Opinion, Berkeley Blogs

What Caused the Rwandan Genocide against the Tutsi?

By Noam Schimmel

As we commemorate the Rwandan genocide against the Tutsi—which took place 28 years ago in April of 1994—it is essential to reflect on the failures of many different individuals, organizations, and governments that enabled the genocide.

We are commemorating the genocide because of the decisions with catastrophic consequences that U.S. Ambassador to the UN, Madeleine Albright, President Bill Clinton, and Members of Congress made not to act to prevent and stop the genocide against the Tutsi in 1994 when they had the power and resources to do so and the knowledge of its imminence and its unfolding terror.

We are commemorating the genocide because when the head of UN UNAMIR forces in Rwanda, Canadian General Romeo Dallaire, asked the then head of the United Nations Department of Peacekeeping Operations, Kofi Annan, for permission to take action against weapons caches to be used in massacres against Tutsis, Kofi Annan and the UN denied him that approval, enabling the planning and arming for genocide to expand undisturbed.

We are commemorating the genocide because of how the New York

Times and other American, European, and world media depicted the Rwandan genocide as a spontaneous paroxysm of tribal violence, when it was neither tribal nor spontaneous, but a meticulously planned and executed political project of genocide against the Tutsi that had been organized over several years.

Today, reputable newspapers such as Britain’s Guardian, which often has exemplary coverage of the situation of genocide survivors, has unfortunately also provided a platform to genocide deniers who falsify history, defame, and incite against survivors and against Tutsis, thus demonstrating the ignorance of the media about Rwanda and its history remains.

We are commemorating the genocide because the world preferred to watch Nelson Mandela celebrate the end of apartheid when he said,

“Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another,” and spoke of, “glory and hope for newborn liberty” in May of 1994 than to do something about the Rwandan genocide, happening at the same time.

Mandela must have myopically meant only South Africa and not Africa as a whole when he spoke of liberty and an end to oppression, because at that very moment he made this claim and in full knowledge of the world—while the African National Congress celebrated South Africa’s transition to freedom and democracy—Tutsis were being tortured, raped, and massacred in the tens of thousands every single day in Rwanda.

We are commemorating the genocide because of the racist legacy of Belgian colonization and the way it set Hutus and Tutsis against each other, pursuing a strategy of divide and conquer and sowing seeds of hatred and resentment that yielded a racist Hutu supremacist regime that the Belgian government enabled, recognized, and supported from 1959 through 1994.

We are commemorating the genocide because Rwanda lacks natural resources and geostrategic importance to the United States and many other powers in Europe, China, Russia, and elsewhere, and because it is a small country in Africa that many people had not heard of in 1994, did not care about, and that many still do not care about.

We are commemorating the genocide because of the failure of some human rights organizations, such as Amnesty International, to report correctly, adequately, and early enough on the genocide as it began and because of the failure of humanitarian aid agencies to assist survivors during and in the immediate aftermath of the genocide.

In June and July of 1994 many humanitarian aid agencies were more concerned with the refugee crisis in Congo than the situation of individuals targeted for genocide in Rwanda. That crisis had received dramatic media attention; thousands of Hutu genocidal leaders who had just implemented the Rwandan genocide against the Tutsi embedded themselves amidst Hutus fleeing Rwanda. Over 1 billion dollars was spent in aid for them, with little attention provided to the rights and welfare of Rwanda’s genocide survivors within Rwanda’s borders.

We are commemorating the genocide because the development aid industry worked closely and cooperatively with the Hutu supremacist regime ruling Rwanda until 1994, and was complicit in the racism and discrimination they employed against Tutsis and the deep structural violence they perpetrated, as illustrated in Peter Uvin’s research.

Many development and aid agencies working in Rwanda today including UN agencies and the US Agency for International Development as well as NGOs such as CARE, Oxfam America, World Vision, Save the Children, and many like them refuse to recognize the unique vulnerabilities and disadvantages of genocide survivors. Their lack of support for these survivors, and denial of their right to reparative justice further marginalizes and disadvantages survivors.

We are commemorating the genocide because the United States government argued during the genocide against bombing the RTLM hate radio station that was directly inciting violence and mass murder of Tutsis, perversely and disingenuously insisting that free speech—including free speech directly inciting to violence and in fundamental contradiction and violation of our nation's Constitution, laws, and founding principles—took greater precedence than the lives of Tutsis.

We are commemorating the genocide because when massacres of Tutsis in the thousands took place in 1959, 1961, 1973, and in 1990–1994 up to the genocide, the UN and its member states were overwhelmingly passive and indifferent, enabling the Hutu supremacist regime to murder with impunity in a series of large scale massacres that culminated in the Rwandan genocide.

We are commemorating the genocide because more than any other government, the government of France was complicit in the Rwandan genocide, trained the genocidal regime's militias and armies, supplied them with weapons, and provided them with diplomatic cover before, during, and after the genocide and disguised part of these efforts under the claims of humanitarianism as illustrated by the research of Andrew Wallis and Daniella Kroslak.

We are commemorating the genocide because of the weapons sold by many different countries to the genocidal regime—including the very machetes used to hack Tutsis to death as Linda Melvern, a historian of the Rwandan genocide, has shown.

We are commemorating the genocide because instead of keeping its peacekeeping force in Rwanda and expanding it to intervene and seek to prevent and stop the genocide, the United Nations shamefully—beyond the deepest recesses of the meaning of that word—cut down its force, withdrew most of its troops, and did this with the active support of the U.S., Great Britain, France, and most of the members of the UN and its Security Council, in effect green-lighting the genocide.

We are commemorating the genocide because the United Nations recognized the genocidal regime and allowed it to maintain a seat on the Security Council while it implemented its genocide. Under international law the UN has sovereign immunity in what is a uniquely pathological irony of the international legal system and of international human rights law because they enable the UN itself to violate the very laws and protections it promulgates and is meant to protect—the UN has immunity from legal responsibility for its policies, actions, and inactions. The United Nations itself and not only its member states carries profound moral responsibility for its complicity in the Rwandan genocide.

We are commemorating the genocide because the Catholic, Anglican, and most other churches in Rwanda supported and participated in the organization and implementation of the genocide and because churches themselves were used as places in which to rape, torture, and murder Tutsis en masse. Priests and ministers played a central organizing and implementing role in the genocide across the country and actively incited genocide as the journalist Chris McGreal has extensively documented.

For all these reasons, and others, we are commemorating the genocide.

For these reasons hundreds of thousands of Tutsi families and one million Tutsi individuals are not alive today. For these reasons, in the heart of Kigali, at the Kigali Genocide Memorial, 250,000 men, women, and children with dreams and hopes and loves and frustrations and pains and memories and what would have been futures—each with a face and each with a name—are buried in mass graves beside the genocide memorial.

At memorial sites all across the country their friends, family members, and other Tutsis are similarly buried and some are unburied—their bodies brutalized after they had been hacked and tortured to death and dumped into latrines and pits, their bodies found year by year by survivors who then bury them in a dignified manner.

This April and this year—as every April and every year—these over one million individuals tortured and murdered in the genocide cry out to you and to us and ask us why and demand an honest answer.

Not the one of prevarications and mendacity the State Department spokesperson in 1994 was instructed to repeat about “acts of genocide” taking place in Rwanda, as though a massive genocide on a national scale was not taking place, because the State Department and the U.S. government had no interest in acting to prevent and stop the genocide and so they preferred to engage in duplicity, to downplay and deny it.

History can have about it a feeling of inevitability. It happens and quickly becomes normalized and it is hard to imagine it unfolding differently from how we know it to have taken place, however horrifically, immorally, tragically, and cruelly.

But the Rwandan genocide against the Tutsi was not inevitable.

Many of its perpetrators are still alive today. Some find shelter in countries such as France, Belgium, Britain, and elsewhere in Europe where all too often the authorities choose not to prosecute them. Some find shelter in African countries that do the same such as Malawi, Zambia, Congo, and Mozambique.

Many are released from prison early by the Residual Mechanism of the UN International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, which maintains the ignoble legacy of devaluing the lives of individuals murdered in genocide and sentencing genocidaires who are responsible for mass murder in the hundreds, thousands, and tens of thousands, to sentences that are often shorter than those routinely provided to individuals in the U.S., Europe, and most other legal jurisdictions who kill one, two, or three people.

Today over 300,000 Rwandan genocide survivors live in Rwanda and most of them lack access to their fundamental human right to reparative justice. Many struggle with inadequate healthcare, housing, and educational opportunity.

Many live in extreme poverty and suffer from profound trauma, including the trauma of sexual violence and rape by men who were HIV positive and who used rape as a weapon of war with the aim of causing Tutsi women a slow, tortuous death from AIDs.

For many years when these women came to testify as witnesses at the UN International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda they were objectified and instrumentalized for the cause of international justice; their testimony was taken and was necessary to ensure convictions, but they were denied access to life-saving anti-retroviral medications. The UN did, however, insist upon providing these medications to the genocide perpetrators on trial.

Twenty-eight years after the Rwandan genocide against the Tutsi it's time that the survivors are heard, justice is done, and the rank hypocrisy and impunity come to an end.

It is time to remember and educate, to commemorate and respect, and to ensure that the Kinyarwanda phrase—the language spoken by all Rwandans—Hutu, Tutsi, and Twa alike, “Imana yiriwiwe ahandi y gataha mu rwanda,” “God spends the day elsewhere but he sleeps in Rwanda," is no longer evocative of the 100 days of inhumane moral slumber, silence, savage indifference, and inaction that characterized the response of the world's governments and of the UN to the Rwandan genocide against the Tutsi.

It is time that individuals in government with the power, resources, and capacity to intervene and protect human lives and defend human rights finally do so—and that we demand this of them—for the survivors, for their next generation, and for Rwanda today, tomorrow, and always.

Above all, we must listen to the survivors.

Reverien Rurangwa, a survivor of the genocide writes in his memoir, Genocide: My Stolen Rwanda:

"I will never, ever rest. I will continue to fight for justice the rest of my small life in this world of madness. In the twenty-first century, we do not have the right to shut our eyes. In doing this we will build a better world for us, for our children, for all human beings. It is not easy to survive but I endure because I must, out of love for all those who were dear to me. I did not choose to be who I am, but I am proud of it and I did once have the right to be happy, to have a family, to have two hands, two eyes. And that is all I ask of humanity; to be able to live for myself and for my family. I no longer eat, I barely sleep. I think of them. I simply want our people to be remembered, not forgotten."

These are the names of some of the family members Reverien lost in the genocide that we remember: Boniface Muzigura, Drocella Nyiramatama, Sylvelie Nyirabicuba, Marie Ntakirutinka, Claudette Byukusenge, Olive Umugwaneza, and Pierre Celestin Bukuba.

For them we must heed the call, “muzabare inkuru”—to tell the story, to tell their story, and to listen to the survivors.


Noam Schimmel is a Lecturer in International and Area Studies at UC Berkeley and a Lecturer in Development Practice at the Goldman School of Public Policy.

This essay is based on a public address that was part of the LEAP Leadership, Ethics, and Practice Initiative given by Noam Schimmel at the Elliott School of International Affairs, George Washington University.

This is an edited version of ‘What Caused the Rwandan Genocide Against the Tutsi?' published by Taylor & Francis in Peace Review: A Journal of Social Justice on March 17, 2021 and available at