20 years after Rwanda, genocide remains a “problem from Hell”

Rwanda genocide
General Romeo Dallaire

I just finished reading a book worth writing about in light of recent events in Africa and Iraq: Lieutenant General Romeo Dallaire’s Shake Hands With The Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda. Gen. Dallaire was the Force Commander of the UN Assistance Mission to Rwanda, 1993-1994, and witnessed the Rwandan Genocide firsthand.  In around 100 days, the Hutu population*, constituting a large majority of the Rwandan people, turned on the Tutsis and one another, murdering between 800,000 and 1,000,000 Tutsis and Hutu sympathizers.


Gen. Dallaire attempted to implement the Arusha Peace Accords in 1993 and early 1994, aimed at ending a stalled civil war and bringing a multiracial democracy to power in Rwanda. Progress was predictably slow, undermined by Hutu nationalists and intervention from abroad. But when Hutu President Habyarimana’s plane was shot down, killing him and variety of other local leaders, the peace talks broke down completely. Hutu extremists (who are suspected to have killed Habyarimana for being too moderate) seized the opportunity to slaughter their Tutsi opponents and those perceived as too soft on Tutsis. Gen. Dallaire’s UN force was mostly cobbled together from Third World forces and generally underfunded or unused to peacekeeping operations. They were thus unable to stop the Hutu militias. Equally useless was the international community, which offered paltry humanitarian aid, sometimes allied with the genocidaires, and generally prevented Dallaire from mounting a competent defense of innocent civilians.

Why dwell on one of history’s worst massacres today? Because despite the international community’s tepid, post-Holocaust promise of “never again,” the racially charged massacrescontinue to pile up, even today. The Islamic State has committed what many are calling genocide with impunity within the caliphate’s bases of operation in Syria and Iraq. Meanwhile, Hutu-Tutsi violence has sprung up in Burundi against the backdrop of an authoritarian president’s attempts to stay in power.

What is the cause? Political scientist Kenneth Waltz once wrote of three explanations for war:  Problems within man, problems within the structure of various states, and problems within the international system of states. Of these three “images,” Waltz found the last most convincing, indicating that war’s cause is lack of a central authority in the international system. In this authority-less, or “anarchic” world, states must primarily protect their existence and interests. It was in no powerful state’s interest to help poverty-stricken and marginal Rwanda. When France finally did attempt a humanitarian intervention, the results were far from humanitarian: The French Operation Turquoise was aimed at protecting French nationals and securing the safety of France’s allies, the genocidal government.

Given that states will as a rule not intervene in cases of mass ethnic violence, preventing genocide in the current state of the world-system is impossible. However, one reform should be rather uncontroversial: States on the United Nations Security Council (and to a lesser extent, the General Assembly, which passes only nonbinding resolutions) should be barred from voting on issues pertaining to mass ethnic violence within their borders. Rwanda happened to have a seat on the Council during the genocide; This meant that its representative could lobby against intervention and generally obfuscate the situation. Gen. Dallaire remarked that because of the representative’s privileged position on the Council, the genocidaires had more information, logistics, and resources than he did, despite the fact that his force worked for the UN. Eliminating this privilege would help prevent genocidal regimes and groups from committing their atrocities without answering to the international community.

Samantha Power, now the United States’ Ambassador to the UN, once described genocide as the “problem from hell.” It is a testament to the apathy of the great powers and their international system that this hell continues unabated.


*Note:  It is possible that the Hutu and the Tutsis are not “ethnic groups,” per se, according to geneticists, but they are distinct cultural entities.