By Jessica Thrower
This month we commemorate the twentieth anniversary of the Rwandan genocide – an appalling atrocity where an estimated 800,000 to 1 million Rwandans were murdered in a three-month period that began April 7th, 1994. What are some of these lessons learned from the Rwandan genocide?
- It starts with words
One of the first lessons learned from the Rwandan genocide is that these events occurred as a result of state-sanctioned incitement to hate. The media conducted an orchestrated dehumanization and demonization of the minority Tutsi population, calling the Tutsis “cockroaches”. A private radio station, Radio-Television Libre des Mille Collines, later helped conduct the genocidal onslaught by giving specific orders on how to carry out killings, including identifying individuals to be attacked and where specifically they could be found.
Although Rwandans and international observers deplored the media campaign conducted against the Tutsis early on, no one intervened to stop the calls of hatred or the promotion of violence. In an attempt to prevent genocides before they happen, the international community must ensure that they are prosecuting individuals that are trying to incite genocide (as it is a crime under the Genocide Convention) and work to jam airwaves to prevent organized killing campaigns.
- Violence used against vulnerable populations
The second lesson learned is the consistent use of violence targeted at vulnerable populations. During mass atrocities, women, children, and refugees are often the first victims of oppression and brutality. The evidence presented at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda showed that sexual violence and rape are regularly used as a weapon of war and a means to ensure the continued degradation, humiliation, and torture of the population.
- Danger of indifference and consequences of inaction
The third lesson learned is the danger of indifference and the consequences of inaction. The Rwandan genocide not only occurred because of state-sanctioned violence, but also because of international idleness regarding the establishment of an arms embargo, the stopping of aid, and use of military intervention.
In the Rwandan genocide, soldiers, the national police, and militia used small arms, grenades, and mortars. They attacked churches, schools, hospitals, and other regular gathering points for Tutsis, killing thousands of individuals. After this first wave of assaults, the survivors were then further terrorized by a second wave of attacks from civilians that wielded machetes or homemade weapons. Although the UN Security Council eventually established an arms embargo against the country, this occurred too late to prevent further genocide. Had the UN Security council imposed an embargo earlier, it would have led to fewer arms being available in the country, making attacks less effective.
In addition to establishing an arms embargo, international actors should have sent a clear condemnation of genocidal government and that they would stop aid if further violence occurred. The Rwandan regime was heavily dependent on aid and the government could not operate for long without it. If the international community announced that direct foreign assistance would be denied, it would have further called into question the legitimacy of the government and its long-term viability. This might have made it harder for the génocidaires to persuade Hutu elite and Rwandans to go along with their plans and follow their directives.
In some cases, the international community must also be willing to use force to end the killing. At the beginning of the crisis, the UN peacekeepers did not have the mandate or the personnel required for effective action. If the mandate had been broadened to allow for offensive action and had the peacekeepers received support from international troops, such as the French, Belgian, and Italian troops that were sent to evacuate their citizens, the combined forces could have saved the lives of many people and limited the number of civilians killed.
In remembering the Rwandan Genocide, the international community must recommit to preventing and protecting human rights and the victims of mass atrocities. Although some of the results since Rwanda have been encouraging, such as the eventual NATO intervention in the Balkans, British troops in Sierra Leone, UN peacekeeping and French-led European troops in the Congo, the international community must continue to learn and become more effective in responding to violence. The international community must show that the pleas and concerns coming from Syria and most recently the Central African Republic are not falling on deaf ears.