Genocide in Rwanda: could it happen elsewhere?

Opinion: New fault-lines of conflict are springing up across the African continent


It was only a brief visit, but even after almost two decades, the stench of death stays in the memory. Closing my eyes, it isn’t hard to visualise again the fetid mess of bones and skulls and rags that filled the small church at Ntarama where 5,000 perished. Outside, the skulls of men, women and children lay neatly stacked in rows on a shelf.

The body parts and stinking clothes were all that remained of the Tutsi peasants who were massacred in the village one terrible day in April 1994. Most had their heads cleaved by machetes swung by their Hutu neighbours, acting in unison in the worst episode of mass killing the world has witnessed.

“You should smell it when the rains come,” a bereaved person told me during a visit to the church two years on from the killings, in 1996. At the time, the wider world was filled with guilt over its failure to intervene earlier, and pledged to ensure that such atrocities would never be allowed to happen again.

The approaching 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide is an apt time to ask, therefore, whether this promise has been fulfilled, and whether something like this could happen again, either in Rwanda or elsewhere. Have the perpetrators of these crimes been caught and punished? How is Rwanda doing today? Has the passage of time dimmed the world’s willingness to intervene when the lives of ordinary people are threatened?

Arguably the greatest achievement of the past 20 years is the simple fact that there has been no repeat of the killing spree of 1994, which itself was only the latest outbreak in a cycle of communal violence stretching back over 30 years. Between 500,000 and 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus died over a 100-day period that year, after a plane carrying the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi was shot down when approaching the airport at Rwanda’s capital, Kigali.

The Tutsi-dominated forces which ousted the Rwandan army and government responsible for the genocide have stayed in power since, ruling with an iron grip that shows little tolerance for dissent. Guilty of their own human rights abuses, albeit on a smaller scale, they have dabbled to disastrous effect in neighbouring Congo. Critics have poured scorn on the process of national reconciliation that took place in post-conflict Rwanda, but the continuing absence of violence is nevertheless impressive.

Guilt over non-intervention
The other laudable outcome of governments’ guilt at failing to intervene in Rwanda has been the creation of a new mechanism of accountability for the perpetrators of war crimes. The creation of the permanent International Criminal Court in 1998 was a direct legacy of the genocide. For the first time, a “court of last resort” exists to deal with people national courts were unable or unwilling to deal with. The culture of impunity, which encouraged despots and their enforcers to believe they would never face justice, has been broken.

To date, the court has tried only 75 people who played a leading role in the genocide. While it was never intended that the court would try large numbers of defendants, it has also been criticised for its slow pace and high running costs. The vast bulk of genocidaires have been tried in the Rwandan courts, where the standards of justice varied greatly, according to Human Rights Watch.

Genocide guilt ensured a steady flow of aid money to Rwanda over the past two decades. Annual economic growth tops 8 per cent and a million Rwandans have been lifted out of poverty. Mobile phone technology has revolutionised communications, and strides have been made in health and education. Still, Rwanda has some of the highest inequality in the region and the government relies on foreign aid for 40 per cent of its budget. The country – tiny, landlocked and hilly – remains dangerously overpopulated.

Potential killing zones
Today, Rwanda is out of the headlines, but new fault lines of conflict are springing up across the African continent. In northern Nigeria and the Central African Republic, the blood of Muslims and Christians is being spilled with increasing and alarming frequency. Efforts to contain the rising tide of violence have so far been unsuccessful. The risk of a repeat of the events of Rwanda in 1994 cannot be discounted. The willingness of the world to intervene in such a scenario cannot be guaranteed.

The threat is not confined to Africa; a UN-based group, Genocide Watch, estimates that no fewer than 36 countries were at some risk of genocide at the end of last year. Across the wider world, the international community struggles to find a balance between intervention and non-interference when crises emerge. It intervenes in Libya, but not in Syria.

There is a keen awareness the vulnerable – children, women, the old – pay the highest price when atrocities are committed. But equally, experience has shown that violence is seldom the preserve of one group in a conflict, and that it is usually far harder to withdraw than it is to become involved in a dispute.

The leading Irish-American political scientist Samantha Power divides the world into “bystanders”, who know but choose to do nothing about genocide, and “upstanders”, who struggle to tell the world about an emerging crisis. Twenty years after the Rwandan genocide, it is hard to claim with any confidence that the upstanders outnumber the bystanders.

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