The Twilight Between Knowing and Not Knowing

A three-part examination of the failure to recognise genocide in Rwanda [1]

In late 2016 the United Nations Special Adviser for the prevention of genocide warned the international community that potential existed for ethnically fueled violence being perpetrated in South Sudan to spiral into genocide. In parallel, the #Neveragain social media campaign sought to link a perceived lack of international empathy for the plight of refugees, and increasingly restrictive border controls, with post-Second World War international commitments to never again allow genocide to occur. Indeed, even here at The Strategy Bridge there has been increased interest in seeking to understand the political calculus of mass murder and how it might explain the actions of the Islamic State. Yet for all this discussion, it appears that interested observers are actually no closer to understanding how to recognise if and why genocide is, or is not, occurring. This confusion stems from the fact that the actual recognition of genocide is inherently difficult. It is this difficulty that will be examined here, through the prism of the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

The literature to date has largely apportioned blame for failing to recognise genocide in Rwanda to the United Nations and the United States, however it is important to also examine what those deployed on the ground knew and reported. Bringing together the view from the top (international community) and the view from the bottom (those on the ground) illuminates the complexities involved in the actual recognition of genocide. Ultimately, it took too long to recognise that genocide was occurring in Rwanda, this ensured that any conceivable intervention would be too late to stop it. By focusing on the ability of the different levels to see genocide, this series will seek to provide conclusions that aid our understanding of the lack of response to Rwanda’s crisis. It will show that cognitive biases can make genocide difficult to distinguish from other forms of mass killing. It will highlight that understanding and responding to genocide requires different skills to those traditionally trained by military forces. And finally, it will show that a failure to recognise and stop genocide implies widespread culpability based not only on an inability to understand, but more importantly an unwillingness to act.

The 1948 establishment of the United Nations Genocide Convention (UNGC) was meant to embody the moral and popular consensus throughout the international community that nations should never again stand idly by whilst genocide was perpetrated. Its drafters recognised that genocide was "the gravest and greatest of the crimes against humanity, the crime of crimes."[2] Despite the convention, the Rwandan experience shows that inherent problems remain with the recognition of, and hence the ability to stop, genocide.[3]

Despite the convention, the Rwandan experience shows that inherent problems remain with the recognition of, and hence the ability to stop, genocide.

The Rwandan genocide is unique because the international community could have intervened at relatively little cost before the majority of deaths occurred. Not only did the international community fail to denounce the evil, they failed to accurately describe the violence as genocide once the evidence of its existence became irrefutable. Alison Des Forges has suggested that part of the failing stems from the fact that the world’s diplomats were accustomed to dealing with wars—they were not, and did not try to become, accustomed to the requirements of dealing with genocide.[4]

The Hutu who organised and executed the genocide must bear ultimate responsibility for their actions. The occurrence of genocide anywhere, however, ensures that blame must be spread more widely. That troops, media and NGOs on the ground, and the United Nations and United States internationally, could not reach a consensus as to whether or not genocide was occurring means that their individual and collective ability to recognise is fundamentally linked to their failure to act.

The genocide in Rwanda took place in front of the very people relied upon to prevent it. Tragically, the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR) failed to understand that genocide was occurring and effectively stood aside while the Tutsi minority was slaughtered. By establishing what UNAMIR saw and reported up the chain it is possible to glean an understanding of the very real difficulties that exist for trained soldiers in recognising genocide. UNAMIR’s role in understanding the violence is important for the effect that it had on the decision making of the United Nations as a whole. Furthermore, the experience of General Dallaire as the UN military commander provides a harrowing example of the ambiguity inherent in exercising senior command where the restoration of peace, rather than the defeat of a clear adversary, is the mission.


Genocidal Warning

Genocides just don’t happen spontaneously. They’ve got to be planned and they’ve got to be organised. They’ve got to be trained. There’s got to be equipment. You’ve got to sow the seeds of hysteria in the population, and that takes time…
—Major Brent Beardsley [5]

General Romeo Dallaire was appointed as the commander of UNAMIR with responsibility to monitor the implementation of the Arusha Peace Accords. At peak UNAMIR numbered only 2,500 soldiers, the majority comprising a Belgian Parachute Commando Battalion.[6] Dallaire deployed without knowledge of the history and culture of Rwanda or relevant intelligence about the stakeholders, agendas or general situation on the ground. This inhibited his ability to understand the massacres that occurred just months after UNAMIR’s arrival.[7]

The Rwandan genocide was the product of a carefully planned and clinically executed attempt to destroy the Tutsi minority. In August 1993, a UN Special Rapporteur had called for further investigation into the possibility that Rwanda was experiencing the early stages of genocide.[8] Despite this concern the UNAMIR mandate did not mention protection of the population.[9] This ensured that warning signs of the genocide often went unheeded because the mandate was not intended to allow UNAMIR to prevent human rights violations.

UNAMIR was also critically short of troops. This meant that instead of focusing on the separation of the two parties to the Arusha Accords, Dallaire was instead focused on trying to establish his meagre force.[10] Furthermore, the UN’s failure to appoint a political head for the mission effectively meant that Dallaire undertook two roles, which reduced his ability to understand the indicators of genocidal intent. Not until late 1993 when Jacques Roger Booh-Booh was appointed as the Secretary General’s Envoy to Rwanda was Dallaire able to concentrate fully on the military aspects of the deployment.[11]

Despite the structural limitations impacting UNAMIR, the breakdown of the rule of law was obvious from late 1993. UNAMIR noticed that political party militias were acting violently and with impunity, as if rehearsing their methods and tactics.[12] However, it failed to recognise the importance of the rise in anti-Tutsi rhetoric in the Rwandan media, which was instrumental in furthering the extremists’ genocidal aims through the psychological preparation of the Hutu population.[13]

By early January 1994, UNAMIR officials were becoming aware of the existence of a well-established and politically powerful clique who wanted to undermine the Arusha Accords—through violence if necessary. Yet despite concerns over mass killings, at no stage did UNAMIR believe that this faction was planning genocide.[14] Burkhalter has suggested that the UN special envoy (Booh-Booh) was sympathetic to the Hutu regime. She argues that in the period leading up to and during the genocide his reporting characterised the violence as free-for-all fighting rather than the mass killing of unarmed civilians by government soldiers and militiamen. Booh-Booh fundamentally misunderstood the political situation and, as the UN Chief in Rwanda, his misunderstandings ensured that UNAMIR was not postured to comprehend the enormity of what was being planned.[15]

...his misunderstandings ensured that UNAMIR was not postured to comprehend the enormity of what was being planned.

UNAMIR misread the importance of an informant who made contact in early January 1994. Jean-Pierre, an Interhamwe training officer, reported that the militia was organised into death squads, which could easily round-up predetermined Tutsi and execute them within twenty minutes. The whole idea was to create a "killing machine, because the objective was clear for everybody—kill, kill, kill."[16] The key phrase that should have highlighted the genocidal intent was "he has been ordered to register all Tutsi in Kigali. He suspects it is for their extermination (my emphasis)."[17]

Dallaire was shaken by this news. Here was clear evidence that the Rwandan political and military elite were preparing for the massacre of Tutsi, while mouthing reassuring statements of their commitment to the peace process. It indicated to Dallaire that the Interhamwe were planning a campaign of ethnic cleansing. Dallaire reported this to UNHQ, in a now infamous  January 11 cable, spelling out his concerns. His fears were dismissed.[18]

UNHQ did not infer that genocide was imminent from Dallaire’s reporting because Dallaire himself still grappled with the barriers that prevented his rational comprehension of genocide.[19] When Colonel Marchal[20] was asked about his response to Jean Pierre’s information he said, "To kill a maximum of Tutsis… everything was being prepared… And [based] on what Jean Pierre told me of the Interhamwe, I felt it was a real killing machine." However he admits: "I never realised that it would [become] a genocide. But… I realised that the… killing could result in 10,000 deaths."[21] Marchal’s evidence proves that despite the ominous nature of Jean-Pierre’s information, even well informed observers could not make the intellectual leap required to imagine the plausibility of genocide. In a fundamental misunderstanding of what constitutes genocide, Marchal imagined it in terms of scale, not intent. To him 10,000 deaths did not constitute genocide, even though numbers are not part of the criteria specified by the UNGC.[22]

By February 22, further indications of the genocidal preparations should have become apparent to UNAMIR, yet they did not. Dallaire mentions one military observer who visited schools in remote parts of the country and began to notice teachers undertaking a peculiar administrative exercise—the registration of students’ ethnic identities. This was strange, as children were not required to carry identification cards. Mistakenly, UNAMIR assumed that this was simply another example of ethnicity at play in Rwanda, when actually it was a significant logistical preparation for the genocide to come.[23]

The Advent of Genocide and UNAMIR’s Perceptions of It

On April 6, 1994, the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi were killed after unknown assassins shot down their plane. This was the catalyst for the Rwandan genocide. Confusion reigned at UNAMIR headquarters as Dallaire and his staff frantically attempted to understand the violence that began to consume the capital Kigali.[24] On April 7, Belgian peacekeepers attempting to protect the new Prime Minister, Agathe Uwilingiyimana, were disarmed and murdered by the Presidential Guard, setting in motion events that would have devastating consequences for Rwanda. The Belgian Government responded to the deaths by withdrawing the entire contingent—the mainstay of UNAMIR—leaving both UNAMIR and the Tutsi minority to fend for themselves.[25]

The most striking aspect about the advent of the genocide was the coordination of the Hutu-controlled Army, gendarmerie, and militias, which demonstrated how thorough the planning had been at the highest levels and how efficient a developing state could be when inspired by an overwhelming desire to kill. Initially, the killers were well-equipped government soldiers and militiamen relying on automatic weapons and grenades. As the slaughter spread to the countryside, killing became far more primitive—machetes, spears and the traditional nailed club became the weapons of choice.[26] In response to the initial killings, the Tutsi RPF Battalion stationed in Kigali surged out of barracks to resume the civil war,[27] but while the war had resumed the early signs of genocide remained clearly visible in the confusion.

The most striking aspect about the advent of the genocide was the coordination of the Hutu-controlled Army, gendarmerie, and militias, which demonstrated how thorough the planning had been at the highest levels and how efficient a developing state could be when inspired by an overwhelming desire to kill.

April 9 was the first time that UNAMIR was forced to confront the horrors of genocide, when two Polish observers arrived at a church cordoned off by the army. Here the Gendarmerie had herded the Tutsi into the church after going door to door checking identification cards. The observers and two priests endeavoured to intervene, but were forced to watch as packs of militiamen moved methodically from bench to bench hacking at the huddled bodies with their machetes.[28] After this first massacre, murder began to engulf the streets around Kigali.

With an eerie resemblance to the events being witnessed in South Sudan today, Dallaire initially allowed himself to believe that the Hutu gunmen and militia were only pursuing their political enemies and that it was not symptomatic of the intention to destroy an entire group of people. While he later came to describe the situation as "a very well planned, programmed, deliberate, and conducted campaign of terror," he was still incapable in early April of linking ethnicity and intent in order to identify genocide.[29] Significantly, while UNAMIR reports did not use the word genocide explicitly in April, a cursory reading of their reporting shows that the massacres were not simply inter-tribal violence but, rather, the implementation of a methodical extermination campaign.[30]

A report from April 17, 1994, clearly explained the ethnic dimension of the massacres, yet perversely seemed more concerned with the health hazards that bodies littering the streets presented to UNAMIR. The report identified that "Radio broadcasts inflammatory speeches and songs exhorting the population to destroy all Tutsis," and observed that "[i]n Kigali, frequent roadblocks are established, ID cards checked and Tutsis executed on the spot."[31] In my view this cable is more important than its infamous January 11 predecessor. It clearly and disquietingly explained the situation in Kigali and its surrounds, and proves that UNAMIR provided detailed reporting regarding the character of the violence to UNHQ. Furthermore, in the same cable Dallaire places responsibility for acting to subdue the increasing violence squarely with the UN:

The force simply cannot continue to sit on the fence in the face of all these morally legitimate demands for assistance/protection, nor can it simply launch into Chapter VII type operations without the proper authority, personnel and equipment.[32]

When did UNAMIR realise that genocide was occurring?

The meagre resources that the mission was allocated and the continuous battles Dallaire fought with the UN bureaucracy to keep the force afloat meant that "seeing to the most immediate needs stopped us from seeing what was reserved for us in the future."[33] In Dallaire’s mind he:

[W]as self-conscious about saying the killings were ‘genocidal’ because, to us in the West, ‘genocide’ was the equivalent of the Holocaust... I mean millions of people… Genocide was the highest scale of crimes against humanity imaginable… it was not easy to recognise that we could be in such a situation.[34]

Dallaire admits he realised he was witnessing genocide within a couple of days of April 12, after the international community withdrew and violence began to expand outside Kigali. He has stated that only after the International Committee of the Red Cross Chief, Phillipe Gaillard, first used genocide was he able to consciously grasp it himself.[35]

By mid-April UNAMIR reports showed that at least 80% of the houses they visited were empty. Kigali had become a ghost town with bodies littering the streets.[36] Dallaire had lost access to intelligence about the situation outside of Kigali due to the reduction of the contingent and its forced concentration within the capital. In the first few days after the assassination of the two presidents, UNAMIR had profited from having peacekeepers throughout the country that provided information about the scale of the killings. Unfortunately, by mid-April, UNAMIR’s lack of situational awareness ensured that UNHQ potentially knew more about what was going on in Rwanda than the actual troops on the ground.[37]

This lack of situational awareness was coupled with an inability to understand the genocidal intent behind the violence. The scale of the barbarity was almost incomprehensible to Western observers—UNAMIR troops included—which resulted in eyewitnesses often finding themselves in denial about what was unfolding around them. The troops made themselves believe that high-pitched screams were gusts of wind, that the rabid packs of dogs were feeding on animal remains and not human carcasses, that the smells enveloping them emanated from spoiled food and not decomposing bodies. Barnett argues that this fantasy is reminiscent of Primo Levi’s observation about the Holocaust that "things whose existence is not morally comprehensible cannot exist."[38] This is particularly so for Western troops who are trained to think and act within the bounds of a moral and ethical behavioural framework that can obscure their ability to recognise the evil that others may be capable of.

Dallaire, and UNAMIR as a whole, passed through two phases of genocidal recognition. The first involved understanding that they were not witnessing a conventional war, but rather that massive crimes against humanity were occurring. The second involved understanding that all Tutsi were targets and that genocide as recognised by the UNGC was underway. This was a difficult process as the savagery made it difficult to put the pieces together. With his own eyes Dallaire had seen militias at the roadblocks pulling people out of their vehicles and murdering them. However, only after reading a book on international law two weeks into the killing, did he realise "that genocide was precisely what we saw in the field… I just needed a slap in the face to say, 'Holy Shit! This is a genocide, not just ethnic cleansing.'"[39]

Even after the shock of recognition, Dallaire maintains that his failure to stop the genocide persisted because he was unable to crack the UN code and to impress upon his superiors that the violence and cruelty actually amounted to genocide. Unfortunately, as Brent Beardsley has lamented, "that presupposes that people actually wanted to know and actually wanted to do something."[40]

The skill sets needed to operate in Rwanda were not tactical, doctrinal, or procedural. They were anthropological and sociological, based on a firm understanding of international law.

As UNAMIR’s experience shows, genocide is difficult to recognise, even for those in its midst. This is due to the difficulty in differentiating mass killings from genocide. Romeo Dallaire is proof that protagonists on the ground need to have a depth of understanding of the situation, armed with knowledge of the past and present, and an idea of what this means for the future in order to effectively anticipate, recognise and prevent genocide. The skills needed to operate in Rwanda were not tactical, doctrinal, or procedural. They were anthropological and sociological, based on a firm understanding of international law. Regardless of their physical location in relation to the genocide, UNAMIR was still unable to conceive that genocide was possible until well after it had commenced. This is explained both by its lack of understanding and situational awareness, as well as poor support from the greater United Nations. UNAMIR personnel were collectively blinded by the cruelty they witnessed and an inability to grasp the genocidal intent behind the violence. Nonetheless, the failure to follow up or act upon UNAMIR’s disturbing reporting was a costly failure by the UN as a whole. This ensures that culpability in the failure to establish that genocide was occurring is more widespread than just those who were forced to bear witness to it.

UNAMIR’s limitations ensured that it was incapable of understanding the entire situation on the ground. Part two in this series will look at what the United Nations as a whole knew about the situation and how the international community’s perceptions were shaped by reporting from the media and NGOs. Through examining the role of civilian rather than military observers, we gain further insight into the difficulties of perceiving genocide and of communicating this understanding to those with the power and capability to stop it.

Mark Gilchrist is a serving Australian Army officer and is a Featured Contributor at The Strategy Bridge. The views provided here are his own, and do not reflect any official position.

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[1] Article title taken from Samantha Power, A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, (London: 2003), p. 505, where ‘the twilight between knowing and not knowing’ relates to the points at which the difficulties in recognising genocide encountered a corresponding reluctance to act.

[2] Alain Destexhe, Rwanda and genocide in the twentieth century, (New York, 1995). p. 4.

[3] Samantha Power, A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, (London: 2003), p. 505.

[4] Alison Des Forges, Leave None to Tell the Story: Genocide in Rwanda, (New York, March 1999), p. 640.

[5] Beardsley was Gen Dallaire’s military assistant in Rwanda, PBS Frontline, ‘Interview with Major Brent Beardsley’, Ghosts of Rwanda, (15 November 2003).

[6] Security Council resolution establishing UNAMIR for a six month period and approving the integration of UNOMUR into UNAMIR, S/RES/872 (1993), (5 October 1993), Note: all documents referenced from the period have been drawn from The National Security Archive of The George Washington University,

[7] Dallaire, Shake hands with the Devil, p. 79 

[8] Special Rapporteur Report on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions in Rwanda 8-17 Apr 1993, E/CN.4/1994/7/Add.1, (11 August 1993).

[9] Report of the Secretary General on Rwanda, requesting establishment of a United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR) and the integration of UNOMUR into UNAMIR, S/26488 and addendum S/26488Add.1, (24 September 1993).

[10] Dallaire, Shake Hands with the Devil. p. 107.

[11] Barnett, Eyewitness to a Genocide.  p. 90.

[12] Special Rapporteur Report, E/CN.4/1994/7/Add.1.

[13] Melvern, A People Betrayed, pp. 71-72.

[14] Power, A Problem from Hell, p. 348.

[15] Holly J. Burkhalter, ‘The Question of Genocide: The Clinton Administration and Rwanda’, World Policy Journal, vol. 11, no.4, (Winter 1994), pp. 44-45.

[16] “Request for Protection for Informant”, Facsimile from Maj. Gen. Romeo Dallaire, Force Commander, United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda, to Maj. Gen. Maurice Baril, United Nations Department of Peacekeeping Operations, (11 January 1994). 

[17] Ibid.

[18] Contacts with Informant, Reply to 11 January code cable, to Booh-Booh/Dallaire from Annan, (11 January 1994).

[19] Dallaire, Shake hands with the Devil, p. 500.

[20] Colonel Luc Marchal was the Belgian contingent commander in Rwanda.

[21] PBS Frontline, ‘Interview with Colonel Luc Marchal’, The Triumph of Evil, (January 1999).

[22] According to the UNGC ‘genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such: (a) Killing members of the group; (b) Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; (c) Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; (d) Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; (e) Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.

[23] Dallaire, Shake Hands with the Devil, p. 198.

[24] Ibid, p. 220.

[25] Ibid, p. 332.

[26] Power, A Problem from Hell, p. 334.

[27] The civil war had entered an uneasy ceasefire with the signing of the Arusha Accords. As one of the preconditions for the establishment of the ‘Broad Based Transitional Government’ a Rwandan Patriotic Front battalion was stationed outside the Parliament to provide protection for Tutsi delegates. These troops were the first RPF troops to reinitiate the civil war when the killings began on April 7.

[28] Dallaire, Shake hands with the Devil, p. 280.

[29] Astri Suhrke, ‘Facing Genocide: The Record of the Belgian Battalion in Rwanda’, Security Dialogue, vol. 29(1) pp. 37-48, (1998), p. 44.

[30] FAX1.HUM, Humanitarian Assistance Plan, Outgoing fax from Dallaire to Annan, (15 April 1994).

[31] CODCAB11, The Military Assessment of the Situation as of 17 April 1994, From Dallaire to Baril, (17 April 1994).

[32] Ibid.

[33] Melvern, A People Betrayed, p. 86.

[34] Power, A Problem from Hell, p. 358.

[35] Letter4, Explanation of orders dated 16 April 1994, Letter from Dallaire to Colonel Nazrul Islam, (17 April 1994).

[36] SR1604.HUM, Report on Humanitarian Situation, Unknown author, most likely from head of the Humanitarian Assistance Cell, (16 April 1994).

[37] CODCAB11, The Military Assessment of the Situation as of 17 April 1994, From Dallaire to Baril, (17 April 1994).

[38] Barnett, Eyewitness to genocide, p. 1.

[39] Power, A Problem from Hell, p. 358.

[40] PBS Frontline, ‘Interview with Brent Beardsley’