Australian Outlook

Remembering Rwanda

05 Apr 2024
By Dr Gavin Mount
Rwanda Genocide. Source: Gil Serpereau Flickr /

On 7 April, commemoration ceremonies will be held in Kigali and around the world to mark the thirtieth anniversary of the Rwandan genocide which occurred over a 100 day period from April to July in 1994. Looking back over three decades, what do we now know about the event and its causes?

Even thirty years on, new facts about the scale of the event and what was known are still emerging. Recently released archives and diplomatic communications reveal how the United Nations and other agencies were monitoring instability across the region and that a great deal was known about the potential for mass violence.

In April 1993, UN Human Rights Special Rapporteur B.W. Ndiaye explicitly acknowledged, and then side-stepped, the “genocide question.” Observers of the Arusha Accords were acutely concerned about the challenges of reintegrating the Tutsi led Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF)  into the Hutu dominated Rwandan Patriotic Army (RPA).

More is now known about United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda Commander LT General Roméo Dallaire’s situation reports that persistently warned the UN about the high prospect for mass atrocities, located weapons caches, and identified evidence of high-level government plans to “exterminate” the Tutsi population. In one of these, now known as the “genocide fax,” Dallaire reported that the:




Figure 1 UNAMIR Commander Dallaire SITREP 11 Jan 1994

These observations of a highly systematic and organised state were entirely consistent with understandings of scholars such as Gerard Prunier who concluded that the “genocide happened not because the state was weak, but on the contrary because it was so totalitarian and strong that it had the capacity to make its subjects obey absolutely any order, including one of mass slaughter.”

In retrospect, we might observe that early fact-finding efforts were highly accurate and efficient. Almost immediately following the events of April to July 1994, most of the extended reports on the genocide were produced by medical practitioners and human rights watchdogs such as African Rights, Human Rights Watch, and Amnesty International. These accounts were based on thorough fieldwork and, unlike so many government reports, not prone to exaggeration.

Alison Des Forges’ Leave None to Tell the Story (1999) produced a definitive, albeit preliminary, account of the empirical facts of the Rwandan genocide and concluded that: “at least half a million persons were killed in the genocide, a loss that represented about three quarters of the Tutsi population of Rwanda deaths.” Today, most accounts have settled upon a death toll figure of between “eight-hundred thousand and one million” deaths.  Viewed in comparison to all fatalities caused by so-called one-sided violence, these figures are extraordinary.










Figure 2: Uppsala Conflict Data Program (UCDP)

Qualitative evidence gathered during this period by officers of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) would eventually lead to the first prosecution of an individual for the crime of genocide and produced many other precedents for crimes against humanity and rape as a war crime.

Former school teacher and then bourgmestre (Mayor) of Tabu Commune, Jean Paul Akayesu, was found guilty of enabling the killing of at least 2000 Tutsis, ordering the disappearance of many more, participating directly in several murders and also that he, “facilitated the commission of the sexual violence, beatings and murders by allowing the sexual violence and beatings and murders to occur on or near the bureau communal premises.”

A 2015 documentary, The Uncondemned, retells the story about how this conviction was made possible due to the efforts of tenacious young prosecutors and the courage of women survivors who testified. Akayesu was convicted on the grounds that he had executive authority to “plan, instigate, order and facilitate” these crimes. The broader significance of the ICTR in establishing legal prosecutions of rape as a crime of genocide has secured Rwanda’s place in the canon of comparative and historical studies such as Heineman’s Sexual Violence in Conflict Zones (2011), Buckley-Zistel’s Gender in Transitional Justice (2012), and de Brouwer Sexual Violence as an International Crime (2013).

The Rwandan experience with transitional and restorative justice has come to be viewed as an innovative example of hybrid international criminal law. By 2000, Rwandan jails still held 120,000 people accused of genocide, war crimes or crimes against humanity. In 2001, a system of domestic village-based Gacaca courts were established as a form of transitional justice to deal with these matters more expeditiously. Perpetrators who fled Rwanda are still being pursued, arrested, and convicted for genocide crimes.

While legal proceedings have held the elite accountable, other scholars have sought to understand the complicity of everyday Rwandans. In his book, When Victims Become Killers (2002), Mahmood Mamdani examined the rationalisation and “popularity” of genocide among an estimated half a million ordinary Rwandan citizens and concluded that, “the Rwandan genocide needs to be understood as a native’s genocide…  their mission as one of clearing the soil of a threatening alien presence.”

One of the most substantial compilations of first-hand accounts was gathered by Jean Hatzfeld. His three astonishing books provided first-hand accounts of perpetrators (Machete Season, 2005), survivors (Life Laid Bare, 2007) and reconciling communities (The Antelope’s Strategy, 2010). Hatzfeld  revealed how perpetrators carried out their task of “bush work” with inhumane banality; but he also documented complex and overlapping gestures of forgiveness, repentance, resentment, injustice, and the thresholds of human “tolerance.”

Many leading scholars have demonstrated how the Rwandan genocide was fundamentally bound up with these longstanding and far-reaching conflict dynamics. In The Order of Genocide, Scott Straus concluded that the genocide was driven by three factors of “war, state power, and pre-existing ethnic/racial classifications.” Indeed, the prevailing view of many scholars of the genocide has been to demonstrate how the cause of the genocide was fundamentally bound up with broader conflict dynamics in a wider regional African war.

Reflections on the event and its causes will continue to evolve.  While much of the empirical evidence has surfaced and been carefully examined, new evidence will continue to emerge from firsthand testimonials, photographs, and, especially as archives become declassified, the decision-making processes of the international community.

Dr Gavin Mount is a Nexus fellow and Senior Lecturer at the School of Humanities and Social Sciences at UNSW Canberra. His primary areas of research are on the application of critical security theories and emerging disruptive technologies at the intercession between ethnic conflict and geopolitics. Recent publications include “Hybrid Peace/War” (2018), “Resilient Hermeneutics” (2022)  and “Nationalism” (forthcoming, 2024).

This article is published under a Creative Commons Licence and may be republished with attribution.