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The Rwandan Genocide: Overview

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Published: Mon, 15 May 2017

During the Rwandan genocide in 1994 about one million Tutsi and Hutu opposition members were slaughtered by the extremist Hutu government the Hutu, the majority ethnic group in Rwanda. Their aim was to exterminate the Tutsi, the minority ethnic group which comprised of only about 25% of the population. In order to discuss the source of the Rwandan genocide it is important to analyse the nature of the concept so that it can be applied with the aim of establishing why the genocide took place when it did and whether an ancient ethnic hatred was the origin of the Rwandan genocide.

Genocide is an essentially contested concept that is hard to define. Horowitz states that “is empirically ubiquitous and politically troublesome,” because there are both limited and extensive classifications of the term. [1] The narrow interpretation of genocide states that “genocide is almost always a premeditated act calculated to achieve the end of its perpetrators through mass murder.” [2] Horowitz detects that a core principle is that “genocide must be conducted with the approval of, if not direct intervention by the state apparatus” as part of a political policy. [3] Chalk and Jonassohn go on to say that genocide is “one-sided mass killing.” They point out that “one-sided mass killing is also essential in order to exclude from the analys[is] the casualties of war.” [4] The broader definition of genocide according to Chalk and Jonassohn can also include “the destruction of a culture without an attempt to physically destroy its bearers,” which suggests that genocide is a more common occurrence. [5] Consistent with this broad definition, the United Nations Convention on Genocide defined genocide as “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, such as: killing member of the group. Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on a group conditions of life calculated to being about physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measure intended to prevent births within a group; forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.” [6] The expansiveness of the UN’s definition is itself a function of the ambiguity associated with the operationalisation of this term in the international policy field.

A key feature of the definitions of genocide is the decisive role the state plays in marginalizing and exterminating an ethnic, racial or religious group. For the purpose of this essay, the narrow definition i.e. “one sided mass killing in which a state or other authority intends to destroy a group,” will be used. [7] This essay argues that the Rwandan genocide was caused by a combination of political, social, economic and international factors and not solely the result of ancient ethnic hatred. It supports the views of Totten, Parsons and Charny who argue that “contrary to the image conveyed by the media, there is nothing in the historical record to suggest a kind of tribal meltdown rooted in ‘deep seated antagonisms,’ or ‘longstanding atavistic hatreds’.” [8] While ethnic tensions contributed to the injustices administered to the minority groups in this devastating event, to reduce the cause of the genocide to ancient ethnic rivalry is simplistic given the historical and contemporary evidence on the subject. Historical events such as colonialism and the civil war created long lasting ethnic tensions. The conflict may not have followed had political and socio-economic circumstances not been exacerbated through the use of propaganda and the ethnic rivalry concocted during colonialism.

Ethnic tensions were clearly rooted in colonialism. According to Horowitz “One of the fundamental characteristics of nineteenth century European imperialism was its systematic destruction of communities outside the ‘mother country’.” [9] Rwanda had been a German and Belgium colony. The Germans saw the Tutsi as the more “superior race, different from the majority of common and savage ‘negroes’,” because their physical features when compared to the Hutus appeared to bear more resemblance to European features, therefore they were born rulers. [10] As a result they were educated and given jobs in the military and public administration while the Hutus were relegated to menial tasks. This created resentment towards the Tutsis among the Hutu which was further exacerbated when Rwanda became a Belgian colony. Under Belgian imperial rule the Tutsis and Hutus were all given identity cards indicating which ethnic group they belonged to. The strict classification system further heightened the distinction between the two groups and the construction of these separate identities in conjunction with propaganda methods became a main part in inciting ethnic hatred. Mamdani observes that “these identities were the fault lines along which political violence exploded. The violence started with colonial pacification which took on genocidal proportions.” [11] This also supports the claim that the Rwandan genocide was partly rooted in colonialism. The combination of resentment and the segregation between Tutsi and Hutu contributed significantly to the ethnic tension that existed during the Hutu government’s rule. However the development of ethnic tension during the colonial years did not necessarily have to lead to genocide.

In addition to the ethic divisions created during colonialism, propaganda in the post-independence period further aggravated ethnic tensions. The Tutsi were portrayed as foreigners in Rwanda by the Hutu government through a successful propaganda campaign. Melvern explains that according to the Hutu the Tutsi were “proud, arrogant, tricky and untrustworthy,” describing them as “aliens,” and “cockroaches.” [12] The Hutu regime created a stereotype using specific language on national radio broadcasts (e.g. Radio Télévision Libre des Mille Collines) and in printed media which the Hutu extremists used to incite ethnic hatred. Totten, Parsons and Charny note that through the use of language “the enemy was demonised, [and] made the incarnation of evil,” which dehumanised the Tutsi and contributed to the willingness of numerous Hutus to participate in genocide. [13] In direct contrast with the Tutsi the Hutu people were depicted as “modest, honest, loyal, independent and impulsive.” [14] In doing this the Hutu government created collective memories from colonialism that historically the Hutu had always been enslaved and mistreated by the Tutsi and their foreign allies. This validated the Hutu extremist policies and violence but also created resentment which was intended to fuel the already festering hatred. Again, we see that as in the colonial era, the political system and the ideology on which it is based contributed significantly to conflict in the society. Though ethnic tensions existed, these influences contributed to climax of ethnic hatred in 1994.

The portrayal of Tutsi people as outsiders was restricted to the 1990’s and was based on political manipulation showing that the tension was not based on ancient Rwandan history but instead it had been stage-managed. Exaggerating the differences between the Hutu and the Tutsi through political propaganda can be viewed as part of the reason why the genocide took place in 1994 and not before. It is therefore apparent that the Rwandan genocide was not mainly caused by ancient ethnic hatred but instead by the aim to amplify ethnic tension during the 1990s.

It is worth noting that the Tutsi and Hutu had coexisted peacefully for years despite having had a historical background rife with ethnic tension. Mills and Brunner maintain that “for centuries they have spoken the same language, lived on the same hillsides, and intermarried to such an extent that the physical characteristics stereotypically attributed to each – tall, thin, lighter skinned for the Tutsi; short, stocky and darker skinned for the Hutu are often blurred.” [15] This shows that the Rwanda genocide was not caused but ethnic hatred as there would need to be evidence of serious ethnic disputes prior to 1994. Also because the Hutu and Tutsi ethnic groups were intertwined one has to question whether ethnicity was the only grounds for extermination. The Hutu government emphasised ethnicity. However opposition to the Hutu extremist government and Tutsi sympathisers were also massacred along with the Tutsi. The division is debatably not in fact ethnic although that is how it was portrayed. Rather it is more likely to have been based on class and occupational lines as this was the case before colonisation. This reveals that there must have been another explanation for the genocide other than ethnic hatred.

The true motivation behind the Rwanda genocide was in fact fear. One of the reasons why genocide took place when it did is because the Hutu government feared a Tutsi invasion from neighbouring Burundi and Uganda. Shelton agrees with this argument pointing out that the Hutu government called for the extermination of the Tutsi “fearing the loss of its power in the face of a democracy movement and a civil war.” [16] The RPF (Rwanda Patriotic Front) consisted of Tutsi refugees in exile that had formed in Uganda following the expulsion of thousands of Tutsi in 1959 in opposition to the Hutu extremist government. Since the October 1990 invasion by the RPF into Rwanda the Hutu extremists feared another attack and as a result their ethnic policies became more extreme. The Hutu extremists saw the Tutsi in Rwanda as an internal threat which they associated with an external enemy, the RPF. The Hutu government nationalised the fear of this internal threat by instilling it in the Hutu population using propaganda. Uvin’s view supports this position stating that “they successfully sought to spread ethnic fear throughout society, to organise and legitimise the forces of violence and genocide and to desensitise people to violence.” [17] In the context of civil war although ethnic tensions are central to the conflict it is clear that the origins of the Rwandan genocide’s does not lie in ancient ethnic hatred but extensively in fear. This fear was intended to mobilise the masses and it can therefore be said that the spread of fear among the population was an important cause of the Rwandan genocide because it put pressure severe pressure on ethnic divides.

Ethnicity was allegedly what the Hutu government claimed to be the basis of their aim to create a truly Rwandan state where “Rwanda belonged to the Hutu.” [18] In order to achieve this state a “social revolution,” was necessary which involved purging the state of outsiders, the Tutsi [19] . The Tutsi were seen as being ancestrally from North Africa and on this basis they were to be excluded from the creation of a true Rwandan state. It was this exclusion as well as the fear of Tutsi rule that motivated the extremist Hutu government and their radical propaganda policy. Melvern observes that when “the first political parties were formed, they were created along strict ethnic lines,” in line with ideological principles. [20] This “development of ideology adds to this set of ideas that can be used for both internal and external legitimisation,” which with the support of the church as well as the international community further justified the Hutu government’s actions despite the radical nature of their policies [21] . It is clear that when examining the Hutu government their policies on ethnic hatred were not entirely based on an ancient feud as ethnic distinctions did not exist in early Rwandan history, but instead were largely embedded in extreme ideology that ironically this did not represent the majority Hutu opinion. Instead the combination of fear and the aim to create the ideal Hutu state escalated ethnic hatred.

As well as the civil war other significant events widened the divide between the Tutsi and the Hutu. Rwanda was a recently independent fragile state and domestic affairs were put under pressure by the 1990 rural crisis which damaged the agriculturally based Rwandan economy. Uvin highlights that “this decline is a result of a combination of factors, conjunctural and structural: a set of drought s in the middle of the late 1980s; the effects of erosion, land degradation and poverty.” [22] Additionally the dramatic fall in the price of coffee, a major export intensified the pressure on the Hutu government because it “greatly reduced the earnings of the Rwandan state.” [23] As a result of this the Rwandan government had to ask the IMF for a state loan which increased the pressure the Rwandan government experienced in a rapidly declining economy. The Hutu extremist government were able to use this as part of the propaganda ploy to blame the Tutsi and label them economic exploiters, thus further contributing to ethnic resentment and hatred. These internal pressures show how the creation of ethnic hatred was a multifaceted strategy and not solely the result of ancient tensions.

The Rwandan genocide was also caused by the build up of ethnic hatred in the context of civil war. The assassination of Juvenal Habyarimana was a turning point in that it “served as the spark that set the plans for genocide in motion.” [24] The Hutu government used this event to propel the masses into action. They accused the Tutsi RPF of assassinating the president because he resisted signing the Arusha Accord, the Rwandan peace agreement. Although this event triggered the genocide it was “far from being a spontaneous popular uprising.” [25] According to Shelton “the 1994 genocide had been carefully planned and coordinated by a small group of government and military officials who used the administrative structure and coercive force of the state to invigorate the genocide and extend it across the country.” [26] This highlights the fact that the origin of the Rwandan genocide was not merely rooted in ancient hatred but was made possible by contemporary government policies which resurrected and reconstructed old ethnic tensions.

In conclusion it is clear that from the arguments set forth, the Rwandan genocide was not merely caused by ancient ethnic hatred but instead was caused by an amalgamation of events and policies. The propaganda used to incite fear was instrumental in creating an environment that turned the Hutu and Tutsi against each other, thus allowing the 1994 Rwanda genocide to take place. Mamdani supports this view and comments that “Violence has been motivated by a mutual fear of victimhood.” [27] The complex combination of imperial ethnic division aggravated by propaganda in the context of a civil war and RPF threat as well as economic pressure all came together to create a society and environment that allowed for and committed genocide. Mills and Brunner explain that “there is no such thing as a ‘simple tribal meltdown’ not anywhere,” and that the view that the Rwandan genocide was prompted by ancient ethnic hatred does not explain why it took place when it did. [28] Although ethnicity was an important contributing component of the Rwandan genocide it was not the only definitive factor. It is therefore a limited view to claim that the Rwanda genocide was rooted in ancient ethnic hatred when it is clear that the issues involved were significantly more complicated.


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