Rwanda’s Uncertain Path to Reconciliation

On the night of April 6, 1994, a private plane carrying the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi was shot down as it approached Kigali airport. Within an hour, roadblocks appeared around the Rwandan capital as the populist Hutu Power radio station called for revenge against the country’s Tutsis. What followed was 100 days of violence, the speed and brutality of which has few historical parallels. By the time the genocide ended in July 1994, nearly one million people were dead with millions more displaced. Now, 20 years later, the Rwandan Genocide remains the primary example of international failure that came to shape global approaches to atrocity prevention and humanitarian intervention.

While some lessons have been learned, it is also clear that the path to healing and reconciliation remains incomplete.

When civil war first broke out in Rwanda in 1990, it occurred far from international headlines and Western policy briefings. Four years later, Rwanda became internationally synonymous with mass murder and genocide as the world stood by and watched. Ultimately the UN released a scathing report on its failure to appropriately respond to the crisis, acknowledging its responsibility for not stopping the killing and calling for the development of new mechanisms that would allow the UN to fulfill its duty to act. One outcome of that discussion is the doctrine of Responsibility to Protect (R2P), which shifts the burden for preventing mass atrocities to the wider international community when it becomes clear that a sovereign state is not fulfilling its duty to protect their own people. Although still controversial, the primary purpose of R2P is to prevent “another Rwanda” where possible and to give credence to the post-Holocaust promise of “never again.”

Such things are easier said than done. In the 20 years since the genocide, Rwanda itself has been accused of mass atrocities in the neighboring DRC but has faced few consequences. The conflict in the DRC is a direct outgrowth of the Rwandan Genocide after more than a million Rwandan refugees crossed the border, some fleeing the genocide itself while others fled the advancing rebel army which is still in power today. As the Hutu Power government fell, the tensions of the wider Rwandan civil war continued albeit now across international borders.

Alliances of convenience and profit led to massacres of refugees, a cross-border insurgency and a much larger conflict within the fragile political environment of the DRC that has proven extremely difficult to quash. Despite the unprecedented push for justice inside Rwanda with the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda and the creation of local gacaca courts to try nearly 2 million suspected genocidaires, justice remains elusive for victims of the violence that followed the genocide whether it occurred inside or outside the country. This gap is an important one and leads some to ponder whether history will eventually repeat itself in Rwanda due to failures in fully addressing the needs and roles of all Rwandans from this chapter in their history?

These are critical questions that demonstrate the long-term consequences of such violence; it is often far easier to break a country than it is to mend one. As the world marks the 20th anniversary of the genocide this week, it is important to acknowledge the progress Rwanda has made in reconciliation and trying to move on, but it is equally important to recognize that the process is incomplete and remains largely one-sided. It is likely that the success of reconciliation will be determined by the post-genocide generation, which already makes up over half of Rwanda’s population. For them and for potential genocide victims elsewhere in the world, this week we reflect on what could have been had the world acted with conviction in the face of genocide in 1994, and how we must do better in the future.