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Social Justice: Rwandan Genocide

Dr Marco Rimanelli

 The information on these tabs was provided primarily by Dr Marco Rimanelli. (PowerPoint presentation, May 7, 2012)

International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda I

Hutu Rwandan genocidal leaders are on trial at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, in the Rwandan National Court system and the informal Gacaca programme. The International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) is an international court established in November 1994 by the UN Security Council. In 1995 it was located in Arusha, Tanzania, also the location of the African Court on Human and Peoples' Rights. The Security Council called on the tribunal to complete its investigations by the end of 2004, complete all trials by the end of 2009 and finish all work by the end 2014.

The tribunal finished 50 trials and convicted 29 persons. Another 11 trials are in progress with 14 individuals waiting trial in detention and 13 others at large, some dead. The tribunal for the first time established systematic rape as a crime of Genocide: in most cases, the rapes of Tutsi women were accompanied with the intent to mutilate and then kill them as part of a systematic campaign of physical and psychological suffering to destroy Tutsis as an ethnic group.

International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda II

In Rwanda local Gacaca trials are overseen by the government-established National Unity and Reconciliation Commission. Gacaca is a traditional adjudication mechanism at the umudugudu (village) level, whereby the community elects elders as judges and the entire community is present for the case. Recent reports highlight a number of reprisal killings of survivors for giving evidence at Gacaca.

The Gacaca system was modified to try lower-level génocidaires, those who had killed or stolen, but did not organize massacres. Prisoners, dressed in pink, stand trial before members of their community. Judges accord sentences, which vary widely, from returning to prison, to paying back the cost of goods stolen, to working in the fields of families of victims. Gacaca ended in December 2008.


For many, gacaca has been a vehicle for closure, and prisoners' testimonies have helped many families locate victims.

Ethnicity has been formally outlawed in Rwanda, in the effort to promote a culture of healing and unity.

Genocide in Rwanda : A Brief History

On April 6, 1994 – Rwandan President Habyarimana’s plane was shot down over Kigali Airport. This action was the spark for the impending coup and planned genocide. During the next 100 days, the international community complacently stood by as one of the worst genocides in modern history unfolded. There have been always been disagreements between the majority Hutus and minority Tutsis, but the animosity between them has grown substantially since the colonial period.

Genocide memorial site guardian, Danielle Nyirabazungu (pictured in 2004)
Some 800,000 people were killed in Rwanda's genocide in just 100 days

Between April and June 1994, an estimated 800,000 Rwandans were killed in the space of 100 days. Rwandans of the Hutu tribe attacked and killed men, women and children of Tutsi ethnicity, as well as moderate Hutu. "It is estimated that some 200,000 people participated in the perpetration of the Rwandan genocide" [United Human Rights Council].

The Role of the Media: Radio stations and local newspapers were a source of propaganda for anti-Tutsi sentiment. Radio broadcasts inflamed already heightened emotions: Hutus were urged to kill Tutsi, whom they nicknamed "cockroaches." Radio announcers reminded listeners not to take pity on women and children.

The Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF): A highly-disciplined militia of Tutsi soldiers led by Paul Kagame. The genocide ended when the RPF conquered the country. Millions of Hutus fled as refugees in nearby Democratic Republic of the Congo (Zaire), where there were already refugees from other countries.

International Involvement: The focus of the international community was on the UN and NATO roles in Bosnia.

What was happening in Rwanda was either ignored or underestimated. Later, in France and Belgium, the national governmental failure to recognize and intervene forcefully in the Rwandan Genocide sparked deep political self-criticism.

The Role of the U.S. : The White House was extremely hesitant to use the term genocide, due to legal obligations they would have to uphold. When they finally did, most of the killings had already taken place, reaching 800,000/1 million dead.  

"The failure to try to stop Rwanda’s tragedies became one of the greatest regrets of my presidency."  --Bill Clinton, My Life

Historical Background

¡  By XV Century emergence of several African kingdoms in Rwanda/Burundi consolidated in 1800s as the Kingdom of Rwanda after decades of military conquest and administrative consolidation under the minority Tutsis..

¡  1890s-1918 – German colonial territory favoring the Tutsis.

¡  1916 – Belgium secured control of colony and colonized Rwanda & Burundi, confirming local Tutsi minority in power over majority Hutus

¡  1959 –Hutus began rioting against Tutsi power

§  As a result of the violence, many Tutsis escaped to Uganda, Burundi and Tanzania

§  Tutsi refugees in Uganda created the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), led by Paul Kagame

¡  1962 – Belgium grants independence to Rwanda and Burundi, leaving now the majority Hutus in power under President Grégoire Kayibanda.

¡  Kayibanda established quotas to increase the number of Hutu in schools and civil service, penalizing the Tutsi down to 9%, which was their proportion of the population, while high unemployment increased ethnic and political tensions.

¡  Tensions worsened when Hutu General Juvénal Habyarimana, seized power in a 1973 coup.


In 1991, the rebel Tutsi Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), with 6,000 Tutsi soldiers from refugee camps, invaded and started the Rwandan Civil War, which worsened ethnic tensions, as the Hutu feared losing their gains.


Dr Rimanelli's Bibliography

Clinton, Bill. My Life. NY: Knopf, 2004.

Cohen, Jared. One Hundred Days of Silence: America and the Rwanda Genocide. Rowman & Littlefield, 2007.

Gribbin, Robert E. In the Aftermath of Genocide: The U.S. Role in Rwanda. NY: iUniverse, 2007.

Kuperman, Alan J. The Limits of Humanitarian Intervention: Genocide in Rwanda. Washington, D.C.: Brookings Institution Press, 2001.

Rwanda: How the Genocide Happened. BBC News, Dec. 18, 2008.

Snow, Donald M. United States Foreign Policy: Politics Beyond the Water's Edge. 3rd ed. Thompson & Wadsworth, 2005.


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