The international community’s failure to prevent the Rwandan Genocide


April 6th 2014 marks 20 years since the beginning of the Rwandan Genocide.

In early 1989, the United States, under George H. W. Bush’s administration, became legally bound by the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide (‘Genocide Convention’). When signing the legislation during his presidency, Ronald Reagan described it as a bold statement that indicated that “the United States… will punish acts of genocide with the force of law and the righteousness of justice”[1]. Shortly afterwards, in April 1994, this commitment purported by the US and the UN was put to the test, as mounting levels of violence began to erupt in the central African republic of Rwanda. In this piece I will address the Rwandan genocide – around 100 days of violence that ultimately resulted in the deaths of between 500,000 and one million people. Initially, I will briefly describe the aspects of the genocide that brought it to worldwide prominence. Subsequently, I will describe how and why the international response to the situation failed; critiquing the realist theoretical context in which the genocide was often framed, and evaluating the reluctance of involvement by the United Nations and the United States. Finally, I will assess the implications that the genocide has had upon the international community’s response to later conflicts, particularly in terms of the Responsibility to Protect.

From the end of World War I, the League of Nations mandated Belgium to govern Rwanda; scholars consider the Rwandan genocide to be a result of extreme intrastate tensions created by this interference[2]. Belgian rulers enforced a segregationist domestic policy; ensuring that the minority Tutsi group had political and socioeconomic advantages to Hutus, and punctuating the intention of divisiveness by requiring all Rwandans to carry identification cards to classify which group they belonged to[3]. In 1962, Belgium granted independence, and the majority Hutus gained power; the following decades were characterised by hundreds of thousands of Rwandans being killed in communal violence. The 1994 death of Rwandan president Juvenal Habyarimana in a plane crash was immediately blamed on Tutsis by the nation’s remaining leadership, and sparked what has been termed as an “accelerated genocide”; sudden violence occurring during a short space of time[4]. The precise death toll is unknown, though writer Philip Gourevitch poignantly gave an estimate: “eight hundred thousand killed in a hundred days… five and a half lives terminated every minute”[5]. Despite Rwandan ethnic tension having clear origins in historical external interference, little international effort was made to prevent the horrors that unfolded.

Extreme violence in Rwanda was not unexpected to the international community; a number of published reports and other warnings had been provided regarding the imminence of a potential humanitarian crisis. As Ronayne describes, “the signs were there for those who wanted to see and care”[6]. In early 1994, the UN Peacekeeping Operations decided against action due to the on-going failure of the UN Operation in Somalia II. Similarly, the United States vetoed a Belgian request to send forces into Rwanda, despite an eerily accurate CIA prediction of “a worst-case scenario of the deaths of half a million people”[7]. This inaction was partially due to fear of a backlash within domestic politics, and powered somewhat by Pentagon officials who opposed intervention due to a lack of national interest, and a fear of a repeat of the US deaths in Somalia[8]. In response to a request for intervention by the Assistant Secretary for African Affairs, a government authority coldly articulated an opposition to this; “we can’t put all these silly humanitarian issues [such as Rwanda] on lists like important problems like the Middle East [and] North Korea. Just make it go away”[9]. This quote illustrates the contemporary US perception that activities within certain regions were considered to be more “important” than mass genocide within a state that had no direct significance within US foreign affairs. In May 1994, in the midst of the genocide, Clinton implemented an executive order outlining that US involvement in UN humanitarian missions would be restricted to states or regions that had “direct bearing on US national interests”[10]; this adherence to the realist tenet of restricting intervention to nations that provide strategic or economic value was undoubtedly in contradiction with the nature of the Genocide Convention.

The United States had its reasons for not militarily intervening in Rwanda, although it possessed alternative means to reduce the brutality of the genocide that didn’t involve force, yet did not utilise them. Evidence has emerged that US and British radio services monitored messages that Hutus were broadcasting to incite attacks upon Tutsis, yet did not attempt to halt these transmissions[11]. As Ronayne argues, the United States’ reluctance to take any action in Rwanda – save the evacuation of Americans – indicated a great hypocrisy; the US “abdicated world leadership [and] relegated its values to the realm of rhetoric”[12]. To maintain this avoidance of intervention, the US deliberately avoided the use of the term ‘genocide’ – if the acts were described as such, the government may have been coerced into fulfilling its perceived “legal obligation” within the Genocide[13]. Although, the White House later concluded that the UNGC did not require signatories to prevent genocide or punish culprits involved, but rather “enabled” them to do so – without the implication of an obligation[14]; indicating the failure of the Genocide Convention to ensure the protection of civilians from slaughter. Scholar Hedley Bull describes that “any historical system of rules will be found to serve the interests of the ruling or dominant elements”[15]; indeed, despite the opportunity to protect civilians, the US avoided intervention due to its particular interpretation of the Genocide Convention’s phrasing. A report written with the collaboration of academic professors, the US Army, and several distinguished diplomacy organisations concluded that an intervention with US participation could have saved thousands – even hundreds of thousands – of innocent lives[16]. Logistically, a humanitarian response to the genocide could have easily been implemented, as there was a wide variety of options; the US government could have involved a few thousand of its troops in Rwanda, a multinational coalition of highly trained troops could have entered with US leadership, or, untraditionally, even private military companies could have been hired[17]. The result of the Clinton administration’s actions, Gourevitch argues, was “a success of a policy not to intervene. The decision was not to act. And at that [the US] succeeded greatly”.

Throughout the period of the genocide, the United Nations failed to demonstrate any kind of organised opposition to the on-going crimes against humanity – even within the UN headquarters in New York City, a Rwandan government representative continued to occupy the country’s seat[18]. The commander of the UNAMIR (UN Assistance Mission for Rwanda), Romeo Dallaire, explained his perception that the UN ultimately failed in their duty to strategically protect Tutsi civilians during the genocide; “we had a time frame of two weeks easily where we could have made the task of killing much more difficult[19]”. Despite an opportunity during which sustained UN actions could have reduced the brutality of the genocide, troops were unable to act, as UNAMIR’s presence was too small and insufficiently trained. Additionally, aside from such organisational failures, a major factor that led to the high number of Rwandan fatalities was the deficient legal framework; UNAMIR was a peacekeeping operation consented to by the Rwandan government, not a mission to covertly gain intelligence, destabilise the regime, or to militarily counter the violence. Alike other peacekeeping missions, the intention was to improve the capacity and self-sufficiency of the host state, and ultimately, to aid the peace process. Despite UN failings, some scholars have placed the blame for the lack of an appropriate response to the Rwandan genocide on to the unwillingness of the United States. Nico Krisch uses Rwanda as a case study to exemplify his argument that “the [UN Security Council has worked] reasonably well since the end of the Cold War”, and that failures to respond appropriately to humanitarian crises have stemmed primarily from individual states[20]. Nicholas Wheeler corroborates the sentiment that state inaction was detrimental to the response to the genocide; “governments are notoriously unreliable as rescuers”[21].

Soon after the violence subsided, the world began to realise the extent of the horrors committed; US politician Herman Cohen said “another Holocaust may have just slipped by, hardly noticed” [22]. In an attempt to compensate for inaction and preserve justice, the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) was formed; an international court created by the United Nations, and supported predominantly by US finances, as well as some US employees. Former mayor of the Rwandan commune of Taba, Jean-Paul Akayesu, became the first individual to be convicted of genocide in the ICTR, and, Jean Kambanda, the Rwandan prime minister at the time of the crisis, soon followed[23]. These convictions, among others, helped send an international message that such depraved acts of genocide would be dealt with by the world’s most powerful nations and international organisations.

However, the most vital precedent set in the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide was the introduction of the concept of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P). In 2001, the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) was created to discuss how the international community should respond to future human rights violations alike that of “Rwanda [or] Srebrenica”. The commission concluded that if civilians are enduring or facing the threat of “major harm”, and their respective state is unable to protect them from this, then a humanitarian intervention is legitimate[24]. This helped set a precedent, as it established that a primary component of R2P was the understanding that state sovereignty is a responsibility, not a right; if a state fails to protect, and provide peace for, its population, the international community has a responsibility to intervene within the state’s domestic matters[25]. R2P focussed on the introduction of organised international opposition to four particularly immoral crimes: ethnic cleansing, genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity. This communitarian, and somewhat cosmopolitan, norm becoming generally considered legitimate within international relations has resulted in an improved international response to such grave violations of human rights, as seen with the 2011 intervention in Libya. Rwandan president, Paul Kagame reacted to the 2011 humanitarian intervention in Libya positively, and alluding to his own nation’s plight, by stating that “this is the right thing to do; and this view is backed with the authority of having witnessed and suffered the terrible consequences of international inaction”[26]. If R2P had gained international normativity prior to 1994, it is possible that the UN, the US and other nations may have reacted more benevolently and appropriately to the endangered Rwandan civilians, although perhaps such an overwhelmingly heinous crisis as Rwanda was needed for the international community to truly understand the ramifications of their inaction.

The international response to grave human rights violations recommended by the ICISS has, however, not been consistently applied. Despite its success in Libya, the international community has not instigated an intervention in the on-going Syrian Civil War. The Public International Law & Policy Group prepared a paper in 2012 arguing that the Syrian regime had “breached its R2P duty” by using indiscriminate force against civilians, and, therefore, the international community must now assume the responsibility to ensure the safety of these non-combatants[27]. Despite such demands being voiced by a number of international organisations and governments, an intervention into Syria has not occurred, partly due to the vehement opposition to such a move by two UN Security Council members – Russia and China. Despite the progress made by the ICISS, and subsequent international directives, issues such as this – the thwarting of an intended humanitarian intervention due to political alliances and a fear of regional instability – indicate an inherent ineffectiveness in the current management of human rights violations; alluding to the aforementioned quote by Krisch, “individual states” continue to be the primary actors blocking humanitarian intervention. To ensure that civilians of Syria do not suffer a similar fate to that of Rwandan civilians, it is vital for R2P to be further instilled as a required course of action within international law.

The international response to the Rwandan genocide was undeniably a failure. The historical external influence upon the Rwandan people that spawned the conflict particularly accentuates the tragic irony of the unwillingness of the international community to help those facing slaughter. Rwanda is a clear case in which a planned and structured humanitarian intervention could have saved countless civilians from brutal deaths. It is apparent that there were two primary problems that prevented such an intervention from occurring; the lack of a legal framework for a militarised intervention, and a realist focus on self-interest – rather than a concern for preserving the values of a common humanity. The United States, and the United Nations, clearly had many viable options for countering the magnitude of the genocide, but failed to act upon their international responsibilities as the world hegemon and the foremost international peace-promoting organisation, respectively. The improvements to international humanitarian norms and laws since 1994, particularly the Responsibility to Protect, suggest that the Rwandan genocide has taught the international community some lessons about the necessity of humanitarian intervention.

[1] Ronayne, Peter. Never Again. 2001. P13

[2] Destexhe, Alain. Rwanda and Genocide in the Twentieth Century. 1995. P43

[3] Ibid. P41

[4] Ronayne, Peter. Never Again. 2001. P152

[5] Gourevitch, Philip. We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families. 1998. P133

[6] Ronayne, Peter. Never Again. 2001. P155

[7] Ibid. P156

[8] Ibid. P164

[9] Chang, Chih-Hann. Ethical Foreign Policy?: US Humanitarian interventions. 2011. P80

[10] Presidential Decision Directive 25. US Department of State.

[11] Chalk, Frank. Radio Propaganda and Genocide. 1997. P3

[12] Ronayne, Peter. Never Again. 2001. P162

[13] Article IX, United Nations Genocide Convention.

[14] Gourevitch, Philip. We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families. 1998. P153

[15] Bull, Hedley. The Anarchical Society. Columbia University Press, New York. 1977. p55

[16] Scott R. Feil, Preventing Genocide: How the Early Use of Force Might Have Succeeded in Rwanda. 1998. P38

[17] Ronayne, Peter. Never Again. 2001. P178

[18] Des Forges, Alison. Rwanda: Genocide and the Continuing Cycle of Violence. 1998. P6-7

[19] Washington Post. Arming Genocide in Rwanda. 1999.

[20] Krisch, Nico. Legality, Morality and the Dilemma of Humanitarian Intervention after Kosovo. 2002. p323-335.

[21] Wheeler, Nicholas. Saving Strangers: Humanitarian Intervention in International Society. 2000. P310

[22] Frey, Robert. The Genocidal Temptation: Auschwitz, Hiroshima, Rwanda, and Beyond. 2004. P110

[23] Ronayne, Peter. Never Again. 2001. P186

[24] International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty. The Responsibility to Protect. 2001. P16

[25] Badescu, Cristina. Humanitarian intervention and the responsibility to protect: security and human rights. 2012. P110

[26] Adams, Simon. Rwanda, Syria and the Responsibility to Protect. The Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect. 2012. P2

[27] Public International Law & Policy Group. The Legal Case for Humanitarian Intervention in Syria under the Responsibility to Protect. 2012. p.i

2 thoughts on “The international community’s failure to prevent the Rwandan Genocide

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  1. Would it be okay for us to republish this post in its entirety. While our website is new, it is fast ending as a discourse leader in Rwanda.
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