The Genocide in Rwanda and the Structural Limitations of the Secular Human Rights Movement


In the spring of 2009, after a trial which lasted two years and exposed the horrors of the Rwandan genocide in a courtroom in Montreal, Canada for the first time convicted one of its residents of crimes against humanity that were committed in another country.  Accused génocidaire Désiré Munyaneza, 42, who had immigrated to Canada in 1997, was charged under the Crimes Against Humanity and War Crimes Act of Canada (2000), and convicted in Québec Superior Court of seven counts of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes committed in Rwanda.  In October he was sentenced to life in prison.  (The Crimes Against Humanity and War Crimes Act was enacted to implement the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court.  The ICC was established in 1998, fifty years after the adoption of the Universal Declaration on Human Rights by the United Nations, to punish acts of genocide and other serious international crimes against humanity.)

The international community, as represented by the United Nations Organization or individual countries such as Canada, France, Belgium, Germany, Italy and the United States, could have prevented the genocide in Rwanda.  They chose not to act, because of the incentive structures under which they operate:  (i) they do not accept the natural law of humanity with its call for justice and equality for all, leaving no incentive for protecting the weak and helpless; and (ii) many large organizations embody “agency problems” which are created when agent incentives diverge from client interests.  In Rwanda, the United Nations was the agent responsible for the protection of the defenceless client population.  When the genocide began, the United Nations abandoned its responsibility to the people of Rwanda and the rest of the world because it saw no compelling secular interest in intervention.  Ordered to stay in their barracks, U.N. troops did not stop little boys armed with machetes from killing their parents’ friends and neighbours.

Government-Sponsored Mass Murder:  Genocide and Democide

In the 20th century, approximately 281,361,000 unarmed and helpless men, women and children (roughly the same as the number that might die in a nuclear war) were killed by state and quasi-state regimes and non-state groups.1 During the same century approximately 35,654,000 people were killed in international and domestic wars, revolutions and violent conflicts.2

The term “genocide” was coined in 1943 by Raphael Lemkin, a Jewish lawyer from Poland, to describe any organized attempt to destroy an ethnic or religious group, including any systematic cultural destruction.3 The term excludes governmental killing of people for political reasons, for reasons of physical development or viability, or because they are members of large, poorly-defined collections of people who do not constitute a recognizable ethnic group.  Whereas “genocide” refers to the targeted extermination of a specific ethnic group, “democide” refers to the more general phenomenon of large-scale, intentional killing of people by government.4 Out of 218 cases of democide, or murder by the state (by 141 state regimes and 77 quasi-state regimes), fourteen cases involved the killing of over 1,000,000 people, and four—occurring in the Soviet Union, Communist China, Nationalist China and Nazi Germany—of over 10,000,000.5 The number of abortions included in these numbers is unknown.

Lemkin was also the major force behind the establishment of the 1948 United Nations Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide which, as of 2007, had been ratified by 140 states.  After years of negotiations to establish a permanent international tribunal to punish acts of genocide and other serious international crimes against humanity, an enabling treaty, often referred to as the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court, was adopted by a diplomatic conference on July 17, 1998, by a vote of 120 to 7 with 21 countries abstaining.  On July 1, 2002, after ratification by 60 states as required under Article 126, the treaty entered into force.  This enabled the International Criminal Court to prosecute crimes committed on or after that date.  To date, 108 countries have ratified the treaty, and a further 40 states have signed, but not ratified, it.  The law of treaties obliges these states to refrain from acts which would undermine the objectives and purposes of the Rome Statute.  In 2002 the United States and Israel removed their signatures from the treaty, and thus no longer have any legal obligations under the statute.

The United Nations:  Symbol of the International Community

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR) was adopted by the General Assembly of the United Nations on December 10, 1948.  It established a top-down framework for an international human rights law based on a relativistic definition of the value of human life. There is, furthermore, an inherent operational instability, due to the massive agency problems which reduce the law’s ability to achieve its objectives.6

The UDHR consists of thirty Articles, which describe a set of individual and economic rights, and address concerns such as racial discrimination, torture, enforced disappearances, disabilities, and the rights of women, children, migrants, minorities, and indigenous peoples.  Individual rights are established by Articles 1, (the belief that all human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights), Article 3, (the right to life, liberty and security of the person), and Article 6, (the right to recognition everywhere as a person before the law).  The recognition that the family is the natural and fundamental group unit of society and is entitled to protection by society and the State is established in Article 16.3.  The right to own property alone as well as in association with others, an economic property right necessary to provide for the support of the family, is established in Article 17, which states that no one shall be arbitrarily deprived of his property.

Other economic provisions of the UDHR are more controversial because, while they may attempt to ensure social justice, they appear to create economic entitlements such as free education, free housing, free health care, and free social services, which empower government to divide society into two groups, of which one—the “winners”—is compensated by involuntary transfers from the other—the “losers”.

Sovereign states rarely pursue justice out of a pure commitment to it; they do so when they come under political pressure to protect strategic interests, or if some injustice directly affects their citizens.  The usual response to the occurrence of genocide is either to recognize it but nevertheless find some difficulty in doing anything about it, or to deny that genocide is occurring.  The empty response by the United Nations to the genocide in Rwanda was a direct result of the fundamental indifference of the international community to the plight of eight million black Africans in a tiny country that had no strategic or resource value to any world power.7

The United Nations, Rwanda and the Prevention of Genocide

Rwanda and its southern neighbour Burundi are small, densely populated countries, located in the Great Lakes region of central Africa.  Each is composed of a Hutu majority, a Tutsi minority and a smaller group of Twa (pygmies) all of whom speak the same language, Kinyarwanda.  Nearly all Hutu and Tutsi are Christians, and they are linked by widespread intermarriage.  In 1898, the Tutsi kingdom in central Rwanda became a German colony, and the Germans, with the Tutsi, invaded the Hutu kingdoms to the north. In 1916, Belgium took over Rwanda and Burundi and incorporated the northern Hutu principality into the Tutsi kingdom of central Rwanda.  The Rwandans were converted to Catholicism by missionaries from Belgium, 8 assisted later by missionaries from Québec.9 The Belgians issued official identity cards to both Hutus and Tutsis, which stated their ethnic affiliation.  These cards emphasized and solidified the previously fluid ethnic differences between the two groups, and were used during the genocide to identify Tutsi victims.10 

Rwanda achieved independence in 1962, after a popular uprising drove out the Tutsi élite and installed a Hutu-dominated government led by Gregoire Kayibanda, a Hutu from the south who became the first president of Rwanda.  Over the next decade a series of violent pogroms targeted the Tutsi population, and many fled to neighbouring Uganda, Burundi and Zaire.11 In 1972, approximately 200,000 Hutu were massacred in Burundi by the Tutsi-dominated military regime, and as many more fled to Hutu-dominated Rwanda for safety.  In 1973, Kayibanda was overthrown by Major-General Juvenal Habyarimana, a Hutu.  In 1975, a one-party political system was established, including a youth wing, the Interhamwe, which played a predominant rôle in the 1994 genocide.

In  October, 1990, the Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF), a small but highly effective and predominantly English-speaking Tutsi military and political movement based in Uganda under the command of Major-General Paul Kagame, attacked across the northern border and occupied territory seized from the French-backed, poorly disciplined,  Rwandese Government Forces.  After a vicious two-and-a-half-year civil war, a peace agreement was negotiated in Arusha, Tanzania, which provided for a power-sharing agreement12 and the speedy deployment of an international peace-keeping force to guarantee the ceasefire.  Hutu extremists set out to destroy the agreement and began distributing an estimated eighty-five tons of weapons, including 581,000 machetes—one for every third Hutu male.13

On April 6, 1994, President Habyarimana and Burundian president Cyprien Ntaryamira died in a still-unexplained airplane crash.  Extreme elements in the Hutu regime in Rwanda seized control and began exterminating the Tutsi population.14 The small, undermanned and poorly equipped U.N. peacekeeping force, under the command of the Canadian Lieutenant-General Roméo Dallaire, did not receive the modest increase in troops and resources necessary to avoid the impending genocide.15 Approximately 800,000 people were murdered, mainly Tutsis, but also some moderate Hutus who refused to participate in the mass murder.  In July, 1994, the Hutu government was driven from power by the RPF army.

The United Nations could have prevented the genocide, but chose not to act, because it does not value all human life equally.  Policies to protect and nurture every human life must be based on the unqualified recognition of the Natural Law and the respect for all human life.  The Natural Law is the fundamental law of nature and of nations, which penetrates man’s being and serves as the principle around which civilized society should be organized.  Many in the developed world believe that their lives are worth more than the lives of other citizens of the planet.16 A group of bureaucrats who came to Rwanda to assess the situation in the first weeks of the genocide concluded, “We will recommend to our government not to intervene as the risks are high and all that is here are humans.” 17 One U.S. officer informed General Dallaire that the lives of 800,000 Rwandans were only worth risking the lives of ten American troops; the Belgians, after losing ten soldiers, insisted that the lives of Rwandans were not worth risking another single Belgian soldier.18 Canada was willing to supply only one solder to the mission, General Dallaire, who was hired by the U.N. under a civilian contract.  

Agency-Driven Operational Aspects of the Rwandan Genocide     

Unlike human nature, political reality is not determined by unalterable natural laws, but can be changed, reformed and reconstructed.  By their very nature, international organizations such as the United Nations (and its member states) are mediating institutions, tools like schools or other private associations, which are created to fill a need.  Such mediating institutions, like other tools, are essentially neither religious nor secular, but merely indifferent and neutral.  A government may be “good” or “bad”, but all governments obey the rules of the game under which they exist.

Each individual person is a spiritual being composed of a body, soul and conscience, created with God-given inalienable rights, and bound to a transcendent moral natural law, which can be learned from observation and reason.  All viable, long-term, civilized societies are founded on the acceptance of the Natural Law and respect for individual inalienable rights.  Government officials, judges and politicians are public agents charged to use the power granted to them to make public decisions, consistent with the principle of subsidiarity, to further the common good.

An agent is one who acts for another.  Most agents respond to incentives and their consequences in much the same way as other individuals. Agency problems arise when agent incentives diverge from those of the client, and the agent does not act in solidarity with his client.  In a perfect world, agent incentives would be congruent with the self-interest of the client, and the agent would work in solidarity with the client.19 In the world as it actually exists, the United Nations is a large bureaucracy composed of a large number of jealously-guarded fiefdoms, each dominated by an extended hierarchy of stakeholders and special interest groups.  All have claims on the resources of the United Nations, which are determined, not according to the principles of solidarity and subsidiarity, but by a complex set of power and agency relationships, which corrupt the ability of the U.N. to act as a force for peace in the world.  Information is power; the bureaucracy responds to incentives and their consequences rather than to lofty policy statements.  The incentive structure of the United Nations did not discourage genocide in Rwanda.

The U.N. Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) was not equipped to carry out the mission in Rwanda.  Other U.N. agencies (e.g., UNICEF and UNHCR) were better accommodated and enjoyed better living conditions.  The DPKO had to function with desks squeezed together, telephones jangling nonstop, and outdated computers that were constantly crashing (or typewriters instead).  Military staff always dressed in civilian clothes because uniforms made the civilian staff at the U.N. uncomfortable and created unnecessary friction.20

In Rwanda, long-term civilian U.N. employees worked nine to five, Monday through Friday, and took advantage of every possible perk and privilege. Short-term U.N. military personnel were expected to make do on meagre meals prepared by cooks standing in the pouring rain in temporary kitchens.  Staff officers worked lying prone on the floor because there were so few desks and chairs. Needed equipment sat in the U.N. depot in Pisa, Italy, while Rwanda remained low in priority.21

National contingents of troops were supposed to come to Rwanda with a two-month supply of rations; the U.N. didn’t supply the resources to make up deficiencies.  Western soldiers were reasonably comfortable in the field, but soldiers from less developed countries, who were rented to the U.N. in exchange for hard cash, lived in near-destitution.  Of the twenty armoured personnel-carriers requested by General Dallaire, only eight arrived, and only five were in working order.  They came with no mechanics, no spare parts, no tools, and operating manuals in Russian.  Lack of whistle-blower protection at the United Nations forced staffers who may have had relevant information about the sexual abuse of civilians by U.N. troops to seek the advice of the Government Accountability Project (Canada).22

There was a complete disconnect between the U.N. Commander in Rwanda, General Dallaire, and U.N. Headquarters in New York.  Warned by an informer that the boy soldiers of the Interahamwe were being supplied with tons of machetes and trained in killing techniques at several locations around the country, General Dallaire was ordered not to interfere.  When the genocide began, no attempt was made to stop the youngsters from killing.  The U.N. and the Western countries withdrew their troops.  The Belgian army, looking for a scapegoat to blame for the loss of ten soldiers but unable to punish General Dallaire, decided to court-martial one of its own officers. (The charges were later dismissed.)


Hearings in the Munyaneza case were held in five different countries.  Sixty-six witnesses were called and 16,000 pages of court transcripts were produced, at a cost of $1.6 million.  Part of the explanation for Canada’s decision to hold the trial may lie in a desire to counter the criticism that Canada had failed in the past to find and try war criminals.23

Munyaneza came to Canada in 1997, claimed refugee status, and was rejected three times, but never deported.  He is a Rwandan and his crimes were committed in Rwanda, where there is a functioning judicial system.  Canada could (and should) have returned him to Rwanda for trial.

Alternatively, Munyaneza could have been tried by the International Criminal Tribunal, based in Tanzania, which was established to deal with those accused of genocide in Rwanda, or he could have been tried by the International Criminal Court, which has jurisdiction over persons suspected of genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.  (The ICC is not supposed to usurp jurisdiction exercised by national courts, but only to act when the state is unwilling or genuinely unable to prosecute.  That was not the case with Rwanda.)

Many of the Rwandan leaders on both sides of the genocide had significant ties with Canada.  Since 1994, many Rwandans have immigrated to Canada, especially Québec, where they are producing a new generation of French-speaking children, as the birthrate among “pure laine” Québécoise women plummets.  The genocide trial may have been an attempt to create the illusion of concern on the part of the government, in the hope of attracting votes in future elections.


       1.  R. J. Rummel, Power Kills (2002).  and  

        2.  Ibid.

        3.  Ben Kiernan, Blood and Soil:  A World History of Genocide and Extermination from Spartat to Darfur (New Haven and London:  Yale University Press, 2007).

        4.  Rummel, op. cit.

        5.  Ibid.

        6.  L. M. Farrell, “Agency Issues and the Production of Merit Goods”, in The Catholic Social Science Review, Vol. XI (2006).

        7.  Vide Samantha Power, A Problem from Hell:  America and the Age of Genocide (New York:  Perennial/HarperCollins, 2002), and Roméo Dallaire, Shake Hands with the Devil (Toronto:  Vintage Canada, 2003).

        8.  Kiernan, op. cit.

        9.  Dallaire, op. cit.

       10.  Ibid.; Kiernan, op. cit.

       11.  Dallaire, op. cit.

       12.  Power, op. cit.

       13.  Ibid.

       14.  Ibid.

       15.  Dallaire, op. cit.

       16.  Ibid.

       17.  Ibid.

       18.  Ibid.

       19.  Farrell, op. cit.

       20.  Dallaire, op. cit.

       21.  Ibid.

       22.  Steven Edwards, “UN’s Frechette Involved in Whistle-blower Controversy”, in Montreal Gazette (23 Dec., 2004).

       23.  Editorial article, “We should let Rwanda try its own criminals”, Montreal Gazette (23 May, 2009).