Last Monday the world remembered one of the most terrible events of the late 20th Century. The date marked 20 years since the start of the Rwandan genocide when in just 100 days approximately 800,000 ethnic Tutsi and their Hutu and Twa sympathisers were massacred. It was a massacre where neighbour turned on neighbour and basic weapons including machetes and clubs were used with devastating effect. Although one might suggest that the acts of murder looked primordial the genocide had a variety of very modern and global aspects. Those who planned the genocide were about to lose out from a power-sharing peace treaty and democratic elections. A United Nations (UN) peacekeeping force was on the ground leading up to and during the genocide and yet was left powerless to stop it by the global powers and UN bureaucracy which governed the mission. The local media, particularly the notorious Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines, was used to stir up ethnic hatred and then direct those carrying out the killings to their targets. Finally at a global level the media treated the horror of the genocide with gross inadequacy preferring the story of Nelson Mandela’s election victory in South Africa or when Rwanda was covered the narratives were those of civil war and refugees rather than genocide.
It was in this climate that the rebel group the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) defeated the old government which had helped orchestrate the killings and stopped the genocide. This is the same RPF which still runs the country today. The RPF has certainly created a new Rwanda but its experience of government has led to divided opinion on the country. Supporters have made much of the government’s ability to maintain stability and oversee a degree of reconciliation whilst delivering impressive economic growth. The RPF’s critics point to an authoritarian streak with regards to dissent and several years of devastating intervention and interference in the neighbouring Democratic Republic of Congo. Writing about this division is not particularly new and over the past week it is easy to observe in the world’s media. The Guardian carried a piece by Tony Blair which highlighted reductions in poverty, crime and malaria and increased investment and a new health care system in the country. In France the media quickly picked up on the absence of French ministers and diplomats from commemoration ceremonies in Rwanda after a diplomatic spat and new revelations about France’s role in the genocide. Meanwhile the BBC remembered the role of the RPF in the conflict in Congo while several outlets across the world addressed a disturbing pattern of assassinations and disappearances of Rwandan opponents of the government living outside of the country and ongoing concerns about authoritarianism within the country.
The commemoration of the genocide and coverage of it has given us a chance to reflect on Rwanda’s history: on the genocide itself and the successes achieved by the RPF and the criticisms of their rule. It is important that policy makers, commentators and global citizens take a moment to remember the horrific events of 1994 and other dark moments associated with Rwanda’s trajectory. However, our reflection should not stop there. As I argued at the outset of this post the genocide had many modern and global elements and these should also be reflected upon. We must take the time to ask ourselves serious questions about the world as a whole. Has the international community made any progress in addressing mass violence in the aftermath of the UN’s failure in 1994? Has the global media improved its coverage of Africa in general and war, atrocities and communal conflict across the world over the last 20 years? And finally how should international actors engage with countries like Rwanda who are regional allies and members of the Commonwealth which display encouraging signs of stability and economic growth yet at the same time exhibit internal repression and a sometimes violent foreign policy? Our reflection on the Rwandan genocide must thus be first a tribute to its victims, a remembrance of the horrors of 1994 and finally a contemplation of whether the lessons of mistakes that were made have truly been learned. In doing this we can honour the dead and ensure that the mantra ‘Never again’ holds fast.