Rwanda’s killing fields: A legacy of imperialism

At the 2001 Labour Party conference Tony Blair set out his "moral commitment" to the world. He told the delegates that if Rwanda happened again today we would have a moral duty to act to stop it. However, the British government actually contributed to the slaughter by reducing the peacekeeping forces on the ground, giving a diplomatic green light to the killers to continue and preventing others from stopping it. Other governments have an even worse record.

It is now ten years since the extremist Hutu power elements of the Rwandan military, business and landowning sectors launched a genocide that lasted three months and left around a million people dead, mostly Tutsi people killed because of their perceived "race".
But as James Radcliffe explains, the actions of the Western powers not only failed to prevent the slaughter but actually contributed to this holocaust.

A legacy of imperialism

The sheer violence involved is difficult to overstate. Victims were hacked to death with machetes, their Achilles cut to stop them running away. The hate radio station RTLMC (Radio-Television Libre des Mille Collines), set up by the architects of the genocide to spread its hate, would read out lists of people to be killed every morning, and members of the interhamwe militias would consider mass murder as "going to work".


Victims were massacred in the churches where they had sought sanctuary and women were raped before having their limbs chopped off and bleeding to death. The killing was remarkably ’efficient’, with 800,000-1,000,000 people massacred in a three-month period. A killing rate more ’efficient’ than the Nazis had during the holocaust.

The genocide was orchestrated and planned by a group known as the Akazu, which contained members of the Hutu government and military. This group was opposed to the Arusha accords signed in 1993 that had ended the civil war between the Tutsi RPF (Rwandan Patriotic front) and the Hutu dictatorship of president Habyarimana.

However, planning for the genocide had probably started earlier with the setting up of RTLMC to demonise the Tutsi, the compiling of lists of persons deemed "enemies of the country" and the importing of large quantities of arms.

The Akazu organised interhamwe militia groups around the country and distributed arms supposedly as part of a new defence initiative.

Each group was trained in how to use the weapons and how to get groups of people to concentrate in a specific area for maximum efficiency. The government established a register of Tutsis towards the end of 1993, a register then used by the interhamwe to identify victims. Tutsis were also required to carry identity cards.

Role of UN

By January 1994 the United Nations (UN) peacekeeping mission led by General Romeo Dallaire received detailed intelligence on the military preparations for genocide. Dallaire was sufficiently concerned by this to report it to his seniors and start demanding that his small peacekeeping force was strengthened to prevent the genocide.

In April 1994 the shooting down of President Habyarimana’s plane was blamed on the RPF and used as a pretext for the genocide to begin. RTLMC started calling on Hutus to kill Tutsis, and broadcast lists of people to be killed. It is still unknown who actually shot the plane down, France recently claimed it was the RPF. However there is also some evidence that Hutu extremists were responsible.

Western powers

The role of the West in this genocide is still largely unexplored. It involves many factors. Firstly is the role of the IMF and World Bank. Rwanda was under a structural adjustment programme and receiving money from the World Bank.

Observers from the World Bank were regularly visiting Kigali in 1993 and cannot have failed to notice how the money was being used to finance the purchase of arms. Yet only once was concern at the country being flooded with arms raised, in the form of an IMF letter to Habyarimana asking him to cut military spending (and probably spending on education etc as well).

These weapons were being purchased from whatever sources the Rwandan government could find, including Egypt which had agreed several arms deals from when Boutros Boutros Ghali (secretary-general of the UN, 1992-97) was Egyptian Foreign Minister. This was in addition to the military aid and training the Rwandan army was receiving from France.

Secondly, is the role of the US and UK governments at the UN. Despite knowing that genocide was planned from January 1994 when Dallaire began to send intelligence reports back to UN HQ, his requests for a strengthened peacekeeping force were rejected. Instead, the UK and US endeavoured to disrupt the force by depleting its numbers and not providing it with sufficient equipment, rendering it largely useless.

At the start of the genocide Dallaire was asking for reinforcements and permission to protect Tutsis that had fled to the UN compound. However, this was refused and states that provided peacekeepers were withdrawing them.

Meanwhile, the governments of the US/UK were continuing to insist that what was occurring in Rwanda was a minor ethnic conflict and there was no need to do anything. There was not even any token condemnation. Such actions must have been interpreted as a green light to the killers to continue.

Moreover, there are the actions of the French government to consider. French imperialism had long had a strategic interest in Central Africa, dating back to the colonial period. In the case of Rwanda it had backed president Habyarima’s one party Hutu dictatorship since 1975, providing military aid, training and diplomatic support.

During the genocide France launched operation Turquoise, officially a military operation to evacuate French ex-pats, but unofficially an operation that greatly assisted the interhamwe by preventing the RPF’s advance from Uganda that was resisting the Genocide. This also allowed the interhamwe to continue their massacres under the protection of a foreign military force.


Finally, there is the historical legacy of colonialism to consider.

It was the Belgian colonial administration that had first created the Hutu/Tutsi dichotomy with a census in 1933. Prior to this census there existed no formal division between the groups. They spoke the same language, shared the same religion, were spread across different social classes and had a shared culture. Which makes Rwanda’s history even more tragic.

It was only with colonialism that one group was favoured over the other (Tutsi prior to the late 1950s, then Hutu) and the ethnic distinction became important in Rwandan society and politics.

There is of course far more detail to consider, and in a short article like this it is impossible to fully detail events. Furthermore, there is a lot of information still unknown about this genocide. The culture of secrecy at the UN and in the UK ensures it will unfortunately be decades before the whole truth emerges.

However what we do know should be widely publicised and those who took the decisions made to account for their actions.

So next time an apologist for imperialism uses the Rwandan genocide as an example of "we did nothing and look what happened," remember that actually they did do something. They made things worse.

From The Socialist, paper of the Socialist Party, cwi in England and Wales

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April 2004