The field of genocide studies has tended to focus on explaining the actions of the perpetrators and to ignore the role of victim groups and third parties. This paper, prepared for a meeting of the American Political Science Association, attempts to rectify the current bias by re-examining the roots of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. It highlights the strategic interaction of ethnic groups and the international community.
The stated intention is not to excuse or justify the Rwandan genocide, but to better understand its causes. A series of interviews with former Tutsi rebels backs up the claim that the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) threatened Rwanda’s Hutu regime to such an extent that it retaliated with genocide. The RPF’s actions were supported by the international community. Although the rebels received growing indications that Tutsi civilians would be targeted in mass killings, they continued with their military offensive. Moreover, they refused to make compromises in peace talks that could have avoided the killings. The evidence suggests that they expected their challenge to provoke genocidal retaliation, but viewed it as an acceptable cost of attaining power.
The paper traces the developments leading to the birth of the Ugandan-based RPF in 1987 and the unfolding of its military offensive in the early 1990s. The main evidence cited to support the premise that the RPF was aware of the possibility of genocide and did not try to avert it is that:
- Former senior rebels conceded that, even before the 1990 RPF invasion, they expected the Hutu government to respond with reprisals against Tutsi civilians.
- Prior to the offensive, there was no real threat to the Tutsi population of Rwanda or neighbouring countries. Thus it cannot be argued that the rebels expected Tutsi to suffer irrespective of military action.
- Earlier in the conflict, the rebels avoided massacres by scaling back their advance and demands for political power. But during and after peace talks, they did not make sufficient compromises to prevent genocide.
- The RPF pursued a strategy designed to produce the best military outcome, not to save lives. They also refused to accept cease-fire offers in the first two-and-a-half weeks after the killing started.
- The prolonged refugee experience of many in the RPF weakened their kinship with Rwandan Tutsi and created distrust. This could help explain why the rebels tolerated the killing.
The genocide was foreseeable and might have been avoided if the RPF had been put under greater pressure to compromise. Key policy lessons for the international community are that:
- It pressured the Hutu government to share power by threatening sanctions, and in doing so tacitly supported the rebels’ intransigence.
- The Arusha peace accords amounted to a transfer of political and military power to the rebels and their Rwandan political allies – unacceptable to Hutu government extremists.
- Replacing French military intervention by a United Nations presence in late 1993 may have left Hutu extremists feeling abandoned, and encouraged them to prepare for genocide.
- International actors miscalculated the danger and, through their actions, helped trigger the genocidal backlash. Once it started, they were powerless to stop it.
- To prevent reoccurrences, scholars and policymakers must appreciate the complex interplay of factors that can fuel genocide, and learn from the mistakes that were made in Rwanda.