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Answers — and prevention — to genocide

Twenty years after the Rwandan genocide, Concordians reflect on the trauma and move forward to stop future massacres before they happen
May 6, 2014
By Patrick McDonagh


It looked to be over — and then, horribly, it wasn’t.

After three years of civil war, which had been preceded by waves of violence over the previous three and half decades, in August 1993 the government of Rwanda met with the rebel Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) to sign the Arusha Peace Accords. The fierce conflict had pitted the government of President Juvénal Habyarimana, representing the ethnic Hutu majority, against the RPF, made up of ethnic Tutsis and opposition Hutu. (See “A brief history of Rwanda” on page 40.)

A United Nations peacekeeping force, headed by Canadian General Roméo Dallaire, was on the ground in Rwanda to oversee the accord’s implementation. But on April 6, 1994, the plane carrying Habyarimana was shot down as it approached Kigali International Airport. No group claimed responsibility, although both the RPF and extremist Hutu groups fell under suspicion.

Habyarimana’s death sparked widespread violence, and for the following 100 days the small, densely populated central African country flowed with blood. Armed with machetes, automatic rifles and grenades, young Hutu men, often from a paramilitary group called the Interahamwe and supported by the extremists who quickly seized control of the government, set off on a systematic program of genocide. Up to one million Tutsis, along with Hutu and Twa and political moderates, were murdered.

rwanda-memorial The Genocide Memorial Church in Kibuye, Rwanda. Credit: Erin Jessee

Dallaire begged for more troops from the international community and a broadened mandate from the United Nations to help stop the killings. But his pleas were ignored, his forces were cut and his mandate restricted to observing. The world decided to abandon Rwanda.

Why? That question has plagued many, from genocide survivors and other Rwandans to the governments and international bodies whose inactivity allowed the violence to rage. In his haunting 2003 memoir Shake Hands with the Devil, Dallaire observes that the “international community endorsed by its indifference” the “ethical and moral mistake of ranking some humans as more human than others.”

What can be done to assert the equality of the lives of those abandoned by the world in 1994? What happens to those whose family members fell below the machete blows of the génocidaires, and who must carry the memory of loved ones brutally murdered? And how might the international community be compelled to avoid repeating its negligence and worse in Rwanda?

Telling their stories

The legacy of the genocide continues. In addition to the mass murder, the United Nations estimated that as many as 250,000 women were raped during the three months of the genocide, and the victims gave birth to at least 20,000 children, many of whom have been subsequently shunned. Hundreds of thousands of children lost both parents. It’s no wonder that a 2009 study by Rwandan psychiatrists found that more than one quarter of Rwanda’s population suffers post-traumatic stress disorder.

Some of this trauma has been documented at Concordia, thanks to the Montreal Life Stories Project. The Community-University Research Alliance project ran at the university from 2007 to 2012 under the direction of Steven High, a professor in the Department of History and Canada Research Chair in Public History. It led to the stories of 85 women and men being digitally recorded, offering a set of intense personal perspectives on this moment in history. (See “Montreal Life Stories Project” on page 41.)

The memories can be horrifying, haunting and intensely moving, with reason.

Erin Jessee, PhD 10, is a forensic archaeologist turned oral historian who studies genocide and related mass atrocities. In 2007 and 2008, for her PhD research, she conducted intensive fieldwork in Rwanda that examined the legacies of the often-intimate and symbolically laden forms of violence experienced by survivors, perpetrators, ex-combatants and bystanders to the 1994 genocide.

“In many ways, Rwanda has made remarkable progress since the 1994 genocide, particularly in terms of development,” she says. “However, while Rwanda’s many successes are evident in the relative prosperity, cleanliness and vibrancy of downtown Kigali and its exceptional reputation among foreign donors, for examples, rural Rwandans often have different stories to tell.”

During her fieldwork, Jessee encountered a society that remained greatly divided — not necessarily along ethnic lines, as one might expect — but along political, social and economic lines. These divisions were most apparent surrounding the Rwandan government’s commemoration of the 1994 genocide, which has been officially labelled “the 1994 genocide of the Tutsi.”

“Many Rwandans find this official label is inappropriate, as it fails to recognize Hutu and Twa political moderates who were murdered for defending Tutsi equality, as well as Hutu and Twa civilians who died trying to protect their Tutsi compatriots,” she says. “It also fails to acknowledge Rwandan civilians who died in the civil war and related mass atrocities committed by RPF troops. As such, many Rwandans argue the Rwandan government’s program of commemoration undermines reconciliation and social repair by fostering the sense that not all victims of the 1994 genocide are being acknowledged, nor are all crimes surrounding this period being addressed.”

Jessee stresses that these challenges — and certainly Rwanda is not alone in this regard — demonstrate the immense difficulties facing nations in the aftermath of genocide and the need, moving ahead, for better international and domestic policies for preventing, rather than merely punishing, genocide.

Countering inaction

As Roméo Dallaire writes, “[A]t its heart, the Rwandan story is the story of the failure of humanity to heed a call for help from an endangered people”; it is, as he stresses repeatedly, an instance of the international community valuing some humans more than others.

rwanda-dallaire Senator Roméo Dallaire, second from left, is the Distinguished Senior Fellow at MIGS. Credit: Tristan Brand

His reading seems accurate: When President Bill Clinton apologized to Rwanda in 2000 for not acting to halt the genocide, he claimed that he had not understood the scale of the killing.

Frank Chalk, history professor and director of the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies (MIGS) at Concordia, questions the statement. “Clinton had been hammered by congressional Republicans following the loss of American soldiers’ lives in Somalia, and had decided not to risk the negative impact that American casualties in Rwanda — no matter how few — might have on upcoming congressional elections,” Chalk says. “So Clinton mandated a key deputy to block him from receiving innovative proposals for American intervention from his staff.”

Chalk and his MIGS colleagues work to counter this legacy of willed ignorance and calculated inaction exemplified by the international response to Rwanda.

MIGS has garnered some prominent support. Dallaire was appointed to the Canadian Senate in 2005 after serving as a fellow at Harvard University’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy in the John F. Kennedy School of Government. When he wanted to forge a connection with a reputable university research centre in Canada, his Harvard colleagues directed him to MIGS at Concordia. A fruitful relationship resulted: in 2007 Dallaire and MIGS launched the Will to Intervene (W2I) project, co-chaired by Chalk and Dallaire, who is now the MIGS Distinguished Senior Fellow. “We’re very happy to be working with him,” says Chalk. “He’s an equal partner who cares about our success and helps us enormously. We do everything we can to support him with our research and ideas.”

The W2I project integrates Dallaire’s experiences and hard-earned insights as a facet of its research into the causes of and responses to genocide and other mass crimes against humanity. “We take a number of lessons from Rwanda,” Chalk points out. The most obvious is that the failure to intervene following credible early warnings opens the door to genocide and other horrors, yet that is hardly the only one. The complexities of history and culture can stymie effective analysis and intervention, especially given the western world’s profound ignorance of other societies.

“We know next to nothing about societies like Rwanda. We don’t know the languages, we have barely studied the cultures, we don’t understand the political dynamics, and we don’t know how to help without giving the appearance of neo-colonialism and imperialism,” says Chalk. “We are rank amateurs in the business of crafting solutions to effectively prevent genocide and crimes against humanity and not very good at helping states recover from the abusive misuse of state power. Research centres like MIGS have a duty to change that situation for the better.”

Educating leaders

rwanda-chalk Frank Chalk, left, is director of the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies, which has established a set of recommendations to help governments intervene in potential genocides. Credit: Concordia University

MIGS has responded to these complex problems by developing some novel approaches. Chalk and Kyle Matthews, W2I’s senior deputy director, travelled across North America to meet American and Canadian officials who had been involved in shaping their governments’ responses to Rwanda in 1994. “We found that politicians rarely look beyond election cycles, and that they are elected on domestic rather than global issues,” says Matthews. With a clear understanding of this audience, the MIGS team set out to determine if preventing mass atrocities is in the domestic interest of other countries.

The result: a set of arguments for prevention of mass atrocities focused on national self-interest rather than purely humanitarian claims. For instance, when atrocities take place, hospitals are destroyed and mass vaccination programs suspended, leading to an increased risk of public health-system collapse that threatens epidemics of lethal infectious diseases that cannot be contained by political borders.

In addition, western countries are increasingly multicultural, so conflicts abroad also resonate domestically. “With social media, people know in a split second what is going on in their country of origin, where their families are,” Matthews says, citing the Ottawa and Toronto disruptions of rush-hour traffic by Canadian Tamils protesting the violence against their people in Sri Lanka in 2009. Furthermore, countries that undergo collective mass violence often become failed states, and serve as incubators for global security problems. Somalia, for example, is now home to the terrorist group that attacked the Westgate shopping mall in Nairobi in September 2013, resulting in more than 70 deaths, and it is a key source of piracy disrupting international trade passing through the Suez Canal and Arabian Sea.

As Chalk concedes, appealing to the self-interest of the international community draws criticism from those who are committed to making purely moral arguments. “While we share their priorities, they are preaching to the choir and not to the decision makers who could have intervened in Rwanda,” Chalk stresses.

The W2I initiative has attracted international support. MIGS has forged links with the UN Office on the Prevention of Genocide as well as leading American and international think tanks, and Matthews and Chalk have addressed audiences as diverse as UNESCO and the British House of Lords. “People look to MIGS as a centre of expertise,” says Matthews. “We have created an environment where academics and practitioners come together to find solutions for real problems.”

Last summer MIGS hosted the world’s first open professional training program for preventing mass atrocities, with about 50 participants from around the globe coming to Concordia for a three-day training program with 12 international experts, including Dallaire. The response was so positive that MIGS aims to make this an annual event.

MIGS is also pursuing other initiatives. As recent years have seen an explosion of social media and new technologies that can help track or expose atrocities, MIGS is in the process of establishing a digital mass atrocity prevention lab. “We would like to host public events and workshops on how to use social media and new technologies to prevent or stop human rights crimes,” explains Matthews. “We also want to set up a global network of key legislative leaders, as parliamentarians have a crucial role in pushing governments to uphold international responsibilities and currently only Canada and the U.K. have parliamentary groups dedicated to preventing mass human rights crimes.”

MIGS has published a set of recommendations for governments, several of which have been adopted by the Barack Obama administration in the United States. To cite one example, in 2012 President Obama announced the creation of the U.S. Atrocities Prevention Board, an initiative that implemented recommendations of the W2I.

Ultimately, though, the success of these initiatives will be measured by how effectively impending mass crimes against humanity can be halted or averted, a goal which is at the forefront of MIGS’s mission.

The past weighs heavily on the present, yet there is promise for the future.

—Patrick McDonagh, PhD 98, is a Montreal freelance journalist.

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