An Historian

historical stuff by Gareth Millward


1994 – The Rwandan Genocide

1994 – The Rwandan Genocide

6 April 1994 – Kigali

When a aeroplane carrying the President was shot down over Rwanda’s capital, Kigali, the government responded in brutal fashion. The ruling classes, dominated by an ethnic group called the Hutu, began systematically raping and murdering Tutsis.

The massacre, which lasted around three months, was part of a bloody civil war. Plenty has been written about the genocide, and (as with other topics in this series) I doubt I will be able to do the subject justice. Thankfully, as a historian I can twist the question “what can you tell me about Rwanda ’94?” and talk about something completely different.

Two historically interesting issues surround the narrative of Rwanda. The first is “what constitutes a genocide”? Is it simply a question of numbers? Does there have to be an overt racial element? What about religion or nationality? And do the perpetrators have to be racially homogeneous?

The second is “should ‘we’ have done more to stop it”? Is military intervention in a foreign conflict ever acceptable? Is there such thing as “neutrality”? Indeed, is non-intervention a concious and dangerous act in itself? At what point does a stronger power have to put itself at risk to protect the most vulnerable?

These are questions worth asking, because in the twenty years since both have been prevalent in British politics – and have therefore had a big impact upon the world in which I live.

The term “genocide” or “ethnic cleansing” has been attached to a number of atrocities in the twentieth century. Because it is so emotive, there are some very sensitive issues to confront before using it in any serious assessment of history. For the alleged perpetrators, it carries a stigma that very few would be willing to admit – certainly not if that group still holds power to this day. For the alleged victims, there is great political capital to be made – either from seeking political redress after the fact, or in trying to secure military support from an outside power (on which more later). This is not, of course, to suggest that Kurds, Tutsis, Armenians or Jews have “played the victim” – rather, it shows the various factors that lead to people on both sides becoming so defensive of their relative positions.

Some cases of denialism are less convincing than others. There is a great industry of holocaust deniers, most notably in the work David Irving. A German “historian”, Irving used a number of German documents from the Nazi Party to claim that Hitler did not order the final solution, and questions whether any systematic attempt to wipe out Jewish people ever existed.1 He was proved an incompetent liar in court.2 But even a cursory glance at the seedier sides of the internet shows that this sort of attitude persists.

Attacking National-Socialist Germany is, of course, easier because of their utter defeat in the Second World War. Even if people will defend them, there is no need for any major company or nation state to negotiate the truth. Turkey, on the other hand, is a different matter. The Turkish Government completely denies that the murder of Armenians at the end of World War One constitutes a genocide. Its allies, including the United States, often try to find euphemistic terms for the killing.3

What’s interesting here is that there is no denial that killing took place. Just as there is little doubt that Saddam Hussein gassed Kurdish people in Northern Iraq; or that there were thousands of people murdered in ethnic wars in Yugoslavia. Rather their significance is “downgraded” from genocide to less emotive terms. Hussein and Milošević were (no longer) useful allies for Western governments – and were eventually put on trial (with dubious success and/or impartiality).

Turkey, however, as first a safety zone against the encroachment of Communism in Eastern Europe, and then as a secular buffer against unstable dictatorships in the Middle East, is not a country to piss off. Despite the opinions of many historians with more knowledge than I – and, indeed, Barack Obama himself4 – the Office of the POTUS will not say that what happened was a genocide.

While not universally considered a genocide, the potato famine in Ireland is seen by some as such. (<a href="">Source</a>)More subtle are mass killings that, for a variety of reasons, are not considered genocides. In some cases this is because the ethnic grouping of the victims is unclear. In others, deaths are caused by indirect means, such as the inadvertent or deliberate exacerbation of famine and abject poverty. For instance, the famine that struck Ireland in the nineteenth century was fuelled by British agricultural and taxation policy, but is not generally considered a genocide. Forced collectivisation of farms in Ukraine under Stalin, similarly, border on the definition, but are not usually treated as such.

Then there are the practices of European Empires which killed millions, but are usually couched in other terms (if they are confronted at all). The famous stories of smallpox-riddled blankets being “donated” to Native Americans, for example;5 or the systematic destruction of traditional trade networks leading to famines in the Indian subcontinent.6

The United Nations Security Council. (Source)

The United Nations Security Council. (Source)

OK. So even if there are questions about whether a conflict is necessarily a “genocide”, what responsibility do others have to intervene? One of the main criticisms about Rwanda has been that Western Nations could have prevented a catastrophe if they had come to the aid of the Tutsi rebels.7 Since then, military interventions have taken place (or been proposed) in Bosnia, Libya, Iraq, Syria, Sierra Leone and others.

Much like with the question of Europe, the split in opinion in places like Britain has not been across the traditional left/right dividing line. There is a strong anti-war contingent on the left, often painted as anti-imperialism. Opposition to Vietnam and nuclear weapons also extends to an overtly pacifist approach to international relations. On the other hand, there is also a group that professes “solidarity” with common people in foreign countries unable to defend themselves from the forces of dictatorial regimes. Thus, there was left-wing support for Iraq and Libya in recent years; and more famously the Spanish Civil War in the 1930s.

Intervention is not always well-received by the electorate of the intervening nation. (Source)

Intervention is not always well-received by the electorate of the intervening nation. (Source)

On the right, there are the “hawks” who see military intervention as a way of ensuring stability in regions of the world that might hurt Western interests. Either through direct conflict and terrorism, or through disrupting potential markets and supplies of raw materials. More cynically, some see it as a boon for the arms trade. Then there are isolationists who believe that problems in the rest of the world are not our concern. Money spent on wars should be kept at home, with poorer countries left to sort out their own messes. Less Machiavellian is the belief that intervention has unknown consequences, and may lead to power vacuums that, in turn, create bigger and longer-lasting problems down the line. This is a concern shared by the anti-war left, too.

It is certainly the case that intervention tends to happen when there is a benefit to the intervening state.8 But it would be wrong to describe this as solely to do with “oil” (as in the case of Iraq) – there were also genuine humanitarian concerns from the British people about the safety of civilians in a number of conflicts.

Rwanda, then, brings into focus many foreign policy question which have yet to be resolved. After the Cold War, this sort of global politics seems to have intensified, and been a key part of my adolescent and adult life. No doubt it will continue to reverberate 30 years hence.

  1. For more on this pleasant individual, see ‘David Irving’, Wikipedia > (accessed 7 May 2015).
  2. Richard Evans, Telling Lies about Hitler: The Holocaust, History and the David Irving Trial (Verso, 2002).
  3. Chris Bohjalian, ‘Why does Turkey continue to deny Armenian genocide’, The Boston Globe (9 March 2015) < > (accessed 7 May 2015).
  4. AP, ‘Barack Obama will not label 1915 massacre of Armenians a genocide’, The Guardian (22 April 2015, 4:23 BST) < > (accessed 7 May 2015).
  5. K B Patterson and T Runge, ‘Smallpox and the Native American’, American Journal of Medical Science 323(4) (2002), 216-22.
  6. David Arnold, ‘The “discovery” of malnutrition and diet in colonial India’, Indian Economic and Social History Review 31(1) (1994), 1-26.
  7. See, for example, Emily Sciarillo, ‘Genocide in Rwanda: The United Nations’ ability to act from a neoliberal perspective’, Towson University Journal of International Affairs 38(2) (2002), 17-29.
  8. There are dangers in applying this interpretation in all cases, however. See: Philip Spence, ‘Imperialism, anti-imperialism and the problem of genocide, past and present’, History 98(332), 606-22.
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