(This essay, abridged, was originally published by the Newport Daily News on April 8, 2014, as “After Rwanda, can world say: ‘Never again?.'”)
Twenty years ago this month, the world watched what was probably the fastest genocide in modern history take place in Rwanda, killing some 800,000 Rwandans in just over three months. The United Nations dithered; the United States balked. While the international system has made some progress during these two decades in preventing such horrors, the genies of genocide still persist.
Within the space of 100 days, April-July, 1994, extremist Hutu Rwandans massacred mostly Tutsi Rwandans and the more moderate Hutu Rwandans. The figure totaled almost 10% of the population of this small, central east African country. A comparable massacre in the U.S. would equate to killing over 30 million. Kingsley Chiedu Moghalu, Special Counsel and Spokesman of the International Criminal Court for Rwanda, has asserted that this genocide was three times faster than the Holocaust: 333 murders per hour; five and one-half lives per minute. While guns and hand grenades were employed, mostly used were thousands upon thousands of machetes, along with hoes and clubs studded with nails. A witness indicated: “there are no more devils left in hell; they are all in Rwanda.”
Numerous factors, underlying and immediate, have been cited to explain this mammoth massacre. Underlying factors included: European colonial rule by the Germans and then Belgians who favored the generally lighter-skinned Tutsis; the historical domination of the Tutsis, about 14% of the population, over the Hutus, about 85% of the population; repeated, mutual killings over the three decades between Rwanda’s independence in 1962 and the genocide; the Hutu formation of the Rwandan Patriotic Front and its Army’s subsequent invasions into Rwanda from neighboring countries; world economic conditions along with drought which caused an economic crisis in Rwanda; the presence of many desperate young Rwandan male refugees which fed the formation of armed militias; competition among rival Hutu political groups; population pressure on limited arable land; and finally venomous racism. The spark that set Rwanda ablaze was the downing on April 6, 1994, of the plane carrying Juvénal Habyarimana, the Hutu president, an event Hutu extremists blamed on the Tutsis.
By illuminating demographic and environmental factors, Jared Diamond, in his book, Collapse, enriches our understanding. With a population growth averaging 3% over many decades, Rwanda, by 1990, had a high average population density of 760 people per square mile. He clarifies the genocide was not simply a matter of an angry, ethnic majority—economically and politically disadvantaged for centuries—finally seizing power and settling scores gruesomely. Not only were Hutus massacred, so were the Twas (pigmies). Also, three rival, mainly-Hutu factions were vying for power. In Northwest Rwanda, most people were Hutu, but there were mass killings there almost on the scale as in other parts. Lastly, as Hutus killed Tutsis, Hutus also started to kill other Hutus. He concludes that population pressures on limited arable land was also a key underlying factor. It was not uncommon to hear Rwandans say that violence is sometimes necessary to bring population in line with available land resources.
The small land-locked country of Rwanda, in an economically anemic continent, did not have the strategic pull to provoke the United Nations, a major power, of any “coalition of the willing” to intervene to stop the fast-paced slaughter. The UN Security Council president’s statement of April 30 avoided the use of the term “genocide,” deleted from an earlier draft by pressure from the US supported by China and Great Britain. The UN Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR), the peacekeeping operation there since 1993, was feckless. The United States, still smarting from the loss of 18 Americans in the debacle in Somalia in 1993, could not muster the will to intervene, either alone or with its French or Belgian friends. The US also rejected proposals from the UN to jam the Hutu-dominated radio hate campaign, one which clearly fanned the massacre’s flames. The Department of Defense argued that it would cost $8500 an hour to fly the necessary aircraft over the country and also raised the issue of Rwanda’s sovereignty.
Happily, the world did intervene afterward judicially. On November 8, 1994, the UN created the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, “established for the prosecution of persons responsible for genocide and other serious violations of international humanitarian law…” in that country, since then completing 75 cases. This progress in international law notwithstanding, it would be a mistake to believe our inhumanity toward each other has been vanquished. Was this not believed after the Holocaust, Bangladesh, Cambodia, and the former Yugoslavia? And recently, we have Darfur, Sudan. The genies of genocide still abide: fear, revenge, prejudice, power, desperation, resource limitations, and devotion to the commands of a diety, a state, an identity group, or a demagogue.