Background & Context
During a three-month period in 1994, approximately one million Rwandans were killed by
fellow Rwandans. Despite advanced warning, the powers most able to prevent or limit this
massacre chose to ignore their obligation to intervene.
Several significant historical factors led to the increasing tensions between the Hutu and Tutsi
people in Rwanda.
Belgium in Rwanda
Belgium replaced German interests in Rwanda after World War I. The Belgians used the local
divisions to aid their control of the country and its resources. By the time Rwanda became an
independent state in 1961, the conflict and tensions among its people had seriously increased.
The Hutu and Tutsi groups are similar. They share the same language, (Kinyarwanda) culture
and religious philosophies. Eventually, the wealthier, elite class (the Tutsi) that could afford
cattle became more powerful than the majority (the Hutu), who were primarily farmers. These
divisions increased through marriage practices that discouraged unions between the two groups.
The Belgians used the Tutsi to help control the majority population of Rwanda, by granting
them political power and education resources. The Tutsi profited from this relationship, and
worked with the Belgians to keep the Hutu as the poor, unskilled labor class within Rwanda.
These divisions were not absolute, however. There was still a degree of social and occupational
mixing between the two groups.
The class division was widened when the Belgians required the entire population to formally
"register" as either Hutu or Tutsi. This registry showed that Hutu made up about 85 percent of
the population, while Tutsi accounted for only 15 percent.
When Belgium could no longer maintain control of its overseas colony, the Hutu saw their
chance to change this undemocratic situation.
The Hutu Revolution
In 1959, the Hutu began to exert their power, disrupting the class order that had existed for
decades. In 1961, Rwanda gained its independence and the Hutu majority took power. The Hutu
began persecuting all Tutsi, not just the elite class, confiscating land and wealth and driving
many out of the country.
In the 1960s, some 20,000 Tutsi were killed and over a quarter-million driven into exile. Similar
actions had occurred intermittently prior to 1994. The Tutsi minority became a scapegoat for
many of the problems plaguing Rwanda. Hutu political leaders used the "threat" of the Tutsi to
garner support for themselves and quell dissatisfaction with government.
Prelude to Genocide
Oppression against the Tutsi minority had been a part of Rwanda since the revolution of 1959.
However, events in the years preceding the massacres of 1994 greatly increased the inevitability,
and predictability, of the genocide.
In the early 1990s, political violence directed against Hutu opposition became more common. As
the government of longtime Hutu leader Juvenal Habyarimana increasingly lost its hold on
power in Rwanda, it became more violent. In 1990, there was a government-sanctioned
massacre of hundreds of Tutsi.
That year, exiled Tutsi formed the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) and began launching attacks
against the Hutu government with the aim of overthrowing it. Habyarimana used the attacks by
the RPF as justification to continue persecution of Tutsi in Rwanda.
Habyarimana controlled criticism of his policies by exaggerating the threat of the RPF and Tutsi.
In October 1993, Tutsi militants in Burundi assassinated the Hutu president of that country. This
gave Habyarimana an opportunity to rally the Rwanda Hutu population to his cause.
The Violence Increases
On April 6, 1994, Habyarimana’s plane was shot down inside Rwanda. Immediately after the
assassination, the new interim government, led by Colonel Théoneste Bagosora, began carrying
out plans for the genocide of the Tutsi. However, the first victims of the violence were those
within the Hutu government who opposed the violent policies of the interim government. A
number of Hutu military officials actually asked for help from the United Nations to prevent the
oncoming violence. These calls were ignored, and the Hutu opposition within the government
was wiped out.
UN forces, made up primarily of Belgian and French troops, did arrive in Rwanda, but their
mission was to evacuate foreigners and leave the country. The UN's decision (with pressure from
the United States) not to intervene gave the Hutu the green light to undertake their planned
extermination of the Tutsi. On April 21, the UN Security Council withdrew all but a few hundred
of its remaining troops.
Over the next three months, the Hutu killed an estimated 500,000 to one million Tutsi. In May
and June, Bagosora's government was suffering military losses to the RPF, and many Hutu were
ceasing attacks against the Tutsi. The Hutu was losing its power as the RPF was gaining
The government used threats, propaganda, and the promise of land and wealth to encourage the
Hutu population to attack the Tutsi.
The propaganda broadcast over the radio was instrumental in creating a climate of fear and anger
toward the Tutsi, and maintained that any attacks against the Tutsi were defensive. In some areas
in Rwanda, there was little support at the local level for the extermination of the Tutsi minority.
In these areas, local Hutu leaders used threats and intimidation to coerce the Hutu into complying
with the massacres. There were also many recorded instances in which Tutsi were aided by Hutu.
There is a great deal of documentation that now gives a clear picture of the priorities of the
western powers during this crisis. As soon as the violence became widespread, the UN withdrew
its forces at exactly the time they were needed most. Reports from U.S. diplomats in Rwanda
were specific in their predictions of the coming genocide.
In addition, there were a number of credible warnings that could have been heeded prior to the
attacks. For example, in 1992, the Belgian Ambassador reported that the Hutu were planning an
extermination of the Tutsi. Belgium gave a similar warning again in February 1994, just a few
months before the violence began. In 1993, even before the worst of the killings had started,
Human Rights Watch and several other respected human rights organizations reported that mass
killings by the government against the Tutsi were occurring. That year, a UN diplomat described
the massacres that preceded the April violence as "genocide."
The United States and Great Britain were adamant in their refusal to send more UN troops to
Rwanda. General Romeo Dallaire, commander of the UN peacekeeping force there, requested
permission to confiscate the weapons the Hutu were amassing in preparation for the massacres.
Dallaire and others on the scene estimated it would not require more than a few thousand well-
armed troops to limit the violence. UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali and
Undersecretary General for Peacekeeping, (and current Secretary General) Kofi Annan denied
In 1993, the U.S. had suffered a military and political loss in Somalia, in which 18 U.S. soldiers
were killed. President Clinton was concerned about the political fallout of further U.S. casualties
overseas, and limited U.S. commitment to UN peacekeeping missions, except in the event of
genocide. Therefore, the administration was reluctant to describe the massacres in Rwanda as
"genocide," even though all credible witnesses, including American and European diplomats,
described them as such. The U.S. State Department ordered the U.S. representative to the UN not
to use the word; the term "civil war" was preferred. In addition, Great Britain pressured New
Zealand’s representative in the UN, then president of the Security Council, to avoid using the
The response by the western powers to the atrocities in Rwanda can be compared to other
conflicts in which the U.S. responded differently. When Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, the U.S.
sent in a huge military force to expel the Iraqis. The U.S. and NATO powers spent billions of
dollars and deployed a huge military force in Bosnia in 1995. However, they did not react
similarly in the case of Rwanda. The combined death toll among U.S. forces in both Iraq and
Bosnia was approximately 4,000.
Because of Rwanda’s dependence on foreign aid, it would have been easy, and perhaps
extremely effective, to threaten discontinued aid to the Hutu government if it carried out its plans
for genocide. Such threats had worked in the past, when the World Bank threatened to cut aid if
the Hutu government did not work on a peace accord with the Tutsi.
General Dallaire still maintains that a small force of a few thousand could have prevented or
limited the massacre. The fact that the remaining minimal UN troop presence of a few hundred
was actually able to save almost 30,000 Tutsi demonstrates what a concerted but limited
deployment could have done, especially if it had been carried out in conjunction with strong
diplomatic and economic pressure. The genocide was finally ended with the victory of the RPF,
which took the Rwandan capital of Kigali on July 4, 1994 and declared a cease-fire on July 18.
By Tim Anderson
Anderson, Tim. "Rwanden Genocide." Rwandan Genocide (2009): 1. Middle Search Plus. Web. 11 Nov.