Accessibility links

Could Rwanda's 1994 Genocide Have Been Prevented?

It has been nearly eight years since genocide in Rwanda left an estimated 800,000 ethnic Tutsi civilians dead. United Nations officials continue their tribunal to bring those responsible to justice, and a debate continues over whether the massacre could have been prevented.

Several human rights scholars and international aid officials recently met at a small college in the Midwestern United States to discuss the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, and whether international intervention would have made a difference.

The killing began in April of 1994, after a plane carrying the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi was shot down, killing both men. Many believed the plane was shot down by ethnic Hutus who opposed a proposed power-sharing arrangement in Rwanda with the country's ethnic Tutsi minority. Within days, a systematic slaughter of Tutsis began throughout the country. Evidence has shown the Hutu government at the time planned the slaughter. Alison des Forges of the group Human Rights Watch, says there was opposition to the killing at first. "There were areas where people said, 'No, we are not going to kill our Tutsi neighbors.' But after two weeks, particularly after clear signals that the international community would do absolutely nothing, it was clear from the start there would be no interference from the international community and therefore the people who had begun organizing the genocide were able to carry it further into the country," she explains.

Ms. des Forges was speaking at a discussion titled, "Genocide and Intervention," held recently at Beloit College in the state of Wisconsin. Speakers on the panel pointed out that the international community has been criticized for not trying to stop the killing. Samantha Power of the Carr Center for Human Rights at Harvard University says at the time, there seemed to be few voices in the United States calling for action in Rwanda.

"There was no Congressional Black Caucus hunger strike on behalf of Africans as there had been on behalf of Haiti. There were no editorials as there had been in the New York Times and Washington Post on behalf of Bosnia. There was no apparent domestic constituency," she notes.

In response to the genocide, Tutsi rebels went to war against the Hutu government, driving it from power in a little more than three months. More than 1.5 million Hutu refugees fled to neighboring Tanzania and what was then known as Zaire, now Congo.

Alain Destexhe is a Belgian senator who worked for the aid group Doctors without Borders at the time. He says his organization began helping the Hutus in the refugee camps, but withdrew from the region when it became clear that Hutu militiamen were using the camps as a base for guerilla warfare in Rwanda.

"We were convinced that we were doing more harm than good. We were convinced that by working in those camps, we were allowing, in a way, the genocide to continue," Mr. Destexhe says.

Mr. Destexhe says that is one of the problems faced by aid workers in such situations, that helping those truly in need can also mean helping those contributing to the humanitarian crisis. He says aid groups have to make a lot of noise in situations like that, in hopes of getting other countries involved in stopping the crisis.

But Alan Kuperman of the University of Southern California's School of International Studies, says international intervention might have saved only 25 percent of the 800,000 Tutsis killed. He says it would have taken weeks for troops and supplies from other countries to arrive in Rwanda.

"A policy of intervening after you know about genocide is a failed policy, certainly in this case. What you need to do is concentrate on preventing the outbreak of such conflict through better diplomacy," Mr. Kuperman says.

He says better monitoring of potential trouble spots could make it easier to recognize the need to send in peacekeepers to prevent widespread violence. But Alain Destexhe says he fears the United States-led war on terrorism could mean even less attention is paid to ethnic conflicts around the world.