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Understanding Genocide

Information taken directly from United Nations

Understanding Genocide

Genocide is not something that happens overnight or without warning. Students of genocide have learned that genocide is in fact a deliberate strategy and one that has been mostly carried out by governments or groups controlling the state apparatus. The very State which is responsible for protecting its citizens becomes their killer and the potential victims can only turn to others to seek protection. The effects of genocide are felt beyond the borders of the affected country as it negatively impacts the safety and security of people in neighbouring countries. The consequences for future generations are truly enormous.

In the case of Rwanda, minority ethnic Tutsis living in exile in neighbouring countries sought to return to Rwanda in the 1980s, but were prevented from doing so. Some joined the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), a largely Tutsi rebel army that invaded Rwanda in 1990, seeking the right of exiles to return. Tutsis in Rwanda were arrested and harassed as accomplices of the invasion. Extremist radio and print media depicted all Tutsis as helping the invading force. A peace deal was signed in August 1993 in Arusha, Tanzania, between the RPF and the Rwandan government, designed to end the civil war. The UN Assistance Mission in Rwanda (UNAMIR) was sent in to oversee implementation of the accords. However, the accords had overlooked the growing threat of Hutu extremism in the army, the media and sections of government. On 11 January 1994, UNAMIR Commander Lt. Gen. Romeo Dallaire alerted UN Headquarters that extremist militia were preparing for mass killings and had assembled weapons for that purpose. Dallaire stated his intention to seize the weapons, but was denied permission since such action was considered outside the force’s mandate. A plane carrying President Habyarimana was shot down on 6 April, triggering the start of the genocide. Soldiers in the presidential guard targeted moderate Hutu leaders, including the Prime Minister, within hours. An extremist Hutu government was put in place by the military, and from then on the Tutsi population became the focus of the killing. There was no surprise. Today, the effects of the genocide in Rwanda are still felt in many different ways both inside the country and in neighbouring states, including in the eastern regions of the Democratic Republic of the Congo, where large areas of South Kivu province are still controlled by Hutu militia from Rwanda and their local allies. Alongside other fighters in the Congo war, they continue to commit serious human rights violations, including abductions, killings and rape. Sexual violence, particularly against women and children, is widespread.

Recognising Genocide

Understanding the way genocide occurs and learning to recognize signs that could — in the right environment — lead to genocide are important in making sure that such horrors do not happen again. Iqbal Riza, former UN Chef de Cabinet, acknowledged that, “We did not give the information [the warning of impending genocide in Rwanda] the importance and the correct interpretation it deserved. We realized only in hindsight”.

Experts agree that genocide is a crime rooted in intolerance of a group (ethnic, racial or religious or other). Often in multi-ethnic and multi-cultural societies different groups learn to work together peacefully. They develop democratic ways to share wealth and power, to resolve disputes peacefully and prevent violence. However, in times of political or economic uncertainty, trust between communities begins to weaken, relationships break down. People can develop fears and prejudices. When such fears and prejudices are reinforced and manipulated by governments for political purposes, one group can turn against another group, made up of people who just yesterday were their friends and neighbours. Even then, such hostility rarely leads to genocide. Several other factors must come together before genocide becomes more likely.

The UN Special Adviser on the Prevention of Genocide, working with other genocide experts, has compiled a list of warning signs that could indicate that a community is at risk for genocide or similar atrocities. It includes:
  • the country has a totalitarian or authoritarian government where only one group controls power;
  • the country is at war or there is a lawless environment in which massacres can take place without being quickly noticed or easily documented;
  • one or more national, ethnic, racial or religious group is the target of discrimination or is made a scapegoat for poverty or other serious social problems now facing the country;
  • there is a belief or an ideology that says the target group is less than human. It “dehumanizes” members of this group and justifies violence against them. Messages and propaganda supporting this belief are spread through the media or at rallies (“hate media” and “hate messages”);
  • there is a growing acceptance of violations of the target group’s human rights or there is a history of genocide and discrimination against them. This gives the violators and abusers a sense that if the perpetrators of the earlier crimes got away with it, they will get away with their abuses this time.
For more information or to learn more about genocide prevention, please visit http://www.un.org
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