Rwandan Genocide: How the UN facilitated one of the most devastating genocides in history


By Francis Forsey

Content Warning: This article will discuss themes of genocide.

‘Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it’ – George Santayana (1906)

This popular quote has been emblazoned upon many murals and memorials, and ingrained in the hearts of many historians and political commentators. 24 years on, the UN has seemingly forgotten the past.

In 1994, the United Nations (UN) failed over 800,000 people, and facilitated one of history’s most infamous genocides.

Typically viewed through the medium of ethical debates, and political studies modules, the Rwandan Genocide of 1994-5 is widely under-analyzed by students, academics and political leaders. Its inner details gritty, and its overall lessons bleak. Despite its groundbreaking (and unfortunate) contribution to international law concerning peacekeeping missions, the hard realities of the conflict appear to have lost significance.

I typically try to write articles filled with nuanced debate, but this one adopts a blunt, more historically-oriented approach. The tough fact is, few can argue against the interpretation. The fact that this issue is so difficult to argue against, is what makes it so hard-hitting. The UN knew that what they did was wrong. Correspondence poured out of Rwanda, documenting the atrocities. Yet, the UN watched as ethnic tensions boiled over into chaos. The UN has actively admitted its failures, and many of the involved international stakeholders have issued apologies for their role in allowing the genocide to occur. The event is riddled by blatant political failures, bureaucratic nightmares and an appallingly selfish reactions by the international community.

Historical Context

As with all ethnic conflict, the historic context is both highly significant and inherently complex. The two dominant ethnicities of Rwanda are the Hutus and the Tutsis. Historically, the Hutus made up the majority of the population. The group were largely peasants, whilst the Tutsi minority governed as an elite, oppressive ruling class. From 1884 until 1916, German colonial rule allowed for this continued ethnic divide, by allowing the co-operative Tutsi to maintain power. Following the confiscation of German colonial territory after the First World War, Belgium took up wardship of the country (which then consisted of modern-day Rwanda and Burundi), and adopted a more hard-line stance. In 1935, the colonial power enforced mandatory identification stamps to associate each citizen by their ethnic group (a method not too dissimilar from that used by Nazi German forces). This prevented class movement, and ensured that the divide between Hutus and the Tutsis remained strong and clear. Although they brought significant development to the region, the Belgian colonialists pillaged Rwanda of its natural resources, and did little to prevent ethnic skirmishes. Belgian rule was brutal and oppressive, but Rwanda’s road to independence, as it was with many states going through transition, was almost equally brutal.

The country had miniscule literacy rates, and only the elite could afford access to education. The Hutu populations were effectively barred from attaining high-up political positions within any government, and so any move towards independence would continue to favour the Tutsi. Following the Second World War, Rwanda saw an emergence of Hutu counter-elites and the subsequent deterioration of relations between the two groups. The Tutsi leadership moved for a rapid declaration of independence, in order to consolidate their power. The Hutu elite, on the other hand, called for a transfer of power. From 1959-1961 the country was engulfed by ethnic conflict, which saw the eventual removal of the Tutsi monarchy, and the establishment of a Hutu-dominated government. It would remain this way until 1994. A Belgian-led referendum resulted in independence being declared in 1962, and over 336,000 Tutsi supporters fled to neighbouring countries in fear. The country was split into two separate states; Rwanda to the North and independent Burundi to the South.

Path to Genocide

12 years after the declaration of independence, Military Chief of Staff, Juvénal Habyarimana, seized power in a military coup. Under his firm rule, prosperity increased and the population boomed. Anti-Tutsi sentiment remained under Habyarimana’s rule, but violence decreased. In Burundi, however, violence surged. It exploded in 1972, and the world witnessed Tutsi  soldiers commit a bloody genocide, which saw an estimated 80,000 and 210,000 Hutu civilians massacred. This event did little to reconcile relations, and led to the further radicalisation of ethnic extremists within the region. Whilst Habyarimana was openly anti-Tutsi, he was aware of the need for unity in the face of economic hardship. It was Agusha Habyarimana, the wife of Juvénal, who championed the extremist sentiment. Agusha established a underground movement of Hutu extremists, called the Akazu, and began to pave the way for the instigation of ethnic extermination. Meanwhile, Tutsi leaders exiled abroad began to form a resistance force.

In 1990, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), a rebel group composed of nearly 500,000 Tutsi refugees, invaded northern Rwanda from their base in Uganda, initiating the Rwandan Civil War. It was this conflict that first attracted the attention of the United Nation (UN). Numerous peace talks ensued, with little progress. Tentative ceasefires characterised the UN’s intervention, and it was this that began the series of failures that would forever stain the institution’s reputation.

United Nations Involvement

The first, and perhaps the most significant, failure was the blatant miscalculation made by the UN when committing resources to the region. The institution established the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR) specifically for the Rwanda mission, headed by Canadian General, Romeo Dallaire. The establishment of this body naturally proves that the UN did indeed have interest in the country. The resources devoted to the mission, however, serve as a clear contradiction. Parallel to the UNAMIR peacekeeping mission, war was raging in Southern Europe. The Bosnian war diverted much of the UN and NATO’s attention away from Rwanda, as it affected their beneficiaries and members more directly. The intervention in Bosnia saw a huge level of investment, and dwarfed any attempts made in Rwanda. UNAMIR Commander, Romeo Dallaire, later accused the UN of clear racism and dehumanisation during a speech at the National University Of Rwanda in 2005. He noted the huge difference in scale of approach to the different wars, despite the fact that both displayed clear indicators of potential ethnic extermination beforehand. Quite sadly, there is a hint of irony. Despite much greater levels of intervention and deployment, genocide still occurred in Bosnia. It should be acknowledged, however, that the numbers killed in Bosnia came nowhere near the levels seen in Rwanda. Regardless, to assume the counter-factual at this stage is without taste or respect for the victims or the operatives of the United Nations who attempted to prevent such acts.

The UNAMIR forces were vastly undersupplied, and offices were left without the necessary resources to maintain a diplomatic or peacekeeping presence. In his memoir Shaking Hands With The Devil General Dallaire recalls the inability of his first office to pay for telephone bills to the UN’s New York headquarters at first. It was clear, he also notes, that the ceasefire was extremely fragile. The Rwandan office was situated deep in the North Rwandan Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) – an area created during ceasefire talks. Dallaire notes the intensity of the fog of war that surrounded the DMZ, but asserted his belief in eventual conflict. The UN presence, he argued, was clearly superficial. They did not have the capability to stop widespread violence.


Although weak, the ceasefire did hold. However, the Akazu movement did not intend to keep the peace. It was the Akazu who instigated the genocide following the assassination of President Habyarimana in 1994. They blamed the Tutsi rebels for downing the Presidential plane, whilst evidence today suggests that it may have been Hutu forces responsible. The Thousand Hills Radio announced a nationwide cry for retribution. ‘Cut the tall trees’, the broadcast declared. The Hutu population knew what this meant. In the months prior, large stockpiles of machetes and small arms were appearing across the country. The youth wing of the military, the Interahamwe militias, were prepared and ready. Within days, violence swept the entire nation. For 100 days, ethnic violence erupted across Rwanda. Hutu paramilitaries, Civilians and Government forces raped, and massacred their way across the country. The campaign was highly efficient, and showed signs of much planning. The 1935 Belgian decision to implement identity cards had allowed for rapid, and precise extermination. Entire villages and townships were extinguished, and first-hand accounts show that the methods of killing utilised by the Hutus were creative and seemingly without limits. News reports of the violence poured out of Rwanda. The flame of civil war burned bright once more in the North, and the Tutsi RPF forces initiated a brutal campaign of rapid territorial expansion. Within 100 days, they would reach the capital and end the genocide against their people.

The UN failed not only in the build-up to genocide, by refusing to take the situation seriously enough, but they also failed during. The peacekeeping force was greatly underfunded and understaffed at the beginning, and issues only got worse as the conflict ensued. The initial peacekeeping mission had fallen grossly short of troop contributions. Canada offered administrative help, but could not spare troops. Ghana, Tunisia and Bangladesh offered what they could, but no world power contributed. The main bulk of the mission, however, came from Belgium. They were best supplied, most experienced, and best suited to this mission. The issue lied in their colonial roots in Rwanda. Major Brent Beardsley, Executive Assistant to Dallaire in Rwanda, heavily criticises the UN for breaking protocol of not allowing former colonial powers to become involved in peacekeeping missions. This is a failure of the UN as an institution, but also by the international community for refusing to contribute. Soon after the genocide began, the peacekeeping forces were soon overwhelmed.

Belgian troops were specifically targeted for their historic role in allowing the Tutsi to hold power. The Thousand Hill Radio broadcasted anti-Belgian rhetoric throughout, encouraging attacks on white, blue-capped peacekeeping troops. One such instance involved the horrific murder of 10 peacekeepers by a Hutu youth militia. Following this shocking attack, the Belgian government lobbied for a total withdrawal of UN forces from Rwanda, which was received well by the American delegation, who were still reeling from their ill-fated intervention in Somalia. The UN Security Council passed the shocking resolution that withdrew peacekeeping forces and repealed financing. Belgian troops swiftly left the country, abandoning their posts. United Nation Secure Zones and refugee camps were overrun by Government forces. Tens of thousands refugees were slaughtered as a result of this withdrawal, and of the UN’s arrogance and fear. Most notably, was the Don Bosco camp, where refugees begged the withdrawing Belgian peacekeepers to shoot them, as to escape the chances of being hacked to death by Hutu machetes.

Kigali airport became a place of lost hope, and an blazing emblem of man’s selfishness. In the first weeks of the genocide, US, Italian, French and Belgian forces came to Rwanda. However, they only evacuated expats who resided in Rwanda. Tutsi groups were turned away, and in some cases, passed over to Hutu forces. It was clear that the international community had no intention of intervening. Those who could not leave watched in vain as foreign nationals were evacuated. Those who had chosen to remain watched as their main bulk of security flew away. Many peacekeepers, including Dallaire, chose to stay and see out their mission. Those who remained received little support from the UN, and acts by Dallaire to secure the Tutsi were viewed as rebellious, and on the fine-line of illegality. The UNAMIR headquarters in Kigali was under constant attack, and soon ran low on basic provisions. The UN had effectively abandoned any hope of stopping the genocide from continuing.

The UN had abandoned Rwanda.

After three months, the RPF finally overran Kigali. The Hutus were so concerned with exterminating the Tutsi, that they had seemingly forgotten about the insurgency spreading across the country. The remaining Hutus were arrested, or fled abroad to Zaire (Modern day DPRC).

The cost of the genocide: 800,000-1,000,000 estimated deaths.

The Tutsi regained control of the country, and moved to facilitate recovery. Revenge missions into Zaire did little to instigate reconciliation, and even bordered genocide. Hutu refugee camps were pillaged, and thousands were killed by RPF forces. At the 10th year anniversary event in 2005, RPF leader, and the current leader of Rwanda, Paul Kagame, lambasted Hutu forces. Furthermore, he also lambasted the UN, and the forces of France and Belgium for their role in facilitating the genocide. Indeed the French involvement could be argued to be much worse than the Belgian. Belgium helped lay the historic foundations of the genocide, but France helped the actual event happen. The inability of the UN to prevent this is their fourth key failure.

Following the Second World War, France embarked on a campaign to protect the Francophone sphere of influence. Given Belgium’s French heritage and language, it was placed under the wing of the European Hegemon. The French refuted UN suggestions on intervention, and actively stifled progress within the institution. The country provided support and arms for the Rwandan government army, and for extremist militias. France actively participated in the Rwandan genocide, and the UN did nothing to stop this. They actually did the opposite, and allowed it. UNAMIR Commanders flagged large arms French caches to the UN central command, and requested permission to seize them. The command shot down the approach, deeming it outside of the mission’s mandate. These caches would later go on to fuel the violence. French forces also provided training and support for Hutu forces during the Rwandan Civil War. Whilst then French President, Nicolas Sarkozy, visited in 2007 to issue a formal apology, little has since been to done to offer reconciliation. Diplomatic relations between France and Rwanda remain tense, characterised by investigations, the severing of political ties, and the blocking of Rwandan representatives to institutions by France

Many scholars have argued that it was not just the French who should be held accountable. Hazel Cameron, an International Relations Scholar, infers British complicity, noting that they had a wealth of evidence to suggest impending ethnic violence but yet did nothing to prevent it. As mentioned previously, the Belgian forces bear some responsibility, also. The debate on direct complicity is highly contentious, and could warrant its own article.

What is clear, however, is that the world stood by and watched as events unfolded in Rwanda. At the official 10th year anniversary of the Genocide, international political dignitaries turned down direct invitations and instead sent low-ranking officials. The government of Rwanda were not sad. No. They expected such. They were disappointed. The governments of the world had let down the country so heavily before, so why should they raise their expectations?

Seeing the images today from Eastern Myanmar, where the Rohingya people face ethnic persecution, the International Community is yet again faced with a tough decision. Ethnic violence is never simple, and requires a complex approach. Whilst humanitarian intervention may not be the best option, action in some form or other is necessary. The fear of future failures and repercussions should be factored in. However, the UN has yet again been slow to react, and this hesitation has already cost the lives of thousands of innocent civilians. The sheer scale of international diplomatic complexities, and the slow bureaucratic process of UN work does little to facilitate progressive action.

International politics is cruel, selfish in nature, and soul-crushing. It is filled with scenes of violence. Conflict rages across the world, and innocent civilians find themselves in the firing line. Studying politics and international relations has only reinforced this melancholy feeling within me. Innocent citizens are being slaughtered, and yet the world chooses to watch. Ideological rivalries, bureaucracy, economic trade-relations and corrupt moral principles has held back progressive resolutions, time and time again.

Why are states valuing their ego, economy and ideology over the human life?

No human is more human than any other” – Romeo Dallaire, UNAMIR Force Commander

Perhaps we should learn from the words of those who chose to stay and fight for peace in the face of adversity, rather than those who choose to run away and facilitate.

Sources/References :

Cover Picture:

Bowen, Michael. (1972). Passing by; The United States and genocide in Burundi . Carnegie Endowment for International Peace pp. 49

Cameron, H. (2012). British state complicity in genocide: Rwanda 1994. State Crime Journal , 1(1); pp.70-87

Dallaire, R. & Beardsley, B. (2004). Shake hands with the devil: The failure of humanity in Rwanda . London: Arrow.

Kay, J. (2013) Middle Agents as Marginalized: How the Rwandan Genocide Challenges Ethics from the Margins. Journal of the Society of Christian Ethics, 33 (2). Pp.21-40.

Lemarchand, R. (1996). Burundi: Ethnic Conflict and Genocide . New York, NY: Woodrow Wilson Center and Cambridge University Press, P. 232

Moore, J. (2017). France accused of being complicit in 1994 Rwanda Genocide. IOL [Online] Available at: Accessed: 7/5/2018

Nyankanzi, E. L. (1998). Genocide: Rwanda and Burundi. Rochester, VT : Schenkman Books, P. 198

Newbury, C. (1995). Background to Genocide: Rwanda. Issue: A Journal of Opinion , 23(2), pp. 12-17

Organisation of African Unity. (2010) . ‘Rwanda: the preventable genocide’. International Panel of Emiment Personalities to Investigate the 1994 Genocide in Rwanda and the Surrounding Events

Santayana, G. (1906). The Life of Reason: The Phases of Human Progress: Vol. I, Reason in Common Sense

User: Jubah. (2010) ’Romeo Dallaire’s speech at the National University Of Rwanda’. YouTube [Online}Available at:, Accessed 6/5/2018

User: Hearts.and.Minds. (2017). ‘Shake Hands with the Devil: The journey of Romeo Dallaire– Documentary.’ Youtube [Online]. Available at: Accessed 6/5/2018

White, M. (N.D), Deaths Tolls for the Major Wars and Atrocities of the Twentieth Century: C. Burundi (1972-73, primarily Hutu killed by Tutsi): 120,000


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