BBC Home
Explore the BBC
BBC News
Launch consoleBBC NEWS CHANNEL
Last Updated: Monday, 5 April, 2004, 15:54 GMT 16:54 UK
Preventing another genocide
By Alison De Forges
Human Rights Watch

A decade 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.

Media executives Ferdinand Nahimana(r) Hassan Ngeze (l)
'Hate media' played a key role in the genocide
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.

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.

Tutsi massacres

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 16 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.

Killers and other assailants went unpunished if their victims were Tutsi or members of parties opposed to the authorities.

Hate media

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.

Lack of accurate information of what was happening on the ground also fuelled the killings
Alison De Forges
But no one intervened to actually stop the calls to hatred or to promote the broadcast of countervailing messages of tolerance.

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.

Conflicting reports

One other way to prevent genocide is to 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.

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.

Paul Kagame
Rwanda may start an inquiry to probe the role of foreigners on the genocide
Lack of accurate information of what was happening on the ground also fuelled the killings.

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, 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 Mr 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 withdraw most of the peacekeepers.

Lack of support

There was equally a need to 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.

Instead of supporting these resisters, the Security Council undermined them by reducing the already inadequate number of peacekeepers.

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.

Foreign aid

Rwandan government officials, military officers, and political leaders who directed the genocide claimed to be legitimate authorities giving appropriate orders for the self-defence 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 the international community appeared to acquiesce in these claims to legitimacy.

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.

Policy change

Imposing an arms embargo on the genocidal government can also effectively prevent similar incidents.

Many civilian 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.

The UN 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 attacks.

Rwandan genocide prisoner
Lack of support led some resisters to join in the killings
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.

The United States and the United Kingdom, failed to press the French effectively enough to produce a change in policy.

Genocides are complex phenomena, each with its own peculiar configuration and dynamics.

These 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.

The BBC is not responsible for the content of external internet sites


News Front Page | World | UK | England | Northern Ireland | Scotland | Wales | Politics
Business | Entertainment | Science/Nature | Technology | Health | Education
Have Your Say | Magazine | In Pictures | Week at a Glance | Country Profiles | In Depth | Programmes
Americas Africa Europe Middle East South Asia Asia Pacific