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UN report on Rwanda genocide threatens stability in Central Africa

The leaked report accuses Rwanda's leadership of mass murdering Hutu refugees in Congo. Once seen as heroes for ending the 1994 genocide – they're now billed as villains. But oversimplified claims don't serve justice, and may have dangerous consequences for regional progress.

By Harry Verhoeven / September 23, 2010

Oxford, England

Until recently, President Paul Kagame and his Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) were the international community’s aid darling, heralded for their role in stopping the 1994 genocide that claimed the lives of as many as one million Rwandans. They now stand accused of a long list of crimes.

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A recently-leaked UN report accuses the RPF of atrocities “that could be classified as genocide” in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in 1996-1997 – mass murdering tens of thousands of Hutu refugees. The regime’s legitimacy and its leaders’ individual criminal responsibility are now being contested.

But how wise is it to swap one set of dangerous simplifications for another? Is Rwanda the model of progress and reconciliation, or is Kagame’s RPF the genocidal eye of Central African storms? And what does this tell us about international intervention in a region with an immensely troubled past?

Historical context

Rwanda has long suffered from powerful imagery projected onto it by self-declared friends of the country. The analyses of socio-political trends often reveal more about the “expert” expounding his truths than about what actually happens to Rwanda’s people.

A century ago, Belgian colonialists, biased by the Flemish-Walloon cleavage that undermined nation-statehood back home, portrayed the complex Hutu-Tutsi relationship as fundamentally irreconcilable, mixing racist theories with political expediency.

During the cold war, the regime of Hutu President Juvénal Habyarimana was the “enfant chéri” of development practitioners, the Catholic Church, and French President François Mitterrand. A 20-year dictatorship was deemed “a peaceful outpost” in the “dangerous” African jungle. When Mr. Habyarimana was assassinated on April 6, 1994, the regime’s core members unleashed a genocidal hell against Tutsis and some moderate Hutus.

Habyarimana’s old allies disbelievingly went into shock (Brussels) and continued support for the Hutu extremists through denial (Paris). Seeing their illusions go up in smoke was something Belgium and France handled with great difficulty, but with terrible consequences for Rwandans themselves.

Turning a blind eye

When Kagame and his predominantly Tutsi rebels took over, ending the 1994 bloodshed, a new generation fell in love with Rwanda. Anglo-Saxon politicians and aid workers combined geopolitical opportunism with genuine admiration for the RPF’s sophisticated security and good governance buzz.

Apparently willing to ignore the reprisal atrocities perpetrated by RPF forces against civilians across the country between 1995 and 1998, Bill Clinton and Tony Blair have publicly led the defense of Kagame’s team as visionary reconciliators.

The unwillingness of outside actors to critically examine their wishful thinking about Rwanda has historically proved embarrassing. But it’s also led to terrible mistakes, including the inability to prevent the genocide that killed at least 800,000 people.