The 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide offers an opportune moment to reflect on the horrific events of 1994, and honor the countless victims and survivors who still carry the collective trauma of mass murder. Remembering these deliberate efforts to extinguish an entire ethnic community should not only give us pause, but also encourage our atrocity prevention community, including humanitarian and peace organizations around the world, to rethink how such failures of humanity can guide us forward, beyond "Never Again" slogans.

An Egyptian peacekeeper with the African Union-United Nations Hybrid Operation in Darfur (UNAMID) boards an armoured personal carrier (APC) before an evening patrol to Hali Mussa.  The 860 troops of UNAMID’s Egyptian contingent are based in Um Kadada, North Darfur, and are tasked with providing security in the area which since 2010, has been free of clashes and camps for those displaced by unrest.
Photo Credit: UN Photo/Albert Gonzalez Farran

Once the plane of President Juvénal Habyarimana was shot down on April 6, 1994, as it prepared to land in Kigali, the decapitated Hutu regime moved to exploit the resulting leadership vacuum. In response to the perceived existential threat posed by the armed Tutsi opposition moving towards the capital, it adopted a genocidal strategy. Government forces and militias, armed with grenades and machetes, walked house-to-house to slaughter the Tutsi population and Hutu moderates, in an effort to purify the country. Despite the warning signs and urgent requests for reinforcements and protection, U.N. peacekeepers and foreign diplomats in-country stood by, lacking the authority, capacity, or home-capital buy-in to halt the killing of roughly 800,000 Rwandan citizens in 100 days. The genocide against the Tutsi population came to a halt as the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) took control of Kigali in July 1994, taking the lives of tens of thousands of Hutus en route, and committing to violent retribution both within Rwanda and neighboring Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo). The RPF rebel leader, Paul Kagame, assumed the presidency in 2000, and has remained in power ever since.

From former U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, who called the Rwandan genocide "100 percent American responsibility," to one million handcrafted bones spread over the National Mall in Washington, the peacebuilding community has approached commemorations as opportunities to recount the horrid images of mass carnage, assign blame, and lament the lack of institutional and political progress to date.

One decade ago, references to Darfur served to illustrate the continued lack of political will in the face of ongoing mass violence, and the immoral inconsistency of our international response. This week, Syria or the Central African Republic will serve as a current analog, highlighting the challenge posed by state-sanctioned incitement and mass murder, the risk of international indifference or impasse, and the impact of impunity.

As an atrocity prevention community, we can do better.

The first step towards constructive commemoration is to recognize the deplorable logic behind the inconsistent international responseto mass violence, as powerful countries seem to act more decisively to save innocent lives in some countries than in others. The extent of diplomatic investment or the likeliness of a forceful "Libya-style" response to imminent or ongoing mass killing depends on rarely-acknowledged factors that don't have anything to do with how grave the humanitarian crisis might be: the power of the individuals orchestrating or executing the killings; the strategic value of the region; the support for international action from the region; the level of international media coverage and popular domestic appetite to intervene; and what military or financial resources are available.

Prior to 1994, Rwanda had never been of more than marginal concern to Washington. As now-Ambassador to the U.N. Samantha Power noted in her book on the genocide, A Problem from Hell, as the tragic events unfolded, Pentagon staff officers scrambled to find expertise on the central African country, questioning whether the warring parties consisted of "Hutu and Tutsi or Tutu and Hutsi." The memories of the Black Hawk Down incident in Somalia six months earlier were still vivid and strengthened both popular and political resistance to humanitarian intervention by the United States. "Anytime you mentioned peacekeeping in Africa, the crucifixes and garlic would come up on every door," one U.S. official said, according to Power. Beyond individual efforts to evacuate expatriate communities, there was little international or regional concern about the fate of the Rwandan population.

In an ideal world, the urgency and gravity of a humanitarian crisis would trump realpolitik. But double standards are an unpleasant reality of international politics, driven by the sum of national interests, and will remain part and parcel of the international response to man-made humanitarian crises. Recollecting the horrific images and stories from the Rwandan genocide may have emotional resonance, but the pressures of morality, legal obligation, or guilt aren't enough to improve the international response to ongoing atrocities in the 21st century.

This shouldn't lead to defeatism, because we can reduce the inconsistency of the international community. By identifying the policy measures that work, and those with minimal or negative impact, we can help local partners and international policymakers develop more effective responses to the earliest warning signs of mass atrocities. And early prevention is not just a question of alleviating the guilt of Western policymakers: It serves our national interest, precluding the need for costly interventions after the bloodshed has become too much to bear.

The community of organizations working to prevent genocide and atrocities, located both in the developed world and in countries that are at risk for mass violence, is dominated by advocacy groups attempting to raise awareness and build local capacity. The memory of Rwanda should move us beyond moral outcries, toward the development of empirically tested policy instruments and efforts to quantify the benefits of preventive action. Evidence-based research, to see whether, say, diplomatic pressure or financial sanctions would be more effective in a given situation than police reform or media training, would help us along the way. The development of practical training courses for policymakers, featuring realistic scenario-exercises, would allow U.S. embassies, aid missions, and armed forces to identify risk factors early on and design effective responses before the eruption of mass violence.

Since Rwanda, consecutive U.S. administrations have expressed their frustration about our collective inability to prevent genocide and crimes against humanity. In 2012 remarks at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, President Barack Obama expressed his commitment to "build the capacity of key partners," and "work with our allies to ensure that the burdens of atrocity prevention and response are appropriately shared." The creation of an inter-agency Atrocities Prevention Board illustrates just how much the issue has been prioritized and offers the humanitarian voice an important seat at the decision-making table.

But more effective cooperation among countries across different continents requires stronger diplomatic, economic, and military role for regional organizations. It also requires like-minded allies to consult more frequently and plan for atrocity contingencies, both around the corner, and over the horizon. But beyond modest support for regional organizations or U.N. operations in conflict-prone regions, there has been little progress on this kind of multilateral, anticipatory collaboration.

Preventing the next genocide, in other words, means building the infrastructure to deal with one before it starts. "Never Again" just isn't enough.

This story was originally published on FP's Peace Channel, a collaboration between Foreign Policy and the U.S. Institute of Peace.

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