Rwanda as a Case for Non-Intervention?

Rwandan President Paul Kagame at ceremonies marking the 20th anniversary of the start of the Rwandan genocide

Rwandan President Paul Kagame at ceremonies marking the 20th anniversary of the start of the Rwandan genocide

Paul Kagame thinks so – or at least he made a case for it Monday as Rwanda marked twenty years since the outbreak of perhaps the most horrific genocide of history.

Within 100 days over 800,000 were killed, nearly three quarters of the ethnic Tutsi population in Rwanda.

Rwanda had been colonized the Belgians who took a minor social distinction – whether someone was Hutu or Tutsi – and turned it into a way to privilege some over others.  Hutus and Tutsis had intermarried and got along peacefully for centuries.  Now the Belgians claimed the Tutsis were “more evolved” and thus were entrusted with positions of privilege and power.   They helped run the colony for the Belgians, and soon looked down at the “lower” Hutus.

It wasn’t just Belgian racism, but also a rather smart way to keep a colony under control.    The Tutsis were the minority, and thus had to rely on the Belgians for protection and support.  Alas, once democracy and independence came, the Hutu majority quickly grabbed all power and took revenge on the Tutsis for years of mistreatment.   This led to protected conflict for over three decades before Hutu extremists decided the final solution would be to simply eliminate all Tutsis from Rwanda.

They did not fear western intervention.  After all, a year earlier the US left Somalia after 18 army Rangers were killed when their black-hawk helicopter went done.  As their bodies were dragged through the streets Americans were furious that US military personnel were even over there.    In any event, Rwanda had a seat on the Security Council at the time, and it could gauge whether or not the UN had the stomach to intervene.

It almost worked.  The UN had 3500 troops there to implement the Arusha accords designed to create a power sharing agreement between Hutus and Tutsis, but when the genocide began all but about 400 of those troops were pulled out.   The US and UK wanted a complete withdrawal – UN blue helmet forces are not supposed to remain if there is no more peace to keep – but the UN mission commander General Romeo Dallaire refused to leave, since that would mean certain death to over 30,000 people under UN protection.

Common scenes in that three months of hell

A common scene in that three months of hell

The story line usually goes like this:  Dallaire begged for UN intervention to save Rwanda, the UN refused, and thus his small force with virtually no supplies could only protect a small portion of Tutsis.   Salvation came when General Paul Kagame’s RPF – Rwandan Patriotic Front, made up mostly of Tutsis who had fled Rwanda after independence – invaded from Uganda and defeated the Rwandan military – the RPG.    This shameful acceptance of the fastest genocide in history – one undertaken with guns and machetes at close range by large groups of Hutus, especially teens – was justified by saying the Rwandan government had no control and the Interhamwe militia was doing the damage.   In reality, the military and Interhamwe worked together.   France in fact supported and even supplied the Rwandan military during the three month genocide.

But here’s what Kagame said in his speech:

Rwanda was supposed to be a failed state.   Watching the news today, it is not hard to imagine how we could have ended up.   We could have become a permanent U.N. protectorate, with little hope of ever recovering our nationhood.   We could have allowed the country to be physically divided, with groups deemed incompatible assigned to different corners.   We could have been engulfed in a never-ending civil war with endless streams of refugees and our children sick and uneducated.  But we did not end up like that. What prevented these alternative scenarios was the choices of the people of Rwanda.

It appears that Kagame is saying that if the UN had intervened, it could now be a failed state – that it would have been impossible to create the kind of future Rwandans now consider possible – one where ethnicity no longer is supposed to matter, and the Rwandans are one people.

To be sure, Kagame’s government talks a better game than it walks.   Ethnic Tutsis dominate, there are human rights abuses, corruption, and no viable opposition.  Some consider Kagame a dictator, and it’s hard to argue otherwise.   Yet given the conditions Rwanda found itself in twenty years ago, on going Hutu extremism based in the Congo, and the need to create a foundation for a long term peace, it would be wrong to judge too harshly.  After all, too quick a move to total democracy can be a disaster if a country is not ready.

More intriguing is the possibility that while the motives were wrong, UN inaction actually was better for Rwanda.   A quick brutal climax to a century of ethnic hostility and violence might be what Rwanda needed to create conditions where they could move beyond the damage done by the European colonizers.   Yes 800,000 died, but if the UN had stopped the genocide early, how many would be continually dying in on going ethnic strife?

I don’t know.   To me Rwanda has always been a classic case proving that sometimes military intervention is justifiable – that humanity must agree to say “never again” to genocide, and act forcefully to stop it.  I still believe that – but Kagame’s remarks get me to wonder if maybe western intervention does more harm than good in places where western colonialism already destroyed existing peaceful political cultures, creating conflicts where none had existed.   It’s worth thinking about.

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  1. #1 by John Squires on April 8, 2014 - 3:36 am

    Sickening.

  2. #2 by lbwoodgate on April 10, 2014 - 11:33 am

    “but Kagame’s remarks get me to wonder if maybe western intervention does more harm than good in places where western colonialism already destroyed existing peaceful political cultures,”

    Interesting. No doubt that Western intervention in cultures so diverse from their own will usually leave lasting negative consequences because after all, if we are there at all, it is for their cheap labor and natural resources, not for the ideal of “spreading freedom”.

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