We need your help now

Support from readers like you keeps The Journal open.

You are visiting us because we have something you value. Independent, unbiased news that tells the truth. Advertising revenue goes some way to support our mission, but this year it has not been enough.

If you've seen value in our reporting, please contribute what you can, so we can continue to produce accurate and meaningful journalism. For everyone who needs it.

DPA/PA Images

Opinion 25 years on from the Rwanda genocide. Can we make sure it never happens again?

187 million people were killed through genocide and state-sanctioned mass murder, in the 20th century, writes Cian Matthew Kearns.

TODAY, SUNDAY 7 April marks the 25th anniversary of the Rwandan Genocide.

On this day, the killing began in earnest. Ten thousand people a day were murdered, week after week, in the most horrific ways imaginable.

Communities turned on each other, provoked by leadership elites and encouraged by inflammatory media. Using rudimentary technology, they proceeded to carry out the largest mass killing of modern times.

We are in the process of exterminating the Inkotanyi in Kigali ville.


Come and assist us in exterminating them so that the population will be rid of this plague at all cost.

That was a broadcast that went out on Radio-Télévision, Libre des Milles Collines, Rwanda.

Perhaps most shocking, however, is that genocide is not a relic of the past. The 20th century saw 187 million people killed through genocide and state-sanctioned mass murder, more than in all the century’s wars combined.

And in spite of assurances of “Never again!” after the Holocaust, there have been as many as forty genocides since 1955.

The latest, in 2014, was the ISIS slaughter of the Yazidi in Iraq.

More recently, in Myanmar, the jury is still out but a UN fact-finding mission called for prosecution by the International Criminal Court.

So what exactly is genocide?

Simply put, it is the attempted total destruction of a people. It stems from the Greek word for people, genos, and the latin suffix cide; murder.

This ‘group-murder’ is more than a sum of individual killings.

It is the intentional eradication of an entire people: their community, their culture and everything that makes them who they are.

The killing is not the event itself, but the culmination of an entire genocidal process.

In Rwanda, the genocidal violence began hours after the country’s Hutu president, Juvenal Habyarimana, died when his plane was shot down.

The groundwork, however, had been laid well in advance.

Threatened by the ominous machinations of the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), a Tutsi army based across the border in Uganda, the Hutu elites had sown division between the two peoples.

Communities and neighbours who had lived together for years were told to distrust one another.

In academic parlance, the Hutu elites constructed a paradigm wherein the Tutsis were dehumanised and ‘othered’.

Similar to the Nazi’s insidious withdrawal of rights from Jewish populations in the 1930s, the creation of an ‘us and them’ mentality, meant that when the moment came for violence the victims were no longer recognised as friends, neighbours or even people. They were less than human; a threat.

In truth, Hutus and Tutsis are almost the one people, sharing language and culture. The distinction between them is mainly a social construct.

During the slaughter, national identity cards that listed ethnicity (a hangover from the Belgian colonialists) were used to differentiate people at roadblocks. The wrong answer meant a brutal, violent death.

Curiously, the death toll does not determine a genocide. One hundred thousand killed indiscriminately would not count. However, the eradication of a unique tribe of 200 people would.

This distinction matters. Unlike war crimes or crimes against humanity, both punishment and prevention is mandated by the UN Genocide Convention.

Hence, where genocide is threatened the international community is compelled to act.

But how can such horror be pre-empted?

It turns out that the phenomenon can be predicted.

Certain warning signs exist, including the presence of an elite ideology; if an ethnic minority is in power; and the regime type.

Organisations use these indicators as well as others to determine those countries most at risk.

In theory, at least, this offers the chance for preventative action. In practice, the signs are often ignored. Myanmar made the top ten list of at-risk countries for most of the last decade. The warnings went unheeded.

In Rwanda, the reverberations from the three months of violence and 800,000 deaths remain. While the country strove to rebuild itself, bit by bit, peacebuilding is never easy.

And as evinced in Northern Ireland, the balance between justice, on one hand, and peace on the other, is both precarious and divisive.

The genocide ended when the RPF captured Kigali and the Tutsi army seized control of the country.

Attempts to prosecute the perpetrators were quickly stymied, however; the sheer numbers meant the official courts were terminally inundated.

The top leaders and instigators were tried by the UN established International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda but 120,000 suspects still languished in overflowing prisons.

With prisoners looking at century-long waits before their trials, the Rwandan government took an innovative approach: the Gacaca system (justice on the grass).

Literally translated as ‘trials in the grass’, the traditional community justice system of ad-hoc, community deliberations was given an official mandate after the genocide.

Through an emphasis on confession, apology and forgiveness it trod the line between truth and reconciliation hearings and criminal trials.

The system was subject to criticism but it succeeded in bringing over one million cases to trial and allowed countless victims their day in court.

Today and for the coming week, Rwandans will once again mark the passing of this grimmest of anniversaries.

Yet for their new generation, for whom the genocide passed before they were born, the future shows promise.

As for the rest of the world, while the failings of the international community in Rwanda are well documented, hopefully, this stain on our collective conscience will remind us that the spectre of genocide remains.

Cian Matthew Kearns is the 2018 Andrew Grene Scholar for Post Conflict Resolution.

His PhD on risk assessment models for genocide in the Department of Politics at the University of Limerick is funded through the Irish Research Council and the Department of Foreign Affairs.

Readers like you are keeping these stories free for everyone...
A mix of advertising and supporting contributions helps keep paywalls away from valuable information like this article. Over 5,000 readers like you have already stepped up and support us with a monthly payment or a once-off donation.

Cian Matthew Kearns
Your Voice
Readers Comments
This is YOUR comments community. Stay civil, stay constructive, stay on topic. Please familiarise yourself with our comments policy here before taking part.
Leave a Comment
    Submit a report
    Please help us understand how this comment violates our community guidelines.
    Thank you for the feedback
    Your feedback has been sent to our team for review.

    Leave a commentcancel