The Rwandan genocide of 1994 is recognised by all who have studied it seriously as one of the largest-scale, most concentrated episodes of mass murder in the last century. About 800,000 people, mostly Tutsis but also Hutus who opposed the Hutu Power regime, were killed in a matter of weeks. Frequently compared to the Armenian genocide and the extermination of the Jews, like them its ramifications have continued long after the events. It has increasingly been the focus of sharp controversy, as the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) government led by Paul Kagame has used the genocide to justify its own atrocities and authoritarianism, while those opposed to the RPF regime and Western support for it have often minimised the 1994 genocide itself.
At the beginning of this month the BBC’s This World series waded into this highly charged context. Jane Corbin set out to investigate the RPF’s crimes, which include massacres during the invasion of Rwanda that helped provoke the genocide in 1994, at the Kibeho camp where Hutus were held by the victorious RPF in 1995, and at various times in the Congo wars, in massacres that were investigated (along with others by its opponents) by a UN commission of inquiry. These are indeed a largely ‘untold story’, as the programme claimed, for Western publics.
However in the course of exposing the RPF, This World also publicised controversial arguments about the 1994 genocide, provoking 38 academics and others, most of them Rwanda experts, to write in protest to the BBC. They claim the programme whitewashed the Interahamwe militia, the trained killers of the genocide; grossly minimised the numbers of Tutsi murdered; and supported the largely discredited theory that the RPF itself shot down the plane of President Juvenal Habarymana, the event that was the signal for Hutu Power murderers to spring into action in April 1994.
The BBC strongly refutes ‘the suggestion that any part of the programme constitutes a “denial of the genocide against the Tutsi”.’ It points out that ‘there are repeated references to the mass killings of Tutsis by Hutus in 1994 and that this constituted genocide.’ However central to This World’s account were two US academics, Allan Stam and Christian Davenport, who while acknowledging that many Tutsis were killed in 1994, claimed that even more Hutus died at the hands of the RPF in that year. ‘Rwanda’s Untold Story’ apparently accepted this claim, but consulted none of the many who have carried out more in-depth research into the 1994 events and regard it as wholly inaccurate.
Falsifying the identity of the majority of victims lifts the main blame for killing from the Hutu nationalist génocidaires, and places it on the movement that opposed them. The RPF may have been responsible for serious – even genocidal – atrocities on a smaller scale, but all the available evidence suggests that in 1994 it was the Hutu Power regime that perpetrated the largest-scale mass murder anywhere in the post-Cold War era, primarily against Tutsis. Claims that shift the responsibility to the RPF are as much genocide denial as claiming that no mass killing took place at all.
This World didn’t appear to recognise that while President Kagame’s ‘official narrative’, as the programme called it, of the 1994 genocide helps to keep his grip on power, many of his critics have dubious axes to grind. Rwandan Hutu nationalists have now been joined by Western leftists who appear to believe that any genocide recognised by the West must be a myth. Radicals like the Guardian’s George Monbiot who refuse to support this denialism are subjected to widespread online abuse.
The truth about genocide in Rwanda does not belong to the opponents of the RPF regime any more than to President Kagame. Acknowledging the crimes of the RPF should not mean minimising or denying the Hutu Power genocide – or the fact that Kagame’s victory ended it, whatever new horrors it led to in the Congo. The catastrophic 1994 events were certainly the outcome of a political struggle in which the RPF was far from innocent, but that movement was not its perpetrator. Nothing the RPF has done since can justify the journalistic revisionism that the BBC allowed out on October 1st.
See my fuller post on Left-wing Genocide Denial and also Once More on Left-wing Genocide Denial. I have also written about the interactive regional pattern of genocide in the African Great Lakes in Genocide and International Relations, pp. 164-71.