Rwanda Commemoration Project: Genocide In Our Time

Background on the Rwandan Genocide

The Hutu and Tutsi populations in Rwanda have had a tangled history. Although they often lived side-by-side as neighbors, intermarried, and shared a common culture, tensions between Hutus and Tutsis flared as decolonization, ethnic tensions and civil war have taken their toll. When Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana was killed in a plane crash on April 6, 1994, it sparked the start of a well-planned, systematic slaughter of the Tutsi minority. Hutu officials throughout the country, from the Prime Minister to local and regional authorities, called for "self-defense" against Tutsi "accomplices" and "enemies" using radio and mass media to promote their message. Road blocks were set up. Within hours, an organized and systematic program for mass extermination was underway.

Each day, for over three months, Tutsis were hunted, tortured and massacred on the streets, in their homes, in churches, and in schools. Military officials were not the only perpetrators; threats and calls for violence turned neighbor against neighbor, as civilians picked up machetes and guns and slaughtered each other. By the end of the campaign almost one million Tutsis and moderate Hutus had lost their lives. Rwandan survivors and the international community were left to ask how such an atrocious thing could have happened.

In the years since, evidence has shown that policymakers in France, Belgium, the United States and the United Nations were aware of the preparations for systematic extermination but chose not to intervene. The U.S., attributing the massacres to "tribal warfare," even went so far as to instruct its officials not to use the term "genocide." It was not until five years later that the international community recognized its failure to act, acknowledged steps that it could have taken to prevent the Genocide, and accepted its share of responsibility for the tragedy in Rwanda. A 1999 independent inquiry into the events in Rwanda commissioned by UN Secretary General Kofi Annan concluded that "the overriding failure in the international community's response was the lack of resources and political will, as well as errors of judgment as to the nature of the events in Rwanda."

Apologizing to the survivors in Rwanda, Mr. Annan remarked, "We will not deny that, in their greatest hour of need, the world failed the people of Rwanda."

In 1994, the United Nations established the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda to prosecute those who bear the most responsibility for genocide, crimes against humanity, and other serious violations of international humanitarian law committed in Rwanda and neighboring countries in 1994. To date, 17 people have been convicted, including former Ministers in the Rwandan Interim Government, as well as former military, civic, and community leaders. Twenty-four people are currently on trial and another 22 are awaiting trial. Others are awaiting prosecution in local courts in Rwanda, but the process is slow. Rwanda is also using a process called "gacaca" (pronounced: ga-cha-cha) to hold perpetrators accountable. Gacaca is based on the direct participation of each member of the community in confronting, rehabilitating and reintegrating accused perpetrators into the community. Human rights groups have praised the effort but warned that without adequate support from the government, the extra-judicial nature of these courts could lead to further injustices.

Rwanda has become a symbol of the modern-day failure of the world to end genocide. Too many times in our history have people pledged "Never Again!" only to see a similar tragedy repeat itself in another place. The tenth anniversary of the Rwandan genocide provides an opportunity to reflect on the universal goal of preventing genocide and to use the lessons we have learned to work towards a day when genocide will truly be a thing of the past.