SEATTLE, Washington — The Rwandan Genocide has been labeled an avoidable tragedy, an ethnic conflict turned massacre and a failure of international institutions. Beginning in 1994 and lasting for 100 days, the majority ethnic group, Hutus, systematically killed over 800,000 of the minority Tutsi ethnic group, through brutal, targeted raids. While historical colonialism has a link, the realities of poverty and the generational economic disparities in the country both sowed the seeds of ethnic tension that led to the genocide and handicapped the country for decades after. The link between poverty and genocide can be clearly noted. Through targeted economic reforms and competent international leadership and policy, future genocides can be prevented.
The Causes: Ethnic Tension Due to Inequality
In a historical context, the Rwandan Genocide is the result of hundreds of years of demographic tensions and economic disparities. As a country, Rwanda is small and landlocked but contains fertile soil and animals subject to domestication. Populating Rwanda are the Hutus and Tutsi peoples, who make up 84% and 15% of the country respectively. The Hutus primarily farmed subsistence crops, while the Tutsi tended livestock. The machinations of trade routes throughout the region as well as increasing Western interference, prioritized the Tutsi through the value of their livestock.
Over the years, the Tutsi became the economic elite of the country, while the Hutus lived in perpetual poverty and eventually, resentment. During European colonialism, the German and Belgian occupiers purposefully stoked ethnic tensions, capitalizing on the resentment of the Hutus to maintain control of the country. When independence came in 1962, the majority Hutus gained political control through democratic elections. After generations of cyclical poverty, nationalist Hutus enacted policies designed to supplant the Tutsis; a fateful decision that began a civil war and ended in genocide.
The Genocide: A Tragic Inevitability
On April 6, 1994, a plane carrying Hutu President Habyarimana was shot down by a missile of unknown origin. Hutu nationalists quickly blamed the Tutsi Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) and mass killings began. For the next 100 days, Hutu nationalists brutally massacred the Tutsi. Hutus coordinated their death squads over public radio stations, allowing the killings to be uncharacteristically decisive. Despite the warnings of a small U.N. detachment stationed in Rwanda, the international community considered the matter to be a continuation of the recent Rwandan Civil War and refused to intervene. The Rwandan Genocide is considered the most blatant example of failed international leadership. While the RPF eventually toppled the Hutu-led government, 800,000 Tutsis had already been killed. The end of the genocide saw Tutsi rebels come to power and continue to incite ethnic violence through coordinated “revenge killings” against Hutu militias.
The Aftermath: Poverty and Progress
Economically, the new regime worked to reestablish the Tutsi elite rather than promote reparations for the victims. An Ohio State study interviewed thousands of victims in order to determine the economic realities of ordinary citizens after the genocide. The research team uncovered specific economic trends post-genocide. Many of the victims were unable to return home or properly reintegrate into society due to a disorganized housing policy. Tutsis lacking the capital or resources of the elite, were given only token reparations and often returned to homesteads occupied by disgruntled Hutus.
The inequalities within Rwanda continue to this day. While economic growth and business activity has substantially increased, poverty rates and the overall standard of living have only marginally improved. Rwanda has made strides in public health since the genocide, doubling life expectancy rates and lowering child mortality. Unfortunately, the government rules as a collective, defined by ethnic authoritarianism and life in Rwanda is still largely determined by cyclical poverty and economic inequality.
The Role of International Institutions
The failure of the international community to intervene in Rwanda proved an inflection point for policy designed to prevent future genocides. The U.N. established a five-point action plan to prevent genocide, which included addressing ethnic conflicts, protecting civilians, ensuring judicial accountability, setting up early warning systems and intervening militarily in specific situations. The proposal included strengthening institutions like the International Criminal Court (ICC), investing in data collection technologies and prioritizing diplomacy and economic development.
International Finance Institutions (IFIs) play an important role in this effort, funding infrastructure projects and support programs in volatile regions. Additionally, institutions have learned from the Rwandan genocide, have noted the link between poverty and genocide and have taken steps to correct economic disparities between ethnic groups. By conducting field research and establishing power-sharing agreements, it is now clear that ethnic conflicts can only be addressed through cultural understanding and poverty reduction. Progress has been made, as successful interventions in Libya, Syria and South Sudan seem to be emblematic of a more decisive international commitment to genocide prevention.
Awareness and NGOs
While international institutions have formulated appropriate policy-based responses to genocides, an essential dimension to genocide prevention is awareness campaigns. Despite the significant role institutions play in preventing genocide, it is through NGOs and awareness campaigns that ordinary people develop the understanding and drive to work against ethnic conflicts. Dozens of NGOs have been developed to understand genocide, advise governments on ethnic conflict and support victims of genocide. Established in 1995, the International Crisis Group is an independent think tank and research consortium that is considered the world’s leading authority on genocide and ethnic conflict. The group briefs governments and intergovernmental bodies alike while advocating for a diplomatic and policy-based response to ethnic conflict, as opposed to direct military intervention.
The Canada-based Genocide Watch is centered on data collection and tracking ethnic conflicts. Utilizing mass communication and data tech, the organization is able to redistribute resources and inform governments of susceptible areas in record time.
SURF, the Survivors Fund, is a leading organization in the support for victims of the Rwandan Genocide. Joining with other NGOs like IBUKA and Friends of Rwanda, SURF is dedicated to rebuilding the lives of survivors by funding healthcare, building houses and investing in education and businesses across the country. As of 2017, SURF has constructed over 40,000 homes and provided health insurance to over 140,000 survivors.
The link between poverty and genocide can be clearly seen, therefore, addressing issues of poverty and disparities is essential to preventing genocide. Through the collective efforts of international institutions and NGOs as well as the implementation of policies, some of the consequences of past genocides can be remedied and future genocides can be prevented.
– Matthew Compan