The BBC and the Rwandan Genocide

First published on TeleSUR English:

At the beginning of October 2014, the BBC aired a documentary called Rwanda: The Untold Story. The outlet, the BBC, and the producer and presenter, Jane Corbin, don't just possess impeccable mainstream credentials - they define the mainstream in the West. The one hour documentary is intended for a British audience, and Britain is a bigger supporter of Rwanda and its ruler, Paul Kagame, than even the US. Up until now, in Western media, scholarship, and commentary, the Hutus as a community have been held solely responsible for the Rwandan genocide of 1994, and Kagame held up as Rwanda's savior. The titular untold story is that of the crimes committed by the winners in the Rwandan civil war, and especially the crimes committed by the biggest winner who took all, Kagame, Rwanda's president for the past 20 years.

In the documentary, Corbin talks to Rwandan dissidents who were once close to Kagame, but are now exiled and hunted - Kagame's former army chief of staff, Kayumba Nyamwasa, has survived four assassination attempts so far. Kagame's former intelligence chief, Patrick Karageya, was not so lucky, and was strangled in a hotel room in South Africa in January of this year. The documentary shows Kagame at a prayer meeting after Karageya's assassination telling the crowd that anyone who crosses Rwanda will pay the price, and that "it's a matter of time." Details of assassination plots are provided by another exile, who fled the country rather than carry out a killing of these dissidents for Kagame.

Corbin also talks to a Hutu survivor, Marie, who was a school girl, whose family sheltered Tutsi children from the anti-Tutsi genocide in 1994, and who then fled and was hunted in the jungles of the Congo, along with hundreds of thousands of others, when Kagame's forces invaded the DR Congo in 1996, and who can't go back to Rwanda. Marie estimates that 10% of organized Hutu forces participated in the genocide - but all Hutus were hunted, indiscriminately, by Kagame's forces in the Congo. Marie's conclusions are similar to those reached by Robert Gersony, the author of a report on the Hutu refugees who were being killed in large numbers by Kagame's forces. The report was suppressed, as the BBC documentary notes - in order to protect Kagame from criticism.

The Gersony report was not the only suppression of evidence which international institutions engaged in to protect Kagame. When Carla Del Ponte, the prosecutor for the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) began investigations into crimes by Kagame's forces, Del Ponte tells Corbin in the documentary, she was told by Kofi Annan, the UN Secretary General, that the ICTR was political, and that there would be no tolerance for investigations into crimes committed by the winners in the war, only by the losers. When former FBI investigators were looking into the shooting down of the plane of the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi in 1994, an event that helped set the genocide in motion, they told Corbin, they were told to stop by Louise Arbour, then UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and well known Canadian human rights advocate. Successive, well-documented UN reports on the exploitation of natural resources in the Congo and of human rights violations there, all of which attribute primary responsibility to Rwanda and Kagame, have been filed and ignored.

The BBC report also talks to academic experts who rarely get a hearing despite being among the most knowledgeable people on Rwanda: political scientists Christian Davenport and Allan Stam, and political scientist Fillip Reyntjens. Anyone who studies Central Africa knows Reyntjens for his role in compiling the annual L'Afrique des grands lacs journal, as well as his articles and books. Davenport and Stam are known for compiling all of the numbers and data sources on deaths in the Rwandan genocide in 1994. Unlike Reyntjens, they are not experts on the region, but have worked to come to solid conclusions based on solid methodology and the available evidence. Good scholars, their academic publications show all of their data and the process by which they arrived at their conclusions, so that readers can come to their own conclusions.

What are their conclusions? In other words, what is this untold story that is so shocking, 20 years later? To look into it requires some careful study of the death counts, which, while simultaneously gruesome and dehumanizing, is politically important. One scholar, Gerard Prunier, who wrote one of the standard accounts of the Rwandan genocide, and who was at the time very sympathetic to Kagame and the RPF (more recently, like others close to Kagame, he has had experiences that drove him out of sympathy), reasoned as follows based on the 1991 Rwandan census and a growth rate of 3.2%. The Rwandan government said Tutsis were 9% of the population, 700,000 people, but Prunier bumps this up to 12%, 930,000 people. Based on figures of Tutsi survivors after the genocide, of 130,000 in refugee camps, Prunier estimated roughly 800,000 Tutsi deaths in the genocide.

Davenport and Stam, by contrast, encoded all of the massacres described in all of the human rights reports, including Alison Des Forges's field study for Human Rights Watch, a definitive report from African Rights, and government and other scholarly sources. Where the records showed a range of casualties, Davenport and Stam included the range in their analysis. Using this method, they produced a wide casualty range for the genocide and settled on a mean value of 1,063,336 deaths. This is very close to Filip Reyntjens's estimates, which are based on tallies made in refugee camps in the three years after the genocide. These estimates are between 1,069,643-1,143,225 deaths. Most of Davenport and Stam's 1,063,336 deaths, 891,295, were in areas under Rwandan government control. A much smaller, but substantial number, 77,043, were in areas under RPF control. Analyzing the available figures for Tutsi who survived the genocide, between 130,000-300,000, the range of Hutu victims is as low as 28,573, but as high as 958,573. Their best estimate, they tell Corbin, is of about one million killed in the genocide, 800,000 of which were Hutu, and 200,000 of which were Tutsi. Thus in Davenport and Stam's estimation, Hutus were the majority killed.

In Reyntjens's calculations, Tutsi were 10% of the population, or about 800,000 before the genocide, and 600,000 Tutsi were killed. This means, according to Reyntjens, 500,000 Hutu were killed. While not the majority, it is still nearly half of the victims.

How, if the Rwandan government set out to organize people to kill Tutsis in organized massacres, could so many of their victims have been Hutus? For several reasons. The main reason cited by Davenport is that the civil war and the massacres were creating massive displacement, of nearly the entire population. Even though local organizations were responsible for the killing, and locally, the killers could distinguish Hutu from Tutsi, in a situation where nearly everyone was fleeing from somewhere, and in a situation where admitting to being Tutsi was certain death, killers would have faced potential victims who were claiming to be Hutu, and killed them anyway. Many of the people who were killed as Tutsi, were Hutu.

Hutus were the demographic majority, so if there was a random element as well as a systematic element to the killing, this random element would led to many more random Hutu victims than Tutsi. I would also add a third possibility: that many Hutu were killed trying to protect Tutsi. The idea that the killers in the genocide were everyday Hutu neighbours of the Tutsi is quite pervasive, but it is also likely that many of these Hutu neighbours tried to protect the Tutsi members of their community and died doing so.

Davenport and Stam concluded from their analysis of the timing of the massacres that they occurred in government-held areas just before the arrival of RPF troops. The pace of the killing was set by the pace of the RPF advance. The Rwandan government turned away from its military enemy and instead committed genocide against its own population.

This was, as the BBC documentary shows, a matter of complete indifference to Kagame. His RPF rejected a peace deal with the Rwandan government because in his assessment, total victory was within his grasp. The BBC documentary argues that Kagame did not stop the genocide at all. Instead, it was actually the victims of the genocide who paid the price of the RPF's victory. Contemporary footage, shown in the BBC documentary, shows Kagame telling the camera that the killing is slowing down as the RPF advances, not because of the advance, but because most of those who were to be killed had been killed.

I should note here that I disagree with writers Ed Herman and David Peterson on the interpretation of this evidence. Herman and Peterson conclude that it was Kagame's RPF who did the majority of the killings. In their book The Politics of Genocide, they suggest that “Davenport-Stam shy away from asserting the most important lesson of their work: not only that the majority of killings took place in those theaters where the RPF “surged,” but also that the RPF was the only well-organized killing force within Rwanda in 1994, and the only one that planned a major military offensive.”

I disagree with Herman and Peterson because the RPF was not "the only well-organized killing force within Rwanda in 1994". The RPF was fighting a "well-organized killing force", in the Rwandan army and its militias, who turned primarily on the civilian population instead of fighting Kagame's RPF forces.

The BBC documentary also does not accuse Kagame's RPF of primary responsibility in the Rwandan genocide of 1994. The truth of Kagame's acts is bad enough without adding this crime: Kagame's invasion and the civil war set the context for the genocide; Kagame's massacres of Hutus in areas under RPF control were smaller in scale but were also crimes against humanity and were also genocidal like the Rwandan government's massacres; Kagame's massacres, proxy warfare, and occupation of the Congo have led to the deaths of, by best estimates, millions of people; Kagame's suppression of human rights and freedom in Rwanda have created a brutal dictatorship that has somehow been sold to the world as a developmental miracle.

Up until now, these discussions were impossible to have in the West, even on the left. One did not have to argue, as Herman and Peterson do (incorrectly in my opinion) that Kagame conducted the Rwandan genocide, to be labeled a genocide denier. Indeed, anyone who suggested that Kagame's forces committed crimes against Hutu civilians in Rwanda and Congolese civilians in the Congo was eventually labeled some kind of genocide denier, or a proponent of something called double genocide theory. Rather than coming to some kind of shared understanding of events in Rwanda, as Davenport and Stam tried to do, or as scholars like Reyntjens and Rene Lemarchand have tried to do, proponents of Kagame's government have smeared those who seek to understand the full magnitude of crimes and criminals in Central Africa in the 1990s as genocide deniers. In doing so, they have of course participated in their own kind of genocide denial, but worse than that, they have helped prevent any actual reckoning with the past, any end to impunity, that might help prevent the repetition of genocides in the future, including in the region. As Reyntjens said in the BBC documentary, there might presently be a lid on the volcano there, but it may erupt again.

The BBC documentary is not perfect. It shows Tony Blair smiling all over the place next to Kagame, and even a shot of Clinton, but a whole other hour could be spent with the evidence on economic interests unearthed by the UN investigations into the exploitation of natural resources in the Congo, the parallel genocides and wars in Burundi, the Western interventions that set all these horrors in motion in the 1960s, and the disgraceful role of most Western media and scholarship in covering it all up. But for one hour, on the BBC, it is a remarkable opening to think about Central Africa and the West's role. It remains to be seen whether the BBC and Jane Corbin will now be accused of genocide denial, or whether this documentary can help Westerners begin to understand what they are actually supporting in Africa, in Reyntjens's words, "the most important war criminal in office today”.

Note: On Oct 18/14, Ed Herman and David Peterson's reply to the above article was published on ZNet. I wrote a comment underneath their article just clarifying my disagreement, which I'm reproducing here:


Ed, David:

First, I didn’t want you to think I was singling you out just to disagree with you. When the BBC doc came out, I, like Jonathan Cook, thought back to that ugly McCarthyite episode with Monbiot. Because Monbiot’s particular focus was your writing, I thought I had to address your writing – and my disagreement with it. I was trying to model how I think people should disagree, just sticking to the facts and trying to point out exactly where the disagreement is. That was why I mentioned you in the first place.

As for the disagreement. You write above that you “hew closely” to Davenport and Stam, and you do, until you make the leap that Davenport and Stam don’t make, in which you attribute to the RPF massacres their data attribute to the Rwandan government and militias. Their animations show most of the biggest massacres taking place in areas under Rwandan government control. And the datasets they based their work on, including the African Rights and the HRW report by Des Forges, describe a lot of these massacres in a lot of detail, including who did them. It’s the same types of reports, with the same types of testimonies, that describe massacres by Kagame’s RPF, including Kibeho and others. Even after reading your reply above, I continue to think this is a big leap you guys are making, beyond the evidence.

As for the numbers, I think, and I think Davenport and Stam acknowledge, all of the estimates are pretty rough, including the ones Davenport and Stam give. On their genodynamics website, they summarize Ibuka’s data (which I am not very familiar with, I only know about it through them) by saying it is an enumeration only for Kibuye prefecture. Is the estimate of 300,000 survivors a scaling up of some kind? You guys know that Prunier bumped the pre-genocide population of Tutsis up from 9% to 12% for his calculation. In his 1997 article, Reyntjens proceeds by assuming the pre-genocide population of Tutsis was 10%, and that 3/4 were killed in the genocide, which is where he arrives at his estimate of 600,000 Tutsis and 500,000 Hutus.