From outright denial to blame-shifting: three guises of genocide denial in Rwanda

Genocide denial is an obstacle to meaningful reconciliation and healing in Rwanda, a country struggling to recover from the deep scars left by the 1994 genocide. In this article, Helen Hintjens and Jos van Oijen show that genocide denial has evolved over time, shifting from outright denial to relativizing the genocide by referring to other forms of violence, or recasting it in a way that shifts the blame to the victims and perpetrators while keeping bystanders such as international organizations out of the spotlight.

According to Human Rights Watch, in 100 days from April to July 1994, some 500,000 to one million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were murdered in Rwanda on the orders of the state. The ‘dark side of democracy’ involved mass citizen participation (forced as well as voluntary) in killings and the failure of weak UN forces and unwilling Western governments to protect the victims.

Genocide Watch recognizes denial as one of ten stages of genocide, and recent literature is emerging on this topic in Rwanda. Genocide denial is an obstacle to meaningful reconciliation and healing in this country. Even 25 years after the genocide, leading suspects are still being found and tried; only some will fully admit to what happened in Rwanda in 1994. At least three different types of genocide denial—there are probably more—are evident, starting shortly after the genocide and continuing to present. Moreover, organized denial started before 1994 to cover up genocide preparation.

It is important to recognize genocide denial in all its forms in order to prevent future justification of state violence targeted against minorities. The three forms of collective genocide denial, literal (1994-1998), interpretative (1998-2003), and implicatory (2003-present), do overlap, but one form is more pronounced in each period. These are discussed below

Literal denial (1994-1998)

Literal denial claims no genocide took place. It involves systematically negating the facts of genocide and keeping silent about genocidal plans and killings. Within and outside Rwanda, literal denial was widespread among leaders and followers of the Hutu Power. Governments represented in the UN Security Council who had a responsibility to act avoided using the word genocide, and this literal denial was because they did not wish to get involved. Even before genocide ended, literal genocide denial started in Europe, spread by groups with close ties to genocidaires before 1994. This included the French government and the White Fathers, Catholic missionaries from Belgium.

After the genocide, literal genocide denial became a defence strategy of genocide suspects at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR). Attorneys such as Christopher Black and Peter Erlinder believed the denial narratives of their clients and became activists on their behalf, claiming convicted perpetrators were actually political prisoners—victims of an international conspiracy led by the US and the UK.

Several scholars and journalists with little prior knowledge of Rwanda or the genocide were influenced by these lawyers. A good example is the case of Edward S. Herman and David Peterson who published several books and articles claiming the accepted history of the genocide was based on a ‘complex of interwoven lies’. They downplayed the organizing capacities of the Rwandan state, denying that the Hutu Power regime was even ‘capable’ of planning and managing genocide.

Interpretative denial (1998-2003)

Once a firm historical record of the facts had been established, around the late 1990s, literal denial became more difficult to sustain. Testimonies from survivors and studies by Human Rights Watch and other NGOs made literal denial almost impossible. As a result, interpretative denial became more pronounced. This involved distracting attention from genocide by highlighting other crimes committed around the same time or afterwards that were not classified as genocide, in order to relativize genocide.

Interpretative denial means that the ‘drama’ of violence is acknowledged, but is recast as something other than genocide. Facts are twisted to deny that the killings constituted genocide. Interpretative denial started when the international media swallowed tales of seemingly two-sided ‘tribal violence’ in Rwanda. The killings were justified as self-defence, part of civil war or ethnic self-determination of the ‘majority’ population. In this way, genocide becomes no more than ‘blood-letting’ or massacre.

A popular form of interpretative denial implies that the Tutsi minority more or less committed suicide. They first waged war against the Hutu majority, and then were wiped out in retaliation. It is claimed Hutu soldiers and civil defence militia had no choice but to defend themselves against an invading Tutsi rebel army. In this way, a deliberate campaign of extermination of up to a million unarmed civilians was rationalized by portraying victims as casualties of civil war—a war supposedly caused by victims themselves.

By portraying selective slaughter as self-defence, or part of civil war and ethnic self-determination by the ‘majority’ population, interpretative denial conveniently reworks the facts of genocide as something else. Narratives of interpretative denial suggest someone else was responsible for the killings, not Hutu Power organizers, not the Rwandan state. Victims are blamed, which may seem absurd. However, for perpetrators and their allies, this reinterpretation of genocide allows them to maintain a positive self-image.  One form of collective genocide denial, the ‘double genocide thesis’, bridges interpretative and implicatory genocide denial.

Implicatory denial (pre-1994, post -003)

Implicatory genocide denial acknowledges that genocide took place, but involves explicit counter-accusations to blame the ‘other side’. In Rwanda, implicatory denial involved conspiracy theories that preceded the genocide and were later revived and expanded upon. In the early 1990s, Hutu Power media claimed the Tutsi intended to wipe out the Hutu majority. This fear-mongering was intended to justify the creation of so-called self-defence militias, really death squads, like the notorious interahamwe, who in 1994 were deployed to kill Tutsis in their homes, at roadblocks, even in schools, hospitals, and places of worship.

The ‘double genocide’ thesis suggests the Hutu were themselves victims of genocide, perpetrated by the Tutsi dominated RPF. After the genocide against the Tutsi, this theory was used to suggest moral equivalence. It was claimed all sides were equally guilty of heinous war crimes. More recently, this narrative has evolved further to claim the RPF – not the Hutu Power elite – somehow masterminded the genocide against the Tutsi. According to journalist Judi Rever, the genocide against Tutsi was secretly planned, ignited, and fuelled by the RPF. It is claimed this was planned to generate international support and sympathy for the RPF seizure of state power in Rwanda. At the same time the RPF is accused of planning a genocide of Hutus, and slaughtering and demonizing the Hutu majority.

Implicatory denial is a bit like fake news, suggesting, ‘things are not what they seem’. Evidence is taken out of context or made up to ‘reveal’ a secret conspiracy. Literal genocide denial is relatively easy to challenge. Interpretative and implicatory genocide denial are more difficult, since they are not about denying facts, but about reinterpreting what lies ‘behind’ facts; what they mean. This suggests there are hidden truths behind the facts, often as with fake news, on the basis of hearsay and unsubstantiated evidence. More than 25 years after the Rwandan genocide, organized denial persists.

An obstacle to peace and mutual understanding

So, can laws and prosecutions prevent organized, collective genocide denial in Rwanda and elsewhere? Some think they can. Yet the problem is that genuine criticism of the present Rwandan government can sometimes be prosecuted as genocide denial. Unrecognized RPF crimes have meant that few soldiers have come to trial for killing Hutu during the civil war and in the years thereafter, in neighbouring Congo (DRC). This background helps politicize debates around genocide denial. Yet consistent and sincere efforts to combat genocide denial need to continue, and should not be misinterpreted as unconditional support for the current government.

This blog article was first published here and is based on the article ‘Elementary Forms of Collective Denial: The 1994 Rwanda Genocide’.

About the authors:

Helen HintjensHelen Hintjens is Assistant Professor in Development and Social Justice at the ISS, working in the field of migration.

Jos van Oijen is an independent researcher from the Netherlands who publishes on genocide-related issues in various online and print media.

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1 Comment
  • Anonymous
    August 6, 2020

    Spot on