Harry Verhoeven: UN Report on Rwanda Genocide Threatens Stability in Central Africa

Roundup: Historians' Take

[Harry Verhoeven is a doctoral student at the Department of Politics and International Relations, University of Oxford. He heads the Oxford University China-Africa Network (OUCAN) is co-authoring a research project on the aftermath of the 1994 Rwandan genocide, “Point of No Return. Kabila, the Rwandan Patriotic Front and the Internal Dynamics of the Great African War.”]

Until recently, President Paul Kagame and his Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) were the international community’s aid darling, heralded for their role in stopping the 1994 genocide that claimed the lives of as many as one million Rwandans. They now stand accused of a long list of crimes.

A recently-leaked UN report accuses the RPF of atrocities “that could be classified as genocide” in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) in 1996-1997 – mass murdering tens of thousands of Hutu refugees. The regime’s legitimacy and its leaders’ individual criminal responsibility are now being contested.

But how wise is it to swap one set of dangerous simplifications for another? Is Rwanda the model of progress and reconciliation, or is Kagame’s RPF the genocidal eye of Central African storms? And what does this tell us about international intervention in a region with an immensely troubled past?
Historical context

Rwanda has long suffered from powerful imagery projected onto it by self-declared friends of the country. The analyses of socio-political trends often reveal more about the “expert” expounding his truths than about what actually happens to Rwanda’s people.

A century ago, Belgian colonialists, biased by the Flemish-Walloon cleavage that undermined nation-statehood back home, portrayed the complex Hutu-Tutsi relationship as fundamentally irreconcilable, mixing racist theories with political expediency.

During the cold war, the regime of Hutu President Juvénal Habyarimana was the “enfant chéri” of development practitioners, the Catholic Church, and French President François Mitterrand. A 20-year dictatorship was deemed “a peaceful outpost” in the “dangerous” African jungle. When Mr. Habyarimana was assassinated on April 6, 1994, the regime’s core members unleashed a genocidal hell against Tutsis and some moderate Hutus.

Habyarimana’s old allies disbelievingly went into shock (Brussels) and continued support for the Hutu extremists through denial (Paris). Seeing their illusions go up in smoke was something Belgium and France handled with great difficulty, but with terrible consequences for Rwandans themselves....

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