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  • The Other Lesson of Rwanda: Mediators Sometimes Do More Damage Than Good
  • Alan J. Kuperman (bio)

The 1994 genocide in Rwanda shocked and horrified the world. In its wake, analysts have concentrated most of their attention on the international community’s failure to take prompt action in order to stop the killing. This inaction has been attributed variously to the inefficiency of the United Nations decision-making process, the lack of an on-call international reaction force, and the pervasive impact of racial and cultural biases. Proposed reforms have included establishing an on-call UN reaction force, relying more on individual states and ad hoc military coalitions to enforce peace, and increasing the resources devoted to preventive diplomacy. More recently, attention has turned to the plight of the hundreds of thousands of refugees who appear to have worn out their welcome in Zaire.

However, this overwhelming focus on events after the outbreak of violence risks overlooking perhaps the most fundamental lesson of Rwanda—that mediators sometimes inadvertently provoke the very tragedies they seek to prevent. Indeed, the events leading up to the tragedy in Rwanda demonstrate that mediation remains an inexact science. While conflict management gurus have in recent years emphasized the need for mediators to utilize leverage 1 —such as aid, trade, sanctions and embargoes—the Rwanda experience demonstrates that such leverage is a double-edged sword, equally capable of driving contending parties to the most extreme measures. [End Page 221]

Ironically, the pre-genocide mediation in Rwanda which led up to the 1993 Arusha accords was a virtual textbook case of modern conflict management. The conflict was ripe for settlement because the civil war had reached a mutually hurting stalemate. 2 Mediators used leverage, coordinated their activities, and ultimately put aside individual agendas. The settlement seemingly addressed all of the social, economic and political roots and consequences of the conflict, and the international community agreed to guarantee the settlement with a peacekeeping force. Unlike in Angola, the settlement did not unduly rush democratic elections, postponing them until the contending armies could be integrated under an interim transition government.

But the mediators had a blind spot. They failed to appreciate how much Rwanda’s entrenched elite had to lose under political pluralization, and the lengths to which it would go to preserve the status quo. The mediators’ application of leverage succeeded in compelling Rwanda’s President to sign and begin to implement the Arusha accords, but this very success raised the insecurity of Rwanda’s elite to the breaking point. To protect the privileges they saw the international community trying to wrest from them, extremists proved willing to massacre fellow countrymen with whom they had been living in relative calm for more than two decades.

That the mediation not only failed to control the conflict but propelled it into such a massive escalation, despite ostensibly propitious conditions, calls for a reevaluation of prevailing conflict management theory. It also underscores the need for potential mediators both to obtain more accurate intelligence and to exercise better judgment in utilizing that intelligence. Most importantly, it demonstrates that the international community must be more cautious in applying leverage, especially in cases where it is unwilling to provide enforcement measures if events go awry.


Rwanda is a densely populated, central African country of just over 7 million people (pre-genocide) squeezed into an area the size of Maryland. Its population is comprised mainly of three groups—the tiny minority Twa, [End Page 222] the larger Tutsi and the overwhelming majority Hutu. 3 Even prior to German colonization, the minority Tutsi (primarily cattle owners) dominated over the Hutu (mainly farmers) and the aboriginal Twa. However, it was Belgium which, after taking control from Germany after World War I, institutionalized Tutsi dominance and solidified these divisions through the issuance of ethnic identity cards in 1926. 4

These group divisions, which function as quasi-castes, are not strictly “ethnic” since inter-marriage has long been a fact of life. Indeed, as early as Belgium’s 1933–34 census, Tutsi were identified not by ethnic heritage but rather as those who owned ten or more cattle. Even official ethnicity has remained somewhat flexible, with wealthy Rwandans able...

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