This past week, the Rwandan capital Kigali marked two decades since the beginning of the 1994 Rwandan Genocide with official commemorations, masses and mourning.
Rwanda’s previous colonial master France, however, has pulled out of the proceedings as a result of Rwandan President Kagame’s mention of the “direct role of Belgium and France in the political preparation for the genocide.”
French and Rwandan relations have been rather frosty since the end of the Genocide, but recent moves seemed to indicate a thaw, including an official visit in 2011 and the first-ever prosecution in France of Rwanda’s ex-spy chief for his role in the genocide.
Generally speaking, governments dislike being blamed for terrible events that happened in other nations, viewing it as petty nationalist politics on the other end. Yet Rwanda’s case is clear.
The Rwandan genocide, in which ethnic Hutu supremacists slaughtered nearly a million of the wealthier minority Tutsi group, was not a one-off event but is built on top of a century-long history of sporadically violent ethnic politics in Rwanda.
The conflict in April 1994 had long been in the works by a group of political elites, including the President and his wife and used the vicious Interahamwe murder squads upon outbreak to restart conflict with exiled Tutsi guerillas. This regime, under President Habyarimana, stockpiled French and Belgian arms.
In the three months of conflict, UN Peacekeeping troops were unable to receive adequate reinforcements to stem the tide of violence, and actually had their troop number cut from 2,500 to 270 within the first three weeks.
International observers were quick to defend the murderous regime, which was increasingly under attack from current President Paul Kagame’s troops. When French peacekeepers finally showed up two months after the conflict had begun, they initially defended the murderous Interahamwe militias and government troops.
As the scale and tide of the genocide became obvious, the French built up their safe zone to shelter fleeing Tutsi refugees. Many members of the falling Hutu regime used their connections to find refuge in France.
Paul Kagame thus has legitimate reasons to blame the French for the genocide, though a “direct” role may be a stretch. Rather, the French empowered a soon-to-be genocidal regime and provided a refuge to known genocidaires.
Yet there is more we can learn from this genocide than merely a reinforcement of the clear reality that ex-colonial powers have continued to support clearly suspect regimes since the end of colonialism; the Rwandan Genocide also offers lessons on international action and the power of benevolent dictatorships in reuniting deeply scarred nations.
American inaction, for its part, largely stemmed from the recently failed mission in Somalia (immortalized in the nationalist film Black Hawk Down), which caused the deaths of 18 U.S. servicemen and dozens of Somalian citizens. Nationalist, racist isolationism also played a part; an unnamed American official, in a conversation with the UN Peacekeeping chief in Rwanda, notoriously stated that it would take the death of 80,000 Rwandan citizens to justify the death of a single American soldier.
Yet this conflict was a domestic one, and the West’s uncaring attitude is less important than Rwandan’s methods of healing. Not only does one never hear the terms Tutsi or Hutu in personal identification in Rwanda today, but Paul Kagame’s dictatorial development state has had immense success in uniting the nation under a booming economy.
That being said, justice is still too often one-sided, and reconciliation has also come through NGOs such as Association Modeste et Innocent (Modest and Innocent Association), whom counsel victims and perpetrators, leading up to a personal apology and other act of kindness by the perpetrator.
In 1996, Bill Clinton said, “Never again must we be shy in the face of the evidence.” Inaction in the countless conflicts that have happened since, such as in the Central African Republic and Syria, indicate that such rhetoric reflects a soft yearning for peace, rather than a concrete will in support of intervention.