News | Politics of Memory / Antifascism - East Africa The Rwandan Genocide 30 Years On

Three decades after the violence ended, how far has reconciliation in the country really come?


A tour guide who lost her mother and three children during the Rwandan genocide stands in front of bodies on display at the Murambi Genocide Memorial in Gikongoro, Rwanda, 27 January 2009. Photo: IMAGO / Aurora Photos

This month marks the thirtieth anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda that began in early April 1994. In just 100 days, nearly 1 million people were brutally murdered across the country by militias associated with the Hutu ethnic group. Most of the victims were members of the Tutsi ethnic group, but moderate Hutus were also targeted. The genocide marked a watershed moment in the post-Cold War international order, and spurred discussions around states’ “responsibility to protect” against war crimes and genocide that continue to impact international law and conflict prevention to this day.

Yet three decades after the horror that played out across Rwanda, how much has really changed? Conflicts between Hutus and Tutsis continue to rage, if not in Rwanda then in neighbouring Congo, and war crimes and crimes against humanity are by no means things of the past. The Rosa Luxemburg Foundation’s Andreas Bohne spoke with Phil Clark, a conflict expert who is currently working on a book about post-genocide welfare and reconciliation in Rwanda, where he has researched for more than 20 years, about the backdrop to the genocide and how the country — and the world — has sought to reckon with those terrible events.

Phil Clark is a Professor of International Politics at SOAS University of London. His most recent books are Distant Justice: The Impact of the International Criminal Court on African Politics (CUP, 2018) and The Gacaca Courts, Post-Genocide Justice and Reconciliation: Justice without Lawyers (CUP, 2010). His latest book, Rwanda under the RPF: Welfare, Security and Reconciliation after 1994, will be published by Hurst and Co. Publishers in 2025.

The thirtieth anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda is only a few days away. Although it was a major event at the time, it feels like it has receded from public memory far quicker than other tragic events from the same period, particularly those that happened in the West. Can you recap the horrifying events that took place three decades ago?

The genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda was one of the most horrific periods of mass violence in the twentieth century. In the space of 100 days, approximately 800,000 people, predominantly from the Tutsi ethnic minority group, were killed — about two thirds of the Tutsi population.

What characterizes the Rwandan genocide is the intimacy of the violence. One of the remarkable features of the killing was that it was mostly carried out by everyday perpetrators, who knew their victims well. This was a genocide of neighbour against neighbour, friend against friend, sometimes even family member against family member. The techniques of the killing were also incredibly intimate. It was violence carried out with very basic implements like machetes, hoes, spiked clubs — objects that individuals would have had lying around the house, usually for agricultural purposes.

It’s that intimacy of the violence that not only characterizes the genocide, but creates significant challenges for Rwanda in trying to recover from that period. This raises critical questions about how to reconcile a society when hundreds of thousands of people were involved in violence against people they knew extremely well.

In my view, the genocide cannot be categorized as a “spontaneous event”. Can you briefly describe the political situation on the eve of the genocide?

Genocides are never spontaneous. There’s always an important backdrop.

One of the things that we've learned from genocide studies over the last 30 or 40 years is that, firstly, genocides invariably take place in the middle of a preceding conflict, and Rwanda is no different in that sense. The genocide took place in the context of a civil war between 1990 and 1994 between the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), the rebels led by Paul Kagame, and the Hutu-dominated government of President Juvénal Habyarimana. We can’t understand the genocide without understanding the dynamics leading up to it.

The colonial period continues to shape people’s thinking and identities, and it was very important in the propaganda that formed the bedrock of the genocide in 1994.

But there was also an enormous amount happening in the Rwandan political arena concurrently to the civil war. The early 1990s were a period of violent multi-party politics. The country had been forced into a multi-party system by international donors, which created a whole range of ethnically chauvinist political parties, many of which had youth militias and other armed groups attached to them. This was an incredibly volatile and violent time. In fact, there was substantial violence between Hutu political parties themselves and an enormous amount of jockeying for power within the Hutu ranks.

The genocide of 1994 was the culmination of a four-year civil war, increasing violence, and increasing militarization of society. It’s in that context that the Hutu government began to use propaganda to incite the Hutu majority. The message from the government was, “The Tutsi rebels are coming to take over the country and return Rwanda to colonial rule, and everyday Tutsi civilians are part of that rebel movement. You need to kill your Tutsi neighbours, because if you don’t, they will join the rebels, and the Hutu population will be subjugated by the Tutsi, just as they were in the past.”

That kind of anti-Tutsi propaganda was only possible because of the civil war context and because of this very violent, multi-party politics. Understanding that backdrop is vital if we’re to make sense of what happened after 6 April 1994.

Rwanda was part of the German colony of German East Africa and then came under Belgian rule. To what extent must the colonial period be seen as a contributing cause?

Colonialism is crucial to understanding the genocide. It’s one of these very important, long-term causal factors that we have to take into account.

The impact of German colonialism, firstly, was to create a strict division in Rwandan society that favoured the Tutsi. The Germans arrived in Rwanda at the end of the nineteenth century and saw that the Tutsi socio-economic group was predominant, and the Germans felt a certain affinity with the Tutsi. They felt that they were somehow more European, more sophisticated — the rulers. Hence, they were the natural partner for the German colony, an idea then adopted under Belgian colonialism.

The Belgians also favoured the Tutsi, but they did something much more systematic that had much greater consequences: the Belgians instituted ethnic identity cards in 1933, which fixed the socio-economic categories. Previously, the categories of Hutu, Tutsi, and Twa had been class categories, and they were incredibly fluid. Under Belgian colonialism, those categories became concretized through ethnic identity cards, so that after 1933, all Rwandans were stuck in a particular ethnic group. That identity was then passed down through the family line all the way until 1994. Then, on top of that, for the next 30 years of Belgian rule, was this systematic favouring of the Tutsi and the marginalization of the Hutu. The Belgians built this deep sense of division and deep resentment.

It’s very well documented that within days of the genocide beginning, the UN was beginning to scale back its peacekeeping mission on the ground. The UN was not willing to sacrifice its own forces for the sake of protecting civilians.

The depth of that resentment is evident in the fact that it was possible for Juvénal Habyarimana’s government to invoke the colonial period as part of the anti-Tutsi propaganda in the 1990s. It was still that fresh in the minds of Hutu Rwandans. These stories of colonialism and Tutsi rule had been passed down, generation to generation, producing fertile ground for the kind of propaganda that was then used in the 1990s in the build up to the genocide.

This is not considered ancient history in Rwanda. The colonial period continues to shape people’s thinking and identities, and it was very important in the propaganda that formed the bedrock of the genocide in 1994.

Would you agree with the thesis that the genocide in Rwanda was not an “internal Rwandan drama” but an international event, as actors such as France were directly and indirectly involved? Not to mention the UN’s failures.

I think it’s crucial that we place the Rwandan genocide in an international context. The role of international actors was central in how the genocide played out. I would identify three international dimensions in this respect.

The first is that in the late 1980s and early 1990s, there was an internationally imposed system of multi-party democracy in Rwanda, but also a major structural adjustment programme imposed by the World Bank and the IMF. Those two factors created a political and economic crisis in the country. That’s important to recognize, because when we get to the civil war period, the country is already in crisis, there's enormous pressure on the population. People are desperate, people are angry, people are hungry. That fuels much of the violence that we see in the proceeding years.

By the time we get to 1993 and 1994, the second international dimension is this direct involvement of France. France weds itself to Habyarimana’s Hutu government, mainly because they’re seen as part of this Francophone sphere of influence across Central Africa. During the civil war, France believed that if Habyarimana’s government was to lose, it would usher in this Anglophone Tutsi rebel group, the RPF, and France simply couldn’t abide that. So, in 1993 and 1994 in particular, the French army, which was stationed in Rwanda, began to arm and train many of the youth militias that carried out large-scale massacres against Tutsi during the genocide, particularly the Interahamwe militia, which was connected to Habyarimana’s ruling party. In that way, France played a direct role in enabling the violence against Tutsi.

The third, and perhaps most documented international aspect of the genocide, was the failure by the United Nations to protect Tutsi civilians as the genocide unfolded after April 1994. It’s very well documented that within days of the genocide beginning, the UN was beginning to scale back its peacekeeping mission on the ground. The UN was not willing to sacrifice its own forces for the sake of protecting civilians. As the violence escalated, the UN presence decreased. That, of course, was a hugely embarrassing moment for the UN. It continues to haunt the entire UN system — that failure to protect civilians, despite a strong UN presence on the ground at the time the genocide started.

Reconciliation, responsibility, and reappraisal are important, but also controversial processes after a war crime. In Rwanda, there were many approaches to transitional justice, such as the Gacaca courts. At the same time, we see a form of remembrance culture dictated from above under President Paul Kagame. How do you assess the remembrance policy processes in this autocratic state?

This question, I think, points to the profound complexities of post-genocide Rwanda. So much progress has been made in the country since 1994, but all of the progress has taken place in a highly controlled political environment. I think trying to get to grips with Rwandan realities means taking all of these things into account, and the space of transitional justice and reconciliation is no different in that regard.

I consider the Gacaca courts to be a vital response to the genocide. These community courts that operated between 2002 and 2012 were vital for local communities coming to terms with what happened during the genocide, hearing evidence from genocide suspects, allowing community members to tell their stories about the genocide in terms that made sense to them, and then seeking justice for those crimes, but punishing perpetrators in very creative ways that had tangible benefits for everyday people — particularly the use of community service was very important in that respect. In my own research, I have argued that the Gacaca courts provide a strong foundation for long-term reconciliation in the country because of that systematic process of reckoning, community by community, with what happened during the genocide.

But all of this is happening in a very controlled political space, which creates problems and dilutes some of the benefits of a process like Gacaca in particular. Kagame’s government has been very heavy-handed in discussions of RPF crimes. One of the great failures is the refusal to enable the process to deal with crimes that were committed by the RPF against innocent Hutu civilians in the aftermath of the genocide. We have to be very careful about not equating genocide crimes with RPF crimes — those are a separate category. They were mostly carried out in revenge for genocide, and they only happened in particular parts of the country, to a much smaller part of the population than the genocide — which is not to minimize their importance, but to say that they were particularly felt by the Hutu population in some areas of Rwanda and not necessarily nationwide.

We are seeing very worrying rhetoric against the local Tutsi population and violent attacks against the Tutsi population. Much of that is driven by local issues around land and natural resources.

One of the problems today is that there has never been a process to acknowledge and deliver accountability for RPF crimes. Now, that doesn’t matter to some segments of the population, but it really matters to Hutu in the places where those crimes were committed. In my interviews, especially in rural areas, RPF crimes come up all the time. There’s a sense that that these past atrocities are unacknowledged, and it creates divisions at the local level.

It was a mistake by Kagame’s government not to institute a process to look into those cases, and it has left the government open to the criticism that justice was one-sided. I think that accusation is well founded. Nevertheless, that accusation should not be used to diminish the very important benefits of a process like the Gacaca courts. But had the government found a way to do both — to do Gacaca, but also to enable an open and honest conversation about RPF crimes — we would be talking about a much more comprehensive, deeper form of transitional justice that I think would lead to an even deeper form of reconciliation down the road. So, there have been huge gains in this domain, but also some systematic missteps along the way.

A civil war is currently raging in the east of the Democratic Republic of Congo between the Congolese army, the Hutu Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), and the Rwandan-backed rebel 23 March Movement. As an ethnic civil war, experts warn of the risk of genocidal crimes particularly by Hutu youth groups known as “Wazalendo groups”. How do you assess the situation, and how can it be deescalated?

There is some continuity between the 1994 genocide and what’s happening in Congo at the moment, and there are important differences. The continuity is that there is still an enormous amount of anti-Tutsi rhetoric and anti-Tutsi violence in eastern Congo, partly carried out by Hutu militias, some of which are directly connected to the genocide in 1994. If you take a group like the FDLR, for example, much of their top brass and some of their rank and file were perpetrators of the genocide in 1994, and they see the targeting of Tutsi in eastern Congo as a continuation of that genocidal violence.

But that’s not the only factor. There are numerous other dimensions at play, and much of it is political rather than ethnic. This is also a situation that includes the direct involvement of the Rwandan government over the border in eastern DRC through a range of proxy militias and other actors, and that’s about Rwanda trying to maintain a sphere of influence in the wider region. Now, partly that sphere of influence is driven by a desire to protect the Tutsi population. But it’s also about material interests and political power.

I think what’s difficult to unpack in eastern Congo is that all of these different factors come together at different levels. There is a long-standing historical component, there’s an ethnic component, but there’s also a political aspect and a natural resource and material dimension. The danger in a lot of the commentary has been to focus on only one of these factors, and to use that as the primary lens to understand what’s going on, when in fact all of these factors have a really important role to play. That also means that the responses to this conflict can’t be simplistic. They have to be as complex as the conflict itself.

This is not a conflict that can be resolved militarily, although that’s the hope of many of the international and regional powers who are putting armed forces on the ground . There’s only a political solution here, and that involves all of the different actors in the region coming together to identify the key reasons why this conflict is happening and finding ways through that via dialogue. That includes high-level negotiations between Kagame’s government in Kigali and Félix Tshisekedi’s government in Kinshasa — unless the two governments sit down and find a way to balance this situation, we are looking at a long-standing conflict.

There also has to be deep work at the community level, because there are these local ethnic antagonisms. We are seeing very worrying rhetoric against the local Tutsi population and violent attacks against the Tutsi population. Much of that is driven by local issues around land and natural resources. There has to be a peace and a reconciliation process that drops below the level of national elites and starts to address those community dynamics.

All of this has to happen in a highly structured and systematic form. But at the moment, we’re seeing simplistic prescriptions being given for a very complicated conflict. We have to move the debate towards a deeper understanding of what’s going on and a response that is appropriate to that complexity.

The genocide in Rwanda was one of the events that served to legitimize the concept of humanitarian intervention and propelled forward arguments around the “responsibility to protect” (R2P), endorsed by the UN General Assembly in 2005. What difference, if any, has this principle made in international law and politics since?

I think the “responsibility to protect” principle needs a major rethink. It initially was motivated by a desire to have no more Rwandas, and came particularly out of the UN’s embarrassment and shame over its failures to intervene in 1994. So, it comes out of a necessary reckoning by the international community over those mistakes.

From the late 1990s into the early 2000s, there was momentum around not just this idea that the UN and states had a responsibility to protect civilians, but that there needed to be more efficient forms of intervention. There needed to be rapid response forces, particularly within the UN, that could respond to conflicts as they were beginning. There was a lot of very important, very systematic thinking about how to how to have more effective international interventions, but that agenda got hijacked by the “War on Terror” and the military interventions by Western forces in Iraq and Afghanistan. Then, more recently, this agenda was hijacked in the way that R2P was invoked in the NATO bombing campaign in Libya. That was seen as an R2P intervention, nominally to protect civilians on the ground, but in fact to pursue the military and the political objectives of the NATO states.

Hence, in 2024, we’ve reached a point where many local communities, many states, simply do not believe that R2P is an honest principle. Over the last ten or 15 years, the view has developed that R2P is a tool used by powerful governments to justify their military interventions in weaker states. It was an important idea, but is now seen as a very cynical tool.

Thus, there has to be a rethink. There has to be a way of keeping that spirit from 1994 and understanding the mistakes there, but thinking about intervention not just in more efficient and effective ways, but also in more ethical ways geared towards the needs of civilians in conflict zones and not simply the interests of powerful states.