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  • Lessons Learned from the 1994 Rwanda Genocide
  • Charles Murigande (bio)

In this essay I focus on lessons that not only we Rwandans but hopefully the whole world have learned from the 1994 genocide. We hope these lessons may usefully be applied to the crisis in Darfur.

The genocide in Rwanda did not catch the international community unaware. Indeed, there was a clear series of early warnings that should have triggered a serious and urgent response to a looming catastrophe. For example, a 1993 report by Adama Dieng, the current registrar of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, who was then the special rapporteur on extrajudicial, summary, or arbitrary executions of the United Nations Commission on Human Rights, supported earlier findings by many nongovernmental organizations (NGOs) focused on human rights that acts of genocide had been committed in Rwanda in the early 1990s and that there were clear signs that the regime in place was preparing a large-scale genocide.

There were similar reports both at the UN Secretariat and in the capitals of all Western countries diplomatically represented in Rwanda. The most unequivocal warning came in a January 1994 cable from General Romeo Dallaire, who was then the commander of the UN Assistance Mission in Rwanda Force. Writing three months before the genocide started, Dallaire conveyed reliable information from a leader of an extremist militia known as Interahamwe stating that his group had dawn up plans that would enable it to kill up to one thousand Tutsis every twenty minutes. In this cable, Dallaire requested permission from UN headquarters to launch a preemptive attack [End Page 5] on Interahamwe’s arms caches in order to disrupt the group’s plans and to send them a strong message that the international community would not tolerate such horror. Unfortunately, permission was denied.

For France, the main supporter of the regime that committed the genocide, things were even more crystal clear. As early as 1992, a senior French diplomat named Paul Dijoud warned a visiting Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) delegation led by current president, Paul Kagame, then deputy chairman of RPF, that France would never allow the RPF to get to Kigali, and that if they did, they would find all their Tutsi relatives dead.

All this information was in the possession of those who had the power as well as the international responsibility to act, yet they failed to do so. So the writing was on the wall. The warnings were clear, yet nobody acted or wanted to act. What we faced was international indifference.

But this was nothing new for Rwanda. Indifference has always characterized the response of the international community to our cries for help. The 1994 genocide of Tutsis was only the climax of a series of killings that started in 1959 and continued into the 1960s and 1970s. Apart from the lonely voices of philosophers Jean Paul Sartre and Bertrand Russell, who characterized the killings of Tutsis in 1963 – 64 as “the most barbaric crimes committed in the world since the holocaust of Jews,” the rest of the world was silent and indifferent.

So the first lesson we learn from the 1994 Rwanda genocide is that silence and indifference in the face of such horrific crimes only emboldens the killers and makes even worse crimes possible. The 1994 genocide would not have been possible or even contemplated had the international community responded more decisively to prevent or stop the crimes of 1959, the 1960s, and the 1970s. These crimes took place despite the pledges of “never again” following the Holocaust. They took place despite the obligations to prevent such crimes under the 1948 Genocide Convention as well as other international instruments including the UN Charter. Therefore, the first lesson is quickly followed by a second, namely, that international law and other political commitments are only as good as our political will to implement or enforce them. Without political will, international law and other commitments are impotent.

Despite having all the early warning, once the genocide began, instead of [End Page 6] strengthening its troop presence in Rwanda to prevent further killings, the UN, through UN Security Council Resolution 912 of 21 April 1994, reduced its force from more...


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pp. 5-10
Launched on MUSE
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Archived 2019
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