April 7th commemorated the 27th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide that claimed the lives of 800,000 people in 3 months. In 2019, the French government launched the Duclert Commission, an investigation to examine France’s role in the tragedy more thoroughly. Last month, the Commission displayed its findings, unveiling some worrying details about Paris’ complicity in Rwandan politics in post-colonial times and its decisive role in the genocide of 1994.
To fully understand the nature of the conflict, we must dive into Rwanda’s colonial past. The Germans first colonized the country in the late 19th century and then handed it over to Belgium after World War 1. The imperial power outsourced governance of Rwanda by appointing Tutsis, an ethnic minority, to rule over a Hutu majority as well as other ethnic minorities such as the Twa. Belgian indirect rule lasted for decades and forged deep social grievances among rival ethnic groups in Rwanda. Imperial rulers deemed Tutsi’s as ethnically superior because of their ancestry and physical traits (tall and thin) instead of Hutus (shorter and muscular). Inevitably, this systematized ethnic inequality created Hutu resentment.
In 1959, Belgian rulers even encouraged the Hutu to engage in a violent anti-Tutsi campaign to overthrow the minority government because true political power would always remain in Imperial hands. Therefore, the Tutsi-Hutu rivalry was a Belgian colonial construct aimed at disunifying the country to facilitate colonial rule.
Following the insurrection, waves of Tutsi refugees fled to Uganda and formed the Rwandan Patriotic Forces (RPF) led by current President Paul Kagame. In Rwanda, the extremist Hutu government killed thousands of ethnic Tutsis over many decades. Meanwhile, Kagame’s forces started gaining support from Yoweri Museveni by fighting along with his forces. Uganda became the RPF’s main base of operations to organize the overthrow of the Hutu government’s Forces armées Rwandaises (FAR). In 1990, the RPF launched an insurgency into Rwanda against a disorganized FAR, culminating in 1993 with the Arusha peace accords.
In April 1994, hostilities returned when Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana’s plane was shot down. The Akazu, a Hutu extremist group, took over interim power of the government and started to systematically kill ethnic Tutsis as well as moderate Hutus in Rwanda. Although it remains unclear which group was responsible for the takedown, the Akazu were suspected considering the peace agreement and the unfolding of events in the days following the strike.
However, the genocide that would occur years after could have been avoided. Indeed, the UN Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR) denied Lieutenant-General Roméo Dallaire the necessary troops to prevent what he judged to be an imminent threat of planned genocide. In the 1990s, the UN prioritized containing the war in Eastern Europe; it had 70,000 troops in Yugoslavia while only 2,500 were appointed in Rwanda and were never given the mandate to act. The reluctance of the UN security council to act in Rwanda while thousands were being massacred each day signalled to the FAR that they could continue performing genocide.
During the three months of slaughter, major Western powers like France and the United States stayed silent, possibly by fear of intervening under the 1948 UN Genocide Convention or avoiding another instance of a public backlash similar to the one endured the year before in Somalia.
France’s role in Rwanda
When Rwanda became independent in 1962, the country immediately fell into France’s African orbit of influence. During post-colonial times, France maintained many underground patron-client relationships with corrupt French-speaking African leaders such as Mobutu Sese Seko (Congo), Ali Bongo (Gabon) and Juvénal Habyarimana (Rwanda). For instance, French politicians such as President Mitterand and his son were convicted of smuggling arms into Angola in the early 2000s.
In the early 1990s, France armed and trained the FAR because it was in their interest to keep Habyarimana, a crucial French client, in power. During the genocide, France maintained support for the Rwandan government and helped the FAR’s fight against Kagame’s PRF since Habyarimana depended on French military support to carry out operations. France reportedly labelled the RPF as the “Khmer Noir” (referring to Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge of the late 1970s), even though it was the FAR and allied militias (e.g. the Interahamwe) whom they supported that ended up committing genocide. The French were aware of the growing possibility of genocide against the Tutsis and yet continued to support them while vilifying the RPF.
While the RPF was gaining back territory in Rwanda, the Hutu extremist forces of the FAR were more focused on perpetuating the genocide across the country. Towards the latter stages of the massacre, France launched Opération Turquoise, which established a safe zone in Southwest Rwanda to safeguard their Hutu genocidaire allies and allow them to safely escape into the DRC (Zaire) to the West. Over a million Hutus were able to cross the border, and many of them perpetuated the genocide against ethnic Tutsis in Zaire, dragging the country into a war that would last for years.
In Paris, the Duclert Commission unveiled that the genocide was “a French political, institutional and moral failure.” For instance, it revealed “institutional abuses covered up by the political authority or in the absence of political control,” the neglect of the rules of engagement and legal procedures, as well as an “ethnicist” reading of Rwanda’s affairs.
The report criticizes French President François Mitterrand’s deluded policy proposals for Rwanda. He observed Rwandan politics through the lens of a post-colonial rivalry between France and Britain on the African continent. He portrayed the genocidal Hutus lead by Habyarimana positively because of their affinity towards the French language and demonized the RPF’s “Ugandan-Tutsi threat” based in an English-speaking country. Mitterrand then used this flawed thinking to personally conduct foreign policy in Rwanda rather than passing through the conventional and more accountable government channels.
Subsequently, Mitterrand ignored clear radical and genocidal signs displayed by the Hutu extremists whom they continuously supported. However, the Duclert Commission rejects the idea of France being complicit in the genocide; that is, French troops never intended to assist or directly participating in the genocide. It also denies the accusations made against France’s Opération Turquoise in June 1994, specifying that the command allowed many Tutsis to escape with their lives. Considering the operation allowed thousands of Hutu genocidaires to escape justice and continue the massacre into the DRC, I remain unsatisfied by the Commission’s conclusions.
Today, Rwanda is politically stable and holds some of the continent’s highest economic growth rates. Yet, the country remains undemocratic because of the RPF’s reluctance to give up power or acknowledge its political rivals. Still, there remains an enormous amount of diplomatic work to be done to restore the relationship between Paris and Kigali.
Ultimately, the Rwandan genocide is another example of how perpetuating a narrative along ethnic lines over many decades creates social grievances that have the potential to spark violent confrontations. However, all of it could have certainly been prevented, and the consequences of the violence are still being felt today. The United Nations and the international community failed to act on signs of looming slaughter, while western powers denied the Tutsi genocide as it was happening. This humanitarian catastrophe is a reminder to the international community and the United Nations of its failure towards the people of Rwanda.
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