The Rwandan Genocide 20 Years Later: Why Does it Still Matter?

This post is written by special guest author, Nicole Dales


Most likely, we have all seen an episode of Law and Order. Whenever someone is found beaten and left dead in an alley way, it’s called murder. There is no question about that. When hundreds of thousands of people are found beaten and dead, however, controversy arises over what to call it.

The word genocide means a systematic destruction of all or part of a racial, ethnic, religious or national group. So when thousands of people are killed every day for their tribe assignment underneath their ethnic classification, wouldn’t you call it genocide?

No. At least not in 1994. The history of the conflict in Rwanda, Africa is long and extensive, but here’s a short recap.

Back in the 1920s, Belgium had control over Rwanda. They split the citizens into two tribes, the Hutus and the Tutsis. The differences between the two tribes were subtle. Something as simple as the shape of your nose could determine your tribe. The Belgium people treated those they called Tutsi as royal, and those they called Hutu like trash. Then Belgium ditched and left behind a country split in two and hating each other.

Fast forward to the 90’s. The fault and anger of the prior generation had seeped into the new generation. The children and grandchildren of those jilted by the Belgiums were harboring the grudges, and they wanted revenge. Cue the systematic elimination of a group, where more than 800,000 corpses were left behind at the end of it all.

Yet we didn’t call it genocide. Why not? When the international community uses the word “genocide” to describe an event, that is a call to action the United Nations must respond to. To give a frame of reference of the time, the genocide is said to have started on April 6, 1995 and ended mid-July of that year.

On April 28, State Department spokeswoman Christine Shelley expressed, “The use of the term ‘genocide’ has a very precise legal meaning.” Many other spokespeople said that it appeared acts of genocide were occurring, but would not use the definition of genocide to describe the event.

In a press conference on June 10, Shelley was asked, “How many acts of genocide does it take to make genocide?” Her response was, “That’s just not a question that I’m in a position to answer?” She was asked if it was true she had specific instructions to not use the word “genocide.” Her response was, “I have guidance which I try to use as best as I can. There are formulations that we are using that we are trying to be consistent of … ”

So why all the wishy-washy talk and gray area? That question most likely roots back to money. If the United Nations deployed, who would pick up the tab? Whose responsibility is it to intervene? After the Holocaust, the world was shocked and made a promise to never stand aside when crimes against humanity were being committed. Yet, when the opportunity to intervene came some 50 years later, who was there?

To clarify, some United Nations troops were supporting in Rwanda, but their support was not enough and they were pulled out far before the conclusion of the genocide. We learned a devastating lesson during the genocide, a lesson that cost the lives and wellbeing of over a million people, between those who died during the genocide and those who were left in the wake.

Why is it important to look at the genocide now? This year marks the 20 year anniversary since the Rwandan genocide, and it’s a perfect opportunity to not only pay respect to those who have been lost, but to also make a renewed commitment.

I’ll leave you with a quote posted in the United Stated Holocaust Memorial Museum: The next time you witness hatred, the next time you see injustice, the next time you hear out genocide, remember what you saw. Let’s all remember: What you do matters. Join me in the promise of Never Again.



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