Historians, novelists, journalists, and filmmakers continue to examine the legacy of the Holocaust to draw lessons for the present generation. In the same way, it is important that we continue to examine the implications of the 1994 Rwandan genocide in order to draw out its lessons for the international system going forward. Let us hope that David Kilgour (ex-Secretary of State for Africa) is wrong when he states, ‘What we seem to have learned about Rwanda is that we have learned nothing about Rwanda’.
The UN knew its response to the warnings about Rwanda was inadequate. It was afraid of another Somalia, not about the potential for genocide in Rwanda. Its response was shaped by what it believed the five permanent members of the UNSC would support rather than an objective assessment of what the situation required. This meant UN staff began to deny their own responsibility and capacity to act. Indeed, the UN failed at all levels to understand what was taking place; this allowed it to keep up the pretence of knowing nothing, while doing even less.
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.
To understand mass violence and devise effective interventions, one must break from the popular notion that mass slaughter is purposeless barbarity. The next time the Islamic State or some other actor perpetrates an act of mass violence during a military campaign, we must ask ourselves what the leadership might hope to gain or achieve, and why decision-makers would allow such insanity. There may be a method to their madness, or an underlying strategic rationality being masked by their barbarity.