Preventing or stopping the genocide: What was the main diplomatic failure in Rwanda?

The Rwanda genocide, where 800,000 to 1,000,000 people were slaughtered in the span of three months, remains one of the most horrific periods in humanity.

The Rwanda genocide, where 800,000 to 1,000,000 people were slaughtered in the span of three months, remains one of the most horrific periods in humanity. It was mainly an extermination campaign carried out by Hutu extremists against the Tutsi minority of the country. On the face of it, this seems like a classic Hutu-Tutsi rivalry, spawned by generations of prejudice and supposed incompatibility. But further analysis into the factors preceding the genocide reveals there was, in fact, a well-run, well-oiled political machinery that was to blame (Suhrke and Jones, 1997, p. 18).

               This essay shall attempt to understand the causes of the conflict, examine some key events leading up to the genocide, see whether the genocide could have been prevented, and once it was underway, what could have been done to halt it faster. The main purpose of this essay is to examine whether being unable to prevent the genocide was a bigger diplomatic failure than being unable to stop it. It shall also briefly look at the lessons to be learned because, without doubt, there are plenty.

               The amount of lives lost during the genocide makes this a tragedy of unspoken proportions. But what amplifies the tragedy is the amount of information available prior to the genocide that could have prevented it in the first place (Faggart, 2008, p. 517). It was only due to the lethargy and inaction of the international community that it took so long to halt the genocide once it was underway (Suhrke and Jones, 1997, p. 4). That cannot and should not be forgotten.


Rwanda was a German colony until the end of World War 1,  then a Belgian colony till 1962. The Rwandan population primarily consists of three ethnic groups- the Hutu, the Tutsi, and the Twa. Though the Hutu formed the majority, they belonged to the economically weaker sections of society. The Tutsi, in contrast, possessed cattle, which lent them a higher status in Rwandan society (Dorn and Matloff, 2000, p. 4). Once the Belgians took over, they heightened the differences between the Hutu and Tutsi. Not only did they favour the Tutsi due to their higher social status, they also felt that the Tutsi, due to their athletic, tall build, were genetically more similar to white Europeans than the shorter, stockier Hutu. As a result, most important positions reserved for natives in the colonial government were occupied by Tutsi (Prunier, 2014, pp. 5-8). This led to a sense of inferiority and growing resentment among the Hutu.

               In 1961, as colonial rule neared an end, Hutu carried out the killings of over a hundred Tutsi, burnt 3000 homes, and displaced 22.000 people. By the mid-1960s, in an attempt to drive out their “historical overlords”, the Hutu slaughtered more than 20,000 Tutsi and forced more than 150,000 to flee to the periphery of the nation and neighbouring Uganda. When General Habyarimana took over the country in 1973, he put further practices in place to sift out the remaining Tutsi from positions of prominence (Dorn and Matloff, 2000, p. 5).

               During the first decade of Independence, there were repeated Tutsi attempts to overthrow the Hutu government and return home. This led to greater slaughter of the Tutsi population. By 1990, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) had been established. Organised in Uganda and comprising mainly second-generation Tutsi, the RPF launched a lethal attack on the Rwandan government on October 1, 1990 from Uganda. Then, from 1990-93, the RPF attacks against the government plunged Rwanda into civil war (Dorn and Matloff, 2000, p. 5).

               The Organization for African Unity tried to broker ceasefires between the warring factions, though the ceasefires never lasted for long (Klinghoffer, 2001, p. 52). Finally, in August 1993, a power-sharing agreement was reached in Arusha, Tanzania. This became the Arusha Accords. To maintain stability in the region and oversee the implementation of the Accords, the United Nations Assisted Mission in Rwanda (UNAMIR)- led by Canadian Major General Romeo Dallaire- was deployed in Kigali. But there were problems with UNAMIR from the outset (Sarkin and Fowler, 2010, p. 52). It was a classic Chapter 6 peacekeeping force, not a Chapter 7 force that would have had the mandate to enforce peace. Additionally, the size of UNAMIR was quite small (Suhrke and Jones, 2010, p. 9).

               On April 6, 1994, a day after the UN voted to renew UNAMIR’s mandate, two surface-to-air missiles brought down President Habyarimana’s plane as it approached Kigali airport. The killings of Tutsi and moderate Hutu began almost instantly (Reydams, 2018, p. 991). A day later, 10 Belgian peacekeepers were killed, prompting the Belgian contingent of UNAMIR to withdraw on April 12, 1994. Belgium, in an ill-disguised attempt to validate its own withdrawal, then lobbied for UNAMIR’s withdrawal (Suhrke and Jones, 1997, p. 21). UNAMIR was decreased to a measly force of 250 personnel. With no one to now reign it in, Hutu extremists carried out merciless massacres for more than 3 months until the RPF finally gained control of Kigali on July 17, 1994.


We shall now examine some of the events leading up to the genocide. An analysis of these factors shall reveal there was ample information to predict the violence.

               Rwanda was a francophone nation, and Uganda anglophone. The French were worried that the return of Tutsi from Uganda would push Rwanda out of the French sphere of influence (McNulty, 1997, p. 33). This prompted them to provide training and support to the Rwandan army in their fight against the RPF. They also provided arms, machinery and Gazelle helicopters to the government. It was later found out that the missiles that brought down President Habyarimana’s plane had been confiscated in 1991 in Iraq by French troops (Dorn and Matloff, 2010, p. 8). Smuggling weapons into the country and training the Hutu army was a clear violation of the Arusha Accords and ceasefire agreements. France, out of pure self-interest, played a major role in the build-up to the genocide, when, out of a responsibility towards humanity, they should have had nothing to do with the extremist factions of the Hutu government.

               In retrospect, it is argued that the thorough implementation of the Arusha Accords might have prevented the genocide. As part of the Accords, a Broad-Based Transitional Government (BBTG) was to be set up, national elections were to be held, Tutsi refugees were to be repatriated, and a Rwandan army was to be formed that comprised of both Hutu and Tutsi (Stettenheim, nd). While the Accords were right in the letter and spirit, it lacked the necessary political will to ensure its successful implementation. The prospect of the BBTG terrified many Hutu. They viewed it as an attempt to take Rwanda out of Hutu influence. Another factor that angered many Hutu was the potential downsizing in the proposed new Rwandan army.  Many Hutu felt they were being made to sacrifice a larger share of their personnel than the RPF (Willard, 2014). These fears led to a systematic propaganda campaign meant to incite the Hutu population into violence against the Tutsi. Fears were reinforced after events in Burundi. In October 1993, the Hutu president of Burundi was assassinated. Tens of thousands of Hutu were subsequently killed, for which the Tutsi army was implicated. Hutu extremists believed that similar violence in Rwanda was not far off if the Tutsi returned (Suhrke and Jones, 1997, p. 4). An extremist radio station, Radio Mille Collins, whipped up tension through hate speech, warning the Hutu that if they sat back and did nothing, the “historical overlords” would return. Most members of the international community and the RPF didn’t really believe in the potential of the hate speech, dismissing it as ridiculous propaganda. They ignored the fact that the radio was run by people affiliated to the government, that the bills for the station were being paid by the state (Orth, 1997, p. 6). Shutting down the station and running a counter-propaganda radio might have led to the deradicalization of thousands of Hutu and saved the lives of many more Tutsi (Dorn and Matloff, 2000, p. 8).

               Prior to the Accords, for the purpose of “self-defence”, the Habyarimana regime attempted to equip nearly 2000 civilians loyal to the MRND party with assault rifles. Such a public distribution of ammunition should have been a warning of things to come. As months passed, in violation of the Accords, the stock of arms increased. UNAMIR official were aware of this but could do nothing because of the mandate and the size of the force (Dorn and Matloff, 2000, p. 9). A stronger force and Chapter 7 mandate might have never allowed the Accords to have been so flagrantly violated.

               There was another glaring instance of diplomatic failure in the build-up to the genocide. In January 1994, an informer, “Jean Pierre”, a trainer of the extremist group, Interahamwe, confided in Dallaire that he had been tasked with compiling a list of Tutsi. Pierre suspected it was an extermination list. He was also willing to give up the secret locations of arms caches in exchange for asylum for him and his family. Pierre also told Dallaire that the Belgian soldiers of UNAMIR were going to be provoked into action and then killed, which would prompt the Belgian contingent to withdraw from Rwanda. Pierre, in a chilling revelation, also declared that his units were capable of killing upto a thousand people every twenty minutes (Dallaire, 1994). Dallaire urgently faxed this information to Maurice Baril, the UN Secretary General’s military advisor. Dallaire requested permission to raid the caches and requested the UN to arrange asylum for Pierre (Dorn and Matloff, 2000, pp. 11-12). This was the clearest indicator that a systematic, macabre plan was underway. But the US, after its debacle in Somalia a few months prior to this, and with the announcement of PDD-25 not far off, was not eager to engage (Gasbarri, 2018). Faced with US inaction and UN red-tapism, no concrete action was forthcoming.

               Even human rights reports pointed to a growing propensity for violence. After the RPF attack in 1990, atrocities committed against the Tutsi saw a sharp increase. From October 1990 to April 1991, out of the 10,000 people arrested, 75% were Tutsi. Most were then released without being charged (Dorn and Matloff, 2000, p. 19). When the International Commission of Inquiry visited, the mayors in the north-west region warned that violence would increase upon the departure of the commission (Dorn and Matloff, 2000, p. 19). There was no dearth of international reports documenting the increasing violence against the Tutsi, and the roles of the MRND and CDR in carrying out many of the atrocities. In January 1994, Human Rights Watch warned that there were armed bands spread out through the countryside to inflict violence if and when ordered (Dorn and Matloff, 2000, p. 21).

               But members of the UN, in an attempt to conclude and implement the Arusha accords, in an attempt to add a feather to their caps after the embarrassment in Somalia, turned a blind eye to most of these indicators. When faced with mixed signals, the UN only chose to look at the positives (Suhrke and Jones, 1997, p. 10).


Contrary to the genocide in Yugoslavia, the Rwandan genocide was carried out with weapons easily accessible to the public. With a forceful reaction from the international community, the genocide could certainly have been stopped before it got out of hand (Dorn and Matloff, 2000, p. 30). Instead of strengthening the UNAMIR ground forces after April 6, the UN made the fatal mistake of decreasing the force to only 250 personnel (Dorn and Matloff, 2000, p. 33). There might not have even been any need to use force, simply an intent might have worked. But with the withdrawal of the Belgian contingent and the reduction of UNAMIR’s size, the extremists were further emboldened to carry on their rampage. A few safe houses were established, but UNAMIR could only be a spectator as the Interahamwe carried out atrocities against unarmed Tutsi (Dorn and Matloff, 2000, p. 31). Dallaire’s request for 5000 troops and a Chapter 7 mandate could have halted the genocide.

               There was also a major delay in recognising the Rwandan genocide as a genocide. Once declared a genocide, under the Genocide Convention, the international community would have been forced to intervene. But the US, after Somalia, ready to release PDD-25, wanted to engage as little as possible in matters that didn’t serve its interests (Gasbarri, 2018). And France, the one country that could have influenced matters, was hesitant to brand the violence as a genocide due to its complicity in aiding and training the perpetrators. Decisive action immediately after April 6 was not forthcoming. It was not until the last week of May that Boutros Boutros-Ghali publicly recognised the violence as a genocide (Kuperman, 2000, p. 103).

               In the days following April 6, Kigali airport was still secure. Airborne missions were successfully carried out by France, Belgium and Italy. But by only evacuating expats and peacekeepers, the international community signalled its hesitancy to intervene. The extremists could go unchecked (Melvern, 2001, p. 96).


Both, before and after April 6, various mistakes were made. The international community, with a bit of action and attention, could have saved thousands of lives. While I believe that a lot of things could have been done differently, both, before and after April 6, I feel the inability to read the signals leading up to the genocide was a bigger blunder than being unable to stop it once it was underway.

               The indicators leading up to the genocide had been accumulating for three years. At each stage towards the implementation of the Accords, there were instances of brutal violence mainly aimed at Tutsi (Suhrke and Jones, 1997, p. 6). People could freely access Radio Collines and spout misinformation and hate speech. The biggest indicator that a genocide was on the horizon, Jean Pierre’s information, was not acted upon. NGO reports went unchecked, and inflow of arms, in violation of the Accords, kept occurring.

               Once the genocide was underway, the international community had to act fast. The biggest error was the delay in decision making. UNAMIR should have been turned into a Chapter 7 force. Humanitarian aid should have been immediately cut off. The size of UNAMIR should have been increased, rather than weakened.

               Prevention would have also given more time to come up with more peaceful, economic solutions. Shutting down Radio Collines and mounting a counter-propaganda campaign could have nipped the radicalisation in the bud. A Chapter 7 force, even if not in action, would have sent a message of intent. French pressure on Habyarimana might have dissuaded the CDR and MRND from further action. The cost of raiding the arms caches would have been lesser than the cost of engaging with the extremists once the genocide was underway.

               A lack of inaction leading up to the genocide made it harder to stop it once the violence commenced. By April 6, extremists had been briefed, and were spread throughout the country. The use of force then became the only solution to stopping them.

               There was also the image of the UN at stake. Had UNAMIR had a bigger force and Chapter 7 mandate before April 6, they could have dissuaded the perpetrators without engaging with them. After April 6, once the extremists had been unleashed, force was necessary to reign them in. This could have resulted in civilian casualties at the hands of the UN, which might have tarnished its image (Dorn and Matloff, 2000, p. 29).


The Rwanda genocide is one of the worst ever massacres. After WW2, the phrase “Never again” was used (Sarkin and Fowler, 2010). Never again would the world stand idle while a geocide took place. Cambodia happened, Yugoslavia happened, Rwanda happened. Have we learned anything? There’s a war in Yemen that hardly gets our attention. We simply shake our heads when we read about the violence against Rohingyas in Myanmar. Somalia, overrun by terror outfits, has been left to its own fate. The world powers, even after Rwanda, don’t care about countries and regions that are not significant to them. Human lives are still measured against the benefits their nations can provide.

               In 1994, the international community simply didn’t care enough about Rwanda. A small, landlocked African country didn’t serve their interests. Only a few months before the Rwanda genocide, more than 50,000 people had been massacred in neighbouring Burundi. No real action took place then. The international community was not going to be really bothered about losing a 100,000 Rwandans (Suhrke and Jones, 1997, p. 18). For them, this was just Africa, where violence and massacres were commonplace. The costs and risks of interfering were greater than the potential returns. This was the primary reason for their apathy and inaction.

               The Rwanda genocide has a lot to teach us even today. The events leading up to the genocide, the way a blind eye was turned towards them, should never happen again. Apologies from the international community following the genocide don’t really do anything. It doesn’t bring back the dead or make up for the international inaction, unwillingness and disinterest that led to the death of 800,000 Rwandans.

               There’s a need to treat every human equally, in letter and spirit. Sovereignty should not be a concern when massacres against populations are underway (Dallaire, 2004).

               The UN should have amped up its decision making process, found quicker ways to deploy a Chapter 7 mandate, should not have lost the essence of time as it debated the terminology of the word ‘genocide’. If the UN is taking on the responsibility of ensuring and brokering peace, it should be willing to invest the time and personnel to bring about the desired results. There’s no point committing troops to protect civilians if you’re not willing to risk losing some of them (Dallaire, 2004).

               These mistakes are lessons to be learned. We have seen that the blunder of being unable to prevent the genocide was marginally bigger than the blunder of being unable to stop it. Nonetheless, there are plenty of lessons to take away. These lessons, while they won’t bring back the 800,000 Rwandans, might just save the lives of countless others.

Swaraj Parameswaran
Swaraj Parameswaran
I have an MA in International Relations from King's College London, and am interested in the spheres of geopolitics, armed conflicts, and human rights. I have written essays for organisations like Action on Armed Violence, Global Strategic and Defence News, and International Affairs Forum.