantial information about the situation on the
ground but they shared this information with only a few others.
Non-permanent members of the Security Council – with the exception of
Rwanda, itself a non-permanent member in 1994 – depended for information on
the UN secretariat.
From the field, the head of the UN peacekeeping force in Rwanda, General
Romeo Dallaire, and the representative of the Secretary-General,
Jacques-Roger Booh-Booh, sent very different descriptions of events to the
secretariat in New York. In preparing briefings for the Security Council,
the secretariat favoured Booh-Booh’s interpretation, which gave no sense of
the systematic and ethnically based nature of the killing. Relying initially
on this information, the non-permanent members agreed to withdrawal of most
of the peacekeepers. But when they later learned of the extent and genocidal
nature of the slaughter from Human Rights Watch and others, they pushed the
Security Council to send a second and stronger UN force to Rwanda. Their
efforts produced results, although not in time to influence the course of
Accurate, impartial, and analytical reporting of the Rwandan genocide could
have helped build a public demand for more forceful government action in
halting the slaughter. But press coverage was limited, superficial, and
often sensationalistic. Journalists usually portrayed the killing as the
result of ancient, tribal hatreds rather than as a state-directed attempt to
exterminate the Tutsi. Major media outlets gave more attention to the
problems of sports stars O.J. Simpson and Tonya Harding than to the
deliberate slaughter of more than half a million people.
Lesson Six: Identify and support opponents of the genocide
At the start a vast number of Rwandans opposed the genocide. When potential
leaders of resistance, including military officers, appealed for foreign
support in the first days of the killings, they were refused. The people of
central and southern Rwanda nonetheless continued opposing the genocide for
ten days to two weeks. Instead of supporting these resisters, the Security
Council undermined them by reducing the already inadequate number of
peacekeepers. The organizers of the genocide then gained in confidence and
decided to push the killing campaign into the regions that had thus far
remained relatively peaceful. They stepped up pressure on the resisters by
sending in militia from other areas where the killing was well advanced, by
mocking them on the radio, and by removing key local officials who opposed
the killing. Faced with this overwhelming pressure and feeling abandoned by
the international community, the resisters either went into hiding or became
active participants in the genocide.
Lesson Seven: Call the genocide by its rightful name and vigorously condemn
it. Commit to permanently opposing any government involved in genocide,
including by refusing it assistance in the future
Rwandan government officials, military officers, and political leaders who
directed the genocide claimed to be legitimate authorities giving
appropriate orders for the self-defense of the population. This pretext of
legitimacy made it easier for them to persuade people to violate usual moral
and legal prohibitions. By remaining silent during the first part of the
genocide and by taking no effective action to stop the killing throughout
the period, the international community appeared to acquiesce in these
claims to legitimacy. The government exploited every apparent demonstration
of international acceptance – every time Rwandan government representatives
were received abroad, the event was fully publicized on the radio.
Rwandan officials and political leaders understood how dependent their
government was on international assistance: they knew that no government
could operate for long without such support. Even ordinary Rwandans who
lived out on the hills knew the importance of international aid since they
or their families benefited from schools or clinics supported by
partnerships with foreign communities.
States and other international actors must send clear condemnations of the
genocidal government combined with the announcement that direct foreign
assistance would forever be denied to the government. This would have called
into question not just the legitimacy of the government but also its
long-term viability. Rwandans might have well have been less inclined to
follow the directives of a government that had little chance of continuing
to hold power.
Lesson Eight: Impose an arms embargo on the genocidal government
Many killers used machetes or homemade weapons, but soldiers, national
police, and thousands of militia used firearms in launching attacks on
churches, schools, hospitals and other sites where thousands of Tutsi had
gathered. A first wave of assailants, relatively few in number, killed
thousands of civilians by using small arms, grenades, and mortars. They left
the survivors of such attacks terrorized, vulnerable to assault by a second
wave of killers wielding machetes and homemade weapons.
The U.N. Security Council established an arms embargo, but only late in the
genocide. Had the embargo been imposed earlier, the killers would have had
fewer arms at their disposal and would have been less effective in their
Lesson Nine: Press any government seeming to support the genocidal
government to change its policy
Some governments, particularly France and several African governments,
continued to support the Rwandan government throughout the genocide. This
limited the impact of condemnation by those other governments that did
finally take a stand against the slaughter. As official documents show, at
least some French officials were concerned that continuing support for
Rwanda was damaging their own international standing, but other governments
with potential influence on France, like the United States and the United
Kingdom, failed to press the French effectively enough to produce a change
Lesson Ten: Be prepared to intervene with armed force
The organizers of the Rwandan genocide were relatively few in number but
they controlled three elite military units. Backed by these forces, they
were able to assert control first over other units of the army and national
police and then over the administrative system.
When the crisis began, the UN peacekeepers had neither the mandate nor the
numbers needed for effective action, but had their mandate been broadened to
allow offensive action and had they received support from the elite French,
Belgian, and Italian troops sent in to evacuate their own citizens, the
combined force could have blocked the effort of the genocidal organizers to
extend their control to other parts of the armed forces and administration.
Intervention later would have required a larger force and would have saved
fewer lives, but intervention at any point would have limited the number of
French troops sent some ten weeks after the start of the genocide saved at
least ten thousand lives. Although meant to serve political as well as
humanitarian objectives – they intended to support the faltering Rwandan
army as well as to save lives – they did end up protecting Tutsi at risk of
Genocides are complex phenomena, each with its own peculiar configuration
and dynamics. These ten lessons will not provide the full answer to stopping
the next genocide, but they provide a starting point for those who are
determined to act in defence of our common humanity.
* This article by Alison Des Forges was reproduced by Pambazuka with the kind permission of Human Rights Watch.