Lessons of the Rwandan genocide

The genocide memorial cemetery north of the capital, Kigali Keystone

Ten years ago ethnic tensions between Hutus and Tutsis exploded in Rwanda – in the ensuing violence up to 800,000 people were killed in 100 days.

This content was published on April 7, 2004 - 08:28

Switzerland, which was criticised at the time for failing to heed warning signs of the impending genocide, says it has learned lessons from the experience.

Tensions between Rwanda’s Hutu majority and the Tutsi minority were running high in 1994.

The government had for some time been trying to stop the advance of Tutsi rebels seeking to depose the Hutu government.

But the catalyst for the start of the genocide was the death of the Hutu president, Juvenal Habyarimana.

Campaign of violence

Hours after Habyarimana’s plane was shot down on April 6, 1994, a campaign of violence began to spread from the capital, Kigali, throughout the country.

Switzerland, along with the rest of the international community, denounced the genocide that followed.

Speaking ahead of a memorial ceremony in Kigali on Wednesday, the Swiss ambassador to Kenya and Rwanda, Pierre Combernous, described the massacre as "one of the greatest tragedies of the 20th century".

"By taking part in this memorial ceremony, Switzerland wants to show how important it considers Rwanda to be," Combernous told swissinfo.

Switzerland will also be represented at the ceremony by the head of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation (SDC), Walter Fust.

Failing to act

Ahead of Wednesday's event the Rwandan president, Paul Kagame, accused the international community of deliberately failing to do anything to stop the massacre.

Speaking before the United Nations Human Rights Commission in Geneva on Wednesday, the UN secretary-general, Kofi Annan, admitted that the international community "had not lived up to its responsibilities in Rwanda".

Annan, who was head of UN peacekeeping operations at the time of the genocide, also unveiled a plan of action before the Commission, aimed at preventing such tragedies in the future.

"The Rwandan genocide should never have occurred," he said. "Neither the UN Security Council nor the UN's member states nor the international media paid enough attention to the warning signs of disaster," he added.

The accusations of inaction are not new. In 1996 an independent report commissioned by the Swiss government found that Switzerland could have done more to help prevent the spread of violence in Rwanda.

The report – coordinated by the former director of the Federal Justice Office, Joseph Voyame - concluded that there had been enough warning signs.

Adrian Schläpfer, head of bilateral development cooperation at the SDC, admits that Switzerland made mistakes.

“Together with all the other donors at that time in Rwanda, we may not have been sufficiently aware of the genocide building up,” he told swissinfo.

Development aid

Schläpfer says this was due to the type of development cooperation that Switzerland was involved with at the time.

“Switzerland, in common with all other donors, was developing projects that were mainly oriented towards technical solutions to issues,” Schläpfer said.

“There was too little concern about [other issues] - political, economic, social - which is really the lesson we have learned from this experience in particular,” he added.

Schläpfer says that following the genocide a new framework for Swiss development work was established. The political climate in all countries where Switzerland gives aid is now systematically assessed and regularly monitored.

In the aftermath of the Rwandan massacre, the SDC concentrated on humanitarian aid to help rebuild a nation still coming to terms with the events of 1994.

Three years ago the SDC switched to longer-term cooperation and now mainly focuses on health and local development projects.

It also carries out “policy dialogue” with the Rwandan government, which includes regular discussion in the area of human rights.

Switzerland – along with the European Union - criticised irregularities during the country’s first multiparty elections last October, after the ruling Rwandan Patriotic Front won an overwhelming majority in the poll.

Seeking justice

In the decade since the genocide both the United Nations and the Rwandan government have been working to bring those responsible for the atrocity to justice.

The UN set up the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda - headed by Switzerland’s Carla del Ponte until she lost her mandate last year – to try those accused of orchestrating the genocide.

But the court – which sits in Arusha, Tanzania – has been criticised for making only 18 convictions in ten years.

Rwanda has also held mass trials and introduced a system of village courts to speed up the process, training local judges and asking neighbours to act as informal juries in trials for individual suspects.

Schläpfer says Switzerland recognises the fact that Rwanda has not yet come to terms with its recent past.

“Rwanda is still smarting from the tragedy that occurred in 1994 and we cannot just pretend that we can conduct business as usual in this country,” he said.

“We need to be aware of the trauma that many people suffered, and of the very delicate balance that politically, economically and socially is still present in this country.”

swissinfo, Isobel Leybold

In brief

This week marks the tenth anniversary of the Rwandan genocide in which some 800,000 people lost their lives.

The Swiss president, Joseph Deiss, called on the Swiss people to observe a minute of silence on Wednesday to remember those who died.

The head of the Swiss Agency for Development and Cooperation, Walter Fust, is attending a memorial ceremony for victims of the genocide in the Rwandan capital, Kigali.

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Key facts

Rwanda:
Former Belgian colony, gained independence in 1962.
The capital is Kigali.
Average yearly income is $220.
Life expectancy is 39 years (men), 40 (women).
Official languages: Kinyarwanda, French, English.
According to the World Bank, almost two thirds of the 8.4 million population live below the poverty line.

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