Is there hope for Rwanda?

Background current

On April 7, 1994, the genocide of the Tutsi minority began in Rwanda: Within a few weeks, radical Hutu killed more than 800,000 Tutsi, moderate and opposition Hutu and other opposition members. The international community intervened too late.

People with candles commemorate the victims of the genocide in Rwanda at the Amahoro Stadium in Kigali / Rwanda, April 7, 2019. (& copy picture-alliance / AP)

The genocide in Rwanda, which occurred in around 100 days between April and mid-July 1994, is commemorated worldwide on April 7th with a United Nations memorial day. Radical members of the Hutu majority killed more than 800,000 people during this period, mostly from the Tutsi minority. But moderate and opposition Hutu as well as members of the very small population group of the Twa [1] were killed. In addition, it is estimated that between 150,000 and 250,000 women were raped during this time. In addition to the police, the military and Hutu militias, countless Hutu civilians took part in the attacks and acts of violence, some of which killed their own neighbors.

The causes of conflict go back to the colonial era

The genocide sparked a conflict whose social and political roots go back to the colonization of Rwanda by Germany and Belgium [2]. Before that, there were centuries of ties and common traditions between Hutu and Tutsi. Only the racially justified unequal treatment of the various population groups created by the colonial powers created a split between the dominant Tutsi minority and the oppressed Hutu majority. This led to an unjust social and rulership structure. It was also the Belgian colonial rulers who first introduced personal papers and thus the distinction between Hutu, Tutsi and Twa. Thus the perception of the individual members of the population that they belong to a certain ethnic group developed and solidified over the decades.

Between 1959 and 1961 the balance of power began to turn due to Hutu uprisings against the Belgian colonial power and the Tutsi elite. In the wake of the uprisings, around 150,000 Tutsi fled to neighboring countries for fear of violence and persecution. After gaining independence in 1962, Rwanda was led by a Hutu government. With independence, thousands more Tutsi fled to Burundi, where resistance formed. Those who remained in Rwanda were systematically suppressed.

The killing of President Habyarimana sparked the genocide

Attacks from Uganda by Tutsi rebels of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), founded in 1987, were part of the immediate prehistory of the genocide. Under rebel leader Paul Kagame, they fought against the Hutu regime since 1990 to enforce the Tutsi minority's right to participate in politics. In 1990 around 12,000 RPF fighters (among whom there were also opposition Hutu) invaded Rwanda and conquered large parts of the north. With the signing of the peace treaty in Arusha (Tanzania) in August 1993, the civil war seemed to be over for the time being. Among other things, the agreement provided for a broad-based transitional government with the involvement of the RPF and the introduction of a multi-party system. Resolution 872 of the United Nations Security Council decided to deploy the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR). Its aim was to help stabilize the country, but had no mandate for military intervention. Hutu extremists firmly rejected the Arusha agreement and continued to radicalise themselves.

The specific trigger for the genocide was the downing of President Habyarimana's plane on the evening of April 6, 1994, which has not yet been clarified. Just half an hour later, moderate Hutu politicians and the Tutsi population began to be murdered. The Hutu government blamed the Tutsi and called on the radio to kill all Tutsi. Before that, broadcasters had systematically incited against the minority for months and incited people to kill. The genocide, which began on the night of April 7th, lasted for about 100 days. Many Tutsi had sought protection in front of churches or other escape points - there they were massacred with machetes, beaten to death or shot. The genocide only ended in July after the RPF managed to conquer all of Rwanda.

A transitional government of national unity was formed on July 19, with Pasteur Bizimungu, a Hutu, as president and Paul Kagame, a Tutsi and leader of the RPF, as vice-president.

The failure of the United Nations

Although United Nations troops were stationed in Rwanda as part of the UNAMIR [3] peacekeeping mission, the United Nations did not succeed in preventing the atrocities. As early as August 1993, a report by the UN human rights investigator for Rwanda warned of an escalation of violence between the population groups. At the beginning of January 1994, the Canadian commander of the UN peacekeeping mission in Rwanda also sent warnings of genocide to UN headquarters in New York - but he was strictly forbidden from taking action against secret arsenals of Hutu militias because, among other things, he had a UN mandate -Security Council was missing. In addition, UNAMIR was deployed as a peacekeeping force for the Arusha Agreement and was therefore structurally and technically not prepared for the extent of the fighting that broke out in April. Instead, the member states involved in the mission even began to withdraw their troops. Two weeks after the atrocities began, on April 21, 1994, the United Nations Security Council decided to reduce the original troop strength from more than 2500 to 270 soldiers. It was not until mid-May that the United Nations increased the troops to 5,500. But it was not until June 23, following a resolution by the UN Security Council the day before, that the first French-led armed forces reached the south-west of the country.

After the establishment of a transitional government under the Tutsi Kagame, more than two million people, mainly Hutu but also Tutsi, fled to neighboring countries. These included many of the government officials, armed forces and militiamen who were involved in the genocide. Most of them fled to neighboring Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) and Tanzania. There were also around 2.5 million internally displaced persons.

Genocide and refugee movements in Rwanda 1993/1994
Here you can find the map as a high-resolution PDF file License: cc by-nc-nd / 3.0 / de / (mr-kartographie)

Legal processing

The legal processing of the mass murders took many years and has not yet been fully completed. It has been operated at both the intentional, national and regional levels. From November 1994 the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) in Tanzania started the criminal prosecution of genocide and other serious human rights violations on behalf of the UN Security Council. During its eleven years of activity, the ICTR negotiated a total of 93 cases against those primarily responsible for the genocide in politics, business, the media and the military. He imposed a total of 61 prison sentences and obtained 14 acquittals - some cases were also referred to the national judiciary. As the successor organization to the ICTR - which officially ended its mandate in 2015 - the "UN International Residual Mechanisms for Criminal Tribunals" has been ensuring that suspects are followed up.

At the national level, the Rwandan government started the first trials in 1996. National courts have been mandated to bring lower-level genocide suspects to justice. The delay resulted, among other things, from the fact that the country had lost a large part of its judicial staff.

In order to hold the large number of perpetrators in Rwandan prisons to account, but also to promote the reconciliation process, Rwanda revived the traditional community courts, so-called gacacas. According to the Gacaca Commission, these lay courts tried over a million cases between 2005 and 2012 - including many murders and robberies.

Mixed record of legal processing

The results of the Gacaca courts are mixed: In many cases, relatives and survivors were able to obtain certainty about the whereabouts of the victims and the circumstances of their death through the proceedings. They also gave the perpetrators the opportunity to show repentance and ask for forgiveness. At the same time, human rights organizations such as "Human Rights Watch" criticize the fact that in numerous cases credible judgments have not been made and justice has not been ensured. In addition, crimes of the current ruling party and the earlier rebel movement RPF, which were committed before, during and after the genocide, were not the subject of legal processing.

Foreign courts also tried high-ranking military officials and other Hutu war criminals. The Frankfurt Higher Regional Court sentenced a Rwandan village mayor to life imprisonment. Two high-ranking Hutu militiamen who lived as refugees in Germany were also brought to justice in this country.

Heavy penalties for denying genocide

The memory of the genocide in Rwanda is kept alive today in over 240 memorials. Reconciliation has made great strides in recent years, but the relationship between the two population groups remains fragile.

International observers praise the fact that Rwanda's government has been fighting all new forms of racial discrimination for many years. Denial of the genocide can even be punished with imprisonment, while the residents of Rwanda are no longer allowed to call themselves Hutu or Tutsi.

With the help of the NGO "Prison Fellowship Rwanda", the "National Unity and Reconciliation Commission" has set up reconciliation villages in which perpetrators live together with survivors. The activities are part of the national discourse on unity and reconciliation.

President Kagame rules in an authoritarian manner

Compared to many African countries, Rwanda's economy has prospered over the past two decades - the infrastructure is good in many areas and inflation is relatively low. The prosperity of some strata has increased massively, although broad strata of the population continue to live in poverty. Rwandan laws, such as the nationwide ban on plastic bags or the high proportion of women in the Rwandan parliament (61 percent), are making a name for themselves around the world.

However, there is widespread disillusionment with the hope of developing a stable democracy with comprehensive civil rights. Human rights violations and restrictions on political and media freedoms are widespread, according to human rights organizations. The judiciary is considered to be relatively effective, but is in fact not independent of the government. The Freedom House Index continues to classify Rwanda as "not free".

Since the year 2000 the country has been led by the Tutsi Paul Kagame as president. According to official information, Kagame won the last presidential election on August 4, 2017 with over 98 percent of the vote. His meanwhile third term in office was only made possible by a controversial constitutional amendment. Kagame's style of government is authoritarian and the opposition is massively suppressed. He is also criticized for his support for rebels in Eastern Congo.


more on the subject