Elementary forms of collective denial: The 1994 Rwanda Genocide

Rwanda - bird on fence

Denial of the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda before, during and after the genocide itself was collective and highly organized.

This blog post by Dr Helen Hintjens and Jos van Oijen identifies three forms of genocide denial: literal, interpretative and implicatory.

When individuals or groups commit crimes, they don’t want to take responsibility for a common response is denial of the facts. The greater the crime, the more elaborate and organized must be the denial. 

Genocide denial is an obstacle to meaningful reconciliation and healing in Rwanda. Even 25 years after the genocide, leading suspects are still being found and tried; only some will fully admit what happened in Rwanda in 1994.

'Denial can be individual, personal, psychological and private—or it can be shared, social, collective and organised...' – Stanley Cohen

The Rwandan genocide

Comparative genocide studies emerged in the 20th century after several well-documented genocides organized by states in the name of 'racial' purity or imperial conquest. 

Genocide Watch recognizes denial as one of ten stages of genocide, and recent literature is emerging on this topic in Rwanda. According to Human Rights Watch, in one hundred days, some 500,000 to one million people were murdered, on the orders of the state. The 'dark side of democracy' involved mass citizen participation (forced as well as voluntary) and the failure to protect Tutsi civilians and moderate Hutu, by weak UN forces and unwilling Western governments.

Three forms of genocide denial

The genocide of April- July 1994 in Rwanda targeted Tutsis and moderate Hutus. Organized denial started before 1994, to cover up genocide preparation, and continued after the genocide.

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.

1. 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 regime. 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, Gatholic 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.  

2. 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 involves 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, and is discussed in the next section.

3. 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. … Literal genocide denial is relatively easy to challenge. Interpretative and implicatory genocide denial are more difficult...

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).

The lack of official acknowledgement of the huge scale of civilian suffering among Hutu who fled to Congo (then Zaire) in 1994, at the hands of the RPF, remains a serious remaining obstacle to mutual understanding in Rwanda…

Genocide denial can thus become entangled with genuine criticism of the present Rwandan government. The government of Paul Kagame has been accused of human rights violations, such as massacres of Hutu refugees in Congo, including by the UN. 

Tutsi genocide survivors formerly close to the regime, including famous musician Kizito Mihigo, have been killed, disappeared and died in mysterious circumstances. The lack of official acknowledgement of the huge scale of civilian suffering among Hutu who fled to Congo (then Zaire) in 1994, at the hands of the RPF, remains an obstacle to mutual understanding in Rwanda. Lasting reconciliation depends on setting the historical record straight, but genocide denial cannot be part of this.

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.

One can resolutely oppose Holocaust denial, for example, without supporting the present government of Israel. A principled and respectful memory of victims and due acknowledgement of their suffering is due to all genocide survivors, and the only tenable starting point for peace and recovery.  By denying its own past and present crimes, the Rwandan government indirectly helps conspiracy theorists, who in turn perpetuate denial narratives and double genocide theories.

Associate professor
Dr Helen Hintjens
Helen Hintjens’ regional focus is on the countries in the African Great Lakes region, especially Rwanda and Eastern DRC, and the relations of francophone Africa with EU member states. She works on peace-building, including through music and the arts, in Rwanda and the wider region. She also has more than 30 years’ experience of researching the comparative asylum policies of EU member states in the context of broader post-colonial relationships and ideas.
Jos van Oijen
Jos van Oijen is an independent researcher from the Netherlands who publishes on genocide-related issues in various online and print media.
More information

The item is based on the article 'Elementary Forms of Collective Denial: The 1994 Rwanda Genocide.' in Genocide Studies International

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