According to the articles of the United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, genocide refers to violent crimes committed with the intention of destroying, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group. This can be done through not just the killing of the members of the group, but by inflicting serious bodily or mental harm to the members, deliberately inflicting conditions of life made to bring about their destruction, imposing measures to prevent births in the group, or forcibly transferring children of the group onto another.
Vital to the prevention of genocide is the understanding of the process, the recognition of the stages within the conflict, the quick response and action of those within their power to intervene, and the existence of courts for accountability. Dr. Greg Stanton’s Eight Stages of Genocide outlines the genocidal process, explaining the first six stages of progressive early warning signs, explaining the genocide itself, and discussing the aftermath that contributes to the success of the genocide.
The 1994 Rwandan Genocide had been dismissed by the international community as a civil war despite the appearance of warning signs and even as the large-scale massacre began. Looking closely at their history and the actions preceding the tragedy, it is clear that the deaths of about a million Rwandans was planned, organized, and intentional in exterminating the Tutsi people.
The first stage of early warning signs, “classification”, is one easy to justify and dismiss. In this stage, groups of people are classified by nationality, ethnicity, race, or religion. This provides an almost built-in conflict by dividing the society and creating tensions between the groups. Doing so creates an “us versus them” mentality as the groups naturally begin to claim or become assigned roles in a hierarchy and power struggles ensue. In pre-colonial Rwanda, ethnic identities did exist, including the Hutu and Tutsi clans, but they were used mainly as “status terms” rather than ethnic identities and not meant to create division (Hintjens, 2001).
Instead, they were seen as “inseparable elements of a single social structure” as the state of Rwanda held strong cross-cutting allegiances within their kingdom that provided some social fluidity. Rich and powerful cattle-owners were referred to as “Tutsi” while others were “Hutu”. Despite this, Tutsi chiefs controlled only Tutsis and Hutu chiefs only controlled Hutus, meaning there was still not necessarily a distinction of an inferior or superior race. The polarization based on wealth would also allow for Hutus to climb up economically and earn the distinction of Tutsi. It was the German colonists in the 1890s that applied the European thinking of the time and defined Tutsis and Hutus as being inferior and superior races, respectively.
It was during their time under Belgian rule post-World War I that they were subjected to identity cards and entered Stanton’s second stage — symbolization (Kaufman, 2015). They distinguished between Rwandans through physical differences, comparing attributes such as nose size and height, because they held much of the same cultural aspects, including the same spoken language and the same religious beliefs. This created definitive social categories between the Tutsi, Hutu, and Twa people as they solidified Tutsi control, giving them power over Hutus and providing them with western education.
After pressures from the United Nations following World War II, in a move to “end feudalism” and introduce democratic institutions, education and access to clerical press was offered to “ambitious Hutus”. This allowed for the later publication of a Hutu denouncing Tutsi rule and calling for democracy and more opportunity for the Hutu people through their emancipation. Political parties began to form in 1959 after Belgian announced plans to turn Rwanda into a constitutional monarchy and hold an election. An atmosphere of violence ensued as royalists attacked Hutu leaders and they responded in turn, and the polarization caused by this set the tone for future elections.
The success of the Hutus in the elections and their actions as people in power exacerbated the tensions between the two groups. Tutsis deemed them “racist” and “dictatorial” and launched terrorist attacks against the Hutus in 1960, but Hutu leaders took power and formed a new government (Kaufman, 2015). Extremist Tutsis increased their efforts, pledging to be “as numerous and difficult to stamp out as cockroaches”, but failed in their biggest efforts in December 1963. During this independence period for the Hutus, an estimated thirty thousand Tutsis were killed as another wave of Tutsis fled the country, making them even more of a minority (Kaufman, 2015).
A second wave of Tutsi attacks led to the hundred thousand Hutu deaths, and retaliation pushed more Tutsis to flee. In 1972, Hutu leadership was displaced as army chief Habyarimana led a military coup to take over and create a new regime. Under Habyarimana leadership, discriminatory policies against Tutsis loosened, allowing them to act relatively freely economically, but became more systematic in other ways, barring their participation in the military, capping their acceptance into schools, enforcing intelligent agencies’ investigations on candidates for high responsibility jobs to ensure that Tutsis did not surpass Hutus, and refusing Tutsi refugees’ return to Rwanda.
This systematic approach to repressing and eliminating Tutsis under the Habyarimana government further enforced and justified psychological degradation and dehumanization, the third stage of genocide. Under this phase, the normal human revulsion against murder is overcome. Threats of economic recession and civil war under this regime allowed the redirection of stresses into ethnic hatred, reducing conflicts to this single struggle. Hutus were encouraged to believe that all the country’s problems and all their personal struggles were the fault of the Rwandese Patriotic Front and Tutsi allies as the economic crisis was blamed on the work of Tutsis.
This campaign of suppression worked further to strengthen Hutu unity by emphasizing their common origin and shared race as opposed to the “other”, the Tutsi. Their supposed foreign origins that were onced used to defend their inherent right to rule in earlier Rwandan society was used to justify ideas to drive them out of the country. In one example and in a key hate speech, Hutu politician Leon Mugesera claimed that Tutsi should be “sent back home” through a river, one in which hundreds of Tutsi bodies were found to be floating during the 1994 genocide (Hintjens, 1999). In another instance of their own claims being used against them, the term “cockroach”, that Tutsi guerrilla fighters used to describe their stealth and strength, was used by Hutus against them as a derogatory term, equating them to vermin.
One of the most prominent means of Tutsi hate propaganda was through the Radio Television Libres des Milles Collines. They released statements, claiming that the Tutsis must be “taken care of”, making them powerless, and that “‘they will disappear…’” (Abimbola, 2013). One Hutu participant from a southern district reported to be less prejudiced than the north emphasized the impact of the radio, explicitly stating that it was the radio that had “fired [them] up” and taught them hateful words (Kaufman, 2015). Through the radio and in the Kangura newspapers and magazines, ethnic hatred was spread to incite genocide, convincing the Hutu population that they were being threatened by Tutsi existence and their supporters. Akazu, the Rwandan ruling elite, proposed that the only way to solve Rwandan Hutu struggle was through “racial purification” and the elimination of the Tutsi people (Hintjens, 2001). The Rwandans’ ingrained culture and long history of obedience to authority made them especially compliant, ensuring that the killing of Tutsi people was seen as act of “civic duty” among the Hutus rather than an act of cruelty.
With strong hatred directed towards the Tutsi people, the Hutus organized to carry out their elimination. In this fourth stage of genocide, akazu formed hundreds of “civil defense associations and covert death squads” and a youth militia, called the Interahamwe, and fashioned them with machetes and other weapons. They were trained to exterminate Tutsis under the guise of protecting their people from the RPF and their allies and given lists of Hutu opponents to slaughter (Hintjens, 1999). In these early 1990s, military leaders continued to try out techniques of killing also under the pretense of looking for internal enemies (Newbury, 1998).
This relatively small scale of killings in comparison to the genocide following just a few years later allowed Hutu elites to understand two principles, according to Newbury’s article: 1) this violent means of mass killing was feasible and 2) their actions didn’t elicit any alarming responses from outside powers. In other words, they were in the clear. They felt safe enough to continue their attempts at “ethnic cleansing” without any international ramifications. Though the Hutu extremist government implemented this systematic approach to psychologically ruin the Tutsis and formed protected, organized militant groups to physically remove them, these groups and their killings and crimes committed were made up of and perpetuated by average citizens (Abimbola, 2013). Their culture of obedience and reverence towards power easily allowed the government to exploit them to carry out their notion of Hutu power.
An invasion by the Tutsi-led RPF a few years before the organization of Interhamwe resulted in a panic among the Hutus that gave way to strategy in favor of polarization and Habyarimana. With any intervention by outside forces not likely, Habyarimana chose to exaggerate Tutsi threat, justifying retaliation under the guise of self defense (Kaufman, 2015). They’d staged a fake RPF attack near the capital of Kigali and used this as an excuse to make thousands of arrests of mostly Hutu political opponents. Creating this “politics of protection” further divided the Hutus and Tutsis as it escalated the ideas of the physical threats the targeted group posed. This attack also motivated the Hutu elite to become more explicit and blatant in their racism and dehumanization of the Tutsis.
The Kangura published the “Hutu Ten Commandments” that claims anyone associated with a Tutsi to be a traitor, that advocates the discrimination of Tutsis in all aspects of life, and denounces any pity for the Tutsi people. Hate propaganda intensified through the publication of ideals such as these and the use of old symbols of Hutu myth of their oppression under Tutsi rule before independence. With it, they casted the Tutsi people as inherently evil and unable to change, justifying their elimination.
As hate-filled propaganda continued to intensify and militias were organized, preparation, the sixth and final warning stage, had already begun. The Rwandan military increased to over 30,000 by 1994 and emergency financial aid provided to the Rwandan government for food and essentials was redirected to arms purchases, a move supported by their French allies (Hintjens, 1999). Within the year preceding the genocide, about half a million machetes were imported alongside twenty thousand new rifles. The identification cards enforced in their period of being under colonial rule served as a physical division between the people, making it easier for Hutus to identify Tutsis, or more specifically, unarmed Tutsi civilians, at checkpoints they set up on major roads to block Tutsi travel (Kaufman, 2015).
Aforementioned Hutu militant groups were given death lists of prominent Tutsi political opposition. The preparation for this massacre had been long going, building throughout the other stages. They’d continued to engage in massacres preceding the 1994 genocide. With a lack of international response, military support from allies, an already small target population, a deeply embedded psychology of hate towards and fear of the Tutsi people, and a culture of obedience, one participant had summed up the justification of genocide as the only solution proposed that was promised to be final (Kaufman, 2015). He’d called it “the perfect solution”.
The extermination itself, the seventh phase in Stanton’s genocidal stages, occurred brutally in 1994. The Rwandan genocide was set off with the murder of President Habyarimana. On April 6, the plane carrying Habyarimana and the Army Chief as they left for peace negotiations was shot down. There’s still discourse about whether this was an order by the RPF or Hutu extremists angered at the possibility of Tutsi integration. Within hours of his death, the genocide began. “Cleansing” began from the top down as they murdered government leadership in the capital of Kigali and moved onto those in lower level government positions, and this move allowed Hutu power leaders to step into high command.
The mass killings in the capital spread into the rest of Rwanda with as many as one million dead within the next few months as militiamen, activists, and ordinary citizens participated in the slaughter, whether they had genuinely believed they were acting honorably or threatened to do so. It appeared that many Tutsi civilians were taken by surprise by the bloodshed despite the way they were viewed. The allusions to genocide were shrouded by euphemisms of tree felling, referring to “bush clearing” and “pulling out roots of bad weeds” (Hintjens, 2001). The agricultural euphemisms had allowed the extremists to normalize the hatred, mitigate the horror of the massacre, and appeal to the ordinary Hutus to engage in slaughter against their neighbors. The radio had referred to it as simusiga, meaning hurricane, as a way of portraying the genocide as a “quasi-natural event futile to resist”.
The international community continued to remain on the sidelines as the massacre began. Perceiving it as civil war rather than genocide, any UN discussions about intervention did not come into fruition. Though they had forces in Rwanda, they were not mandated to stop the killings. The U.S. had also been weary of intervening shortly after the death of U.S. soldiers in Somalia. The Belgians and other peacekeepers had pulled out after ten Belgian soldiers had been killed. The French, who’d supported Rwandan army militarily, was approved to set up a humanitarian zone, but discourse still exists concerning their intentions as they were accused of also aiding Hutu participants in escaping while not doing enough for the Tutsi people. Instead they allowed them to battle it on their own. Though the genocide lasted three months and the death toll rivaled that of the Holocaust, the Hutus’ focus on the extermination of unarmed, Tutsi civilians, few troops were able to face the RPF successfully and the Tutsi guerrillas, backed by the Ugandan army, overran the extremist regime in early July (Kaufman, 2015).
The eighth and final stage of genocide is the denial of the massacre. Characterized by any denial of evidence or malicious intent, the Rwandan genocide was largely denied during and after the massacre. The Hutu power elite had made the violence out to be a civil war caused by the invasion of the Tutsi exiles, while others had posed it as tribal or interethnic conflict deeply rooted in their history (Hintjens, 1999).
Evidence was also denied or in question as one stated that the number of reported deaths was inconsistent with the Tutsi population or as another claimed that the Hutus instead had lost a majority of their people and therefore it could not have been a staged attack on Tutsis. The genocide hadn’t become apparent until May when photos began to surface. The mass graves and piles of uncovered dead in the churches, in the streets, and floating in rivers could not be ignored by the international community. It was glaringly apparent that the Rwandan massacre was well-planned and politically motivated. Still, no intervention was enacted. It wasn’t until November 1994 that international communities were allowed to refer to the atrocity as a genocide.
After the RPF had taken control, more than two million people, mostly Hutu, had fled to neighboring countries in fear of retaliation. The new regime had instead called for a ceasefire and created a coalition government until the Hutu president had been arrested for inciting ethnically-driven hate. New rule under Kagame, born from a Tutsi family, was rigid. Talk of ethnicity had become illegal as a preventative measure. Strict laws were enforced against dissent or any political opposition. The fleeing of millions to Congo had created further tensions as they’d been accused of allowing Hutu militant groups to terrorize in their area, leading to confrontations between the two states.
Tutsi rebel groups also remain active, refusing to cease, claiming to be at risk of genocide otherwise. Dr. Stanton’s ideas on preventative measures include the dismantling of groups like these and may be more in line with Kagame’s opposition of speaking on ethnicity. Because the denial of genocide can indicate further genocides and extend these ideals to future generations, the promotion of commonalities and tolerance rather than differences and division can prevent this.