Analyzing and Summarizing The "Ghosts of Rwanda: Frontline" Documentary

Updated on June 3, 2018
Kent Adams profile image

Nicholas is a student at Georgetown University. This essay is from an International Relations class he took.


Genocide, as defined by the United Nations in Article 2 of the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, is "any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, as such: killing members of the group; causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group; deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part; imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group; and forcibly transferring children of the group to another group." This word carries an extremely heavy weight, especially after the Holocaust prompted this very definition to be outlined, and thus applying the word to a conflict is a game-changer as far as international affairs are concerned. So why did the Clinton administration refuse to call the 1994 mass slaughter of Tutsi Rwandans by the Hutu majority a genocide? The use of such a label would have required strong intervention, whereas labeling it a “civil war” allowed it to run its course without foreign intervention. The Frontline documentary, Ghosts of Rwanda, serves to reveal the targeting of Tutsis by the Hutu government and the Hutu Rwandans that they rallied as a genocide that was ignored by the rest of the world. Applying various international relations theories to the genocide, we can understand why it happened and why nations that had the power to stop it actively chose to remain uninvolved.

Skulls Discovered of Victims of the 1994 Genocide
Skulls Discovered of Victims of the 1994 Genocide | Source

The Role of the State

The state is an actor in the international system and in the face of genocide, it is important to analyze the precise role of the state. In the case of the Rwandan genocide, there were numerous nations involved both in Africa and the Western world. We cannot ignore European colonialism’s role in the Rwandan genocide. Belgium was first given control of the land constituting Rwanda in 1919 as part of a League of Nations mandate splitting up Germany’s territories after World War I. Before Germany began colonizing the territory in 1884, the Tutsi minority were cattle herders who often had people of the Hutu majority, mainly farmers, work for them in return for cattle. German and later Belgian rule favored the Tutsi as a people they viewed as more fit to rule from their Western perspective. This caused greater ethnic tension as the Hutu began to resent to Tutsi people. When the Tutsi rule was overturned after World War II, the Tutsi fled to bordering nations such as Uganda. From Uganda, the rebel Tutsi launched a Civil War in 1990 to re-establish themselves in the region -- ultimately prompting the Hutu extremists to perpetrate a genocide. I believe the realist view of the nation makes the most accurate assumptions when it comes to the behavior and actions carried out by the state. History has proven that states normally take a non-interventionist approach when they have only the moral high ground to gain from a conflict. The divide ran so deep between these ethnic groups that they could not coexist as one state without a violent civil war.


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Location of the Republic of Rwanda

How National Interests Contributed to the Neglect

The Rwandan genocide teaches us that even after being provided evidence to act in order to maintain morality, nations will ignore the well-being of their neighbors in order to protect their own national interests. The Western world learned a great deal after the genocide perpetrated by Nazi Germany, however they made similar mistakes when it came to the genocide in Rwanda. The human rights activist from Rwanda, Monique Mujawamariya, summed this up well when she shared that a U.S. congressional official told her, “The United States has no friends, only interests -- and the U.S. has no interest in Rwanda.” Perhaps if there was oil to be drilled in Rwanda or something of value to world superpowers, then more nations would have intervened to keep peace. This was an ethnic dispute and there was nothing to be gained for third parties. The history behind events such as the Rwandan genocide further support the realist view that states will act on their national interests to maintain power. The international system is therefore anarchic and each state will act alone -- even if it means abandoning morality.

Pres. Bill Clinton Has Been Criticized for His Failure to Stop the Genocide
Pres. Bill Clinton Has Been Criticized for His Failure to Stop the Genocide | Source

The Role of Warfare

One important fact to note discussed in The Essentials of International Relations is that while the events began as a genocide, it “escalated to a civil war in which a former combatant, the Rwandan Patriotic Front, remobilized, rearmed, and attacked the government… ending the genocide.” (Page 253) Thus, the conflict must be viewed in the context of war. While it is understandable that President Clinton would not want to lose American lives fighting a war that was not ours, that certainly does not excuse how we ignored the slaying of innocent civilians who were specifically targeted based on their ethnicity. It would also be easier to excuse if the ethnic divide was not, in fact, worsened over time by Western colonialism in Africa. One good thing to come out of the atrocity was the formation of the International Criminal Court so that genocide, war crimes, and crimes against humanity could be prosecuted formally and through a permanent organization.


How Can We Apply Theories of International Relations?

The information provided by Ghosts of Rwanda challenges some other theories in international relations at the same time that it supports some, such as the realist view of the state. Clearly, the perspectives taken in the documentary do not reinforce the liberal view of the state or international system. I would argue that the liberal view of the individual is given some merit in the documentary in the stories of those who stayed behind, such as missionary Carl Wilkens and also Laura Lane who wanted to keep the U.S. embassy open as a safe haven for victims. These people were acting ethically and pushed for humanitarian and even just symbolic efforts during the genocide. Even though Laura Lane knew the U.S. embassy was far too small and weak to save a large amount of people, she knew that if they had remained in Rwanda then history could have at least viewed this action as countering the Hutu regime. Another international politics theory that this documentary challenges is the liberal view of international law, describing that compliance will occur because it is “the right thing to do.” The Rwandan Hutu government did not fear a negative international image and their state-sanctioned efforts to identify and kill Tutsis did not go against what they viewed as moral. Sometimes, individuals and individuals acting in a group, often experiencing groupthink that causes them to act irrationally in order to fit in, are simply evil. You cannot sugarcoat the deaths of around 800,000 people, the use of rape as a weapon of war, and the lasting trauma this event left on a nation. Overall, I believe that genocide is such a horrendous act that it is difficult to explain it in the context of any other theory besides realism.

A Mass Grave Discovered After the Rwandan Genocide
A Mass Grave Discovered After the Rwandan Genocide | Source

Concluding Thoughts

The Rwandan genocide was a tragedy of horrible proportions and it has political and historical ramifications that affect more than just the country of Rwanda. Failure to act will forever be a blemish on the record of the Clinton administration and the United Nations at large. Hopefully the world can learn from the mistakes of this tragedy, however, I do not have a lot of hope. The Rwandan genocide occurred with all the knowledge we had of the Holocaust under Nazi Germany and the Armenian genocide, two other situations where ethnic minorities were exterminated. At the end of the day, I feel as though the realist assumptions of an anarchic international system with states satisfying their own self-interests trumps any ideas of states intervening to preserve morality. Perhaps if this occurred in a more developed region of the world or there was not an ethnic divide between those killed and those with the ability to help or there was something of value to be protected in Rwanda, then the Hutus would have never come close to carrying out this crime against humanity.

Should the U.S. and other western countries have done more?

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