In Rwanda, genocide commemorations are infused with political and diplomatic agendas

Rwandan President Paul Kagame is visiting Paris this Monday and Tuesday, amidst a warming of diplomatic relations between the two countries. French President Emmanuel Macron is expected to visit Kigali the following week. In this context, the publication of reports and commemorations of the 1994 genocide of the Tutsis must be read in light of diplomatic agendas, writes French researcher André Guichaoua.

In Rwanda, genocide commemorations are infused with political and diplomatic agendasRwandan President Paul Kagame and his French counterpart in May 2018. The diplomatic warming initiated since the election of Emmanuel Macron could lead the latter, during a visit to Kigali next week, to present apologies from France for its role in the 1994 genocide. © François Mori / Pool / AFP
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Ever since its creation, in 2003, the National Commission for the Fight against Genocide (CNLG) has been responsible for Rwanda’s genocide remembrance policy, based on a program that has, over time, influenced all aspects of politics, across all sectors.

Each year, themed memorial events are organised, in close collaboration with the president in office. This article will address the period following the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan civil war and the 1994 genocide. It is a detailed review of the annual commemorations held by Rwandan authorities to mark the 1994 genocide.

2014-2019: Internationalising genocide remembrance

During this period, Rwanda entered the final phase of their genocide remembrance public policy, the “second internationalisation” phase, as defined by the CNGL. The aim was to urge recognition and commemoration of the genocide as an ethical obligation across the world.

In 2014, this policy gave rise to commemorations organised in Kigali that were considered particularly offensive, especially by the French government. The very morning of the event, the French ambassador’s accreditation to attend was withdrawn. This culminated in an accusatory speech by President Paul Kagame at the official ceremonies, at which the UN Secretary General and many foreign heads of state were present.

In December 2017, in light of the widespread international genocide commemorations on 7 April, Rwanda submitted a draft resolution to the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) to change the name of the “International Day of Reflection on the 1994 Genocide in Rwanda”. On 26 January 2018, the UNGA adopted a decision without vote to use the official Rwandan wording, changing the designation to the “International Day of Reflection on the 1994 Genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda”. This decision was highly criticised, given that the new name reintroduces a specific ethnic group and excludes other victims.

​ In 2019, the 25th anniversary commemorations consecrated the international community’s unanimous recognition of its responsibility towards the genocide and unwillingness to try to stop it. The official ceremonies were characterised by expressions of remorse from many countries and took place on an exceptional scale.

Even France, usually in the crosshairs, was spared. A few months prior, a French court had dismissed the case against some prominent Rwandans for the 6 April 1994 attack on President Habyarimana’s plane which sparked the genocide). This resolved a long-running dispute between France and the new Rwandan regime authorities, but was not without risk. In fact, in 2017, while the investigation was being closed, Rwanda enlisted a prestigious American law firm to examine the possibility of bringing France before international courts for complicity in genocide.

Though French President Emmanuel Macron was expected in Kigali, he ended up sending a parliamentary deputy of Rwandan descent. In a [public declaration, he highlighted his desire to “break with the way in which France had understood and taught the Tutsi genocide” and made 7 April a national day of commemoration in France. A commission was set up “to examine all French archives relating to Rwanda between 1990 and 1994”. A French court also dismissed another case against French officers involved in Operation Turquoise during the 25th anniversary of the Bisesero massacre, in June. The judges of inquiry give place to historians. This indicated an educational approach towards French sovereign institutions, who were invited to acknowledge this legacy and recognise the “errors” of the past. Questions, awaited answers and the planned schedule for this process could not be continuously submitted to pressure from Rwandan authorities.

2020: The return of controversial commemorations

The 26th; anniversary was particularly complicated for Rwanda. On top of Covid-19 restrictions forbidding public gatherings, the UN secretary general António Guterres and UN General Assembly president Volkan Bozkir unexpectedly questioned the new official title on the eve of the commemorations. In his public message, António Guterres specified that among the “one million people murdered in just 100 days, the victims were overwhelmingly Tutsi, but also included Hutu and others who opposed the genocide. On this day, we honour those who were killed. And we gain inspiration from the capacity of those who survived for reconciliation and restoration.”

​ The following day, 7 April, President Kagame’s short public declaration took note of the statements from the UN. It was addressed to “survivors” and “all Rwandans”, evoking “those we lost”, speaking of “tragedy” and “what happened to our country, and what we learned from it”, but without specifically mentioning the “genocide against the Tutsi”.

Such a transgression of the official wording, set out by the Constitution and legally mandated, drew such criticism from survivor organisations that the President eventually backtracked.

Rwanda’s draft resolution amending the title of the outreach program required a formal vote to be passed in the UNGA. On 20 April, during debates, the United States and the United Kingdom denounced this discrimination towards other victims of the war and genocide, and the rewriting of history implied by this wording. Following Rwandan pressure, the controversial version of the resolution was nevertheless passed by consensus.

The American ambassador then sent a second explanatory letter to the UNGA President, expressing her disappointment “in the negotiation process that led to this resolution … while forcing Rwanda’s allies, including the United States, to accept language we find concerning”.

On 28 April, an official response from the Rwandan government defended the decision to name the Tutsi as the only victims of the genocide and lamented: “Rather than advancing reconciliation, the explanations of position of the United States and the United Kingdom bring ambiguity that feeds the resurgent genocide denial movement that is already on the rise in the Great Lakes region and beyond”.

All objectives of the active national commemoration policy promoted by the CNLG have therefore been formally achieved. The “genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda” is now recognised and commemorated internationally as an ethical obligation, and so is the genocide remembrance policy, now divorced from its historical context, as underlined by the American ambassador’s remarks.

In fact, by dissociating the genocide from actions undertaken by the two politico-military blocs during the 1990–94 war, which culminated in the “final war” and the genocide in April-July 1994, Rwanda’s official history has ended debates that characterise the historic work relating to this region since countries achieved their independence. It’s no longer a matter of rebuilding, using factual data or research to provide greater depth, but criminalising all those who dare to disagree, citing the various genocide denial laws.

2021: Rwanda’s “other fights”

In April 2021, two major events provided the backdrop to commemorations. Back on 26 March, the publication of a report based on French archives relating to Rwanda and the Tutsi genocide was followed by the announcement that the French President would likely travel to Rwanda. In Kigali, authorities were actively preparing for a summit of Commonwealth member countries to be held in June. Everything pointed towards the commemorations capitalising on these advances.

They were indeed capitalised on, but President Kagame’s long speech consisted mainly of justifying the authorities’ resolution to defend the fruits of reconstruction – the restoration of peace, security and the rule of law, and the fight against perpetrators of genocide living outside Rwanda. In the process, he also responded to overseas criticism sparked by the regime’s measures of law and order.

The President thereby denounced those countries that have not tried genocidal perpetrators living on their own soil and refuse to extradite them to Rwanda: “it’s the same people who question the use of ‘Genocide against Tutsi’,” he said (that is, those who opposed the April 2020 UN resolution). In the eyes of the President, such opposition is not a simple reminder, but rather a new challenge to fight:

 Well, today we have another struggle, people are struggling to call it ‘Genocide against the Tutsi’. But the problem of definitions started way back in 1994, of just simply naming what it was.”

This struggle and accusations of denialism are surprising, given that Kigali is preparing to host the next meeting of the Commonwealth, an organisation based around the United Kingdom. Membership for Rwanda goes beyond the fact that part of the population speaks English, and is mainly based on adhering to values in the Commonwealth Charter. The British representative went so far as to raise this once again when delivering a statement on Rwanda to the UN Human Rights Council in January 2021:

 As a member of the Commonwealth, and future Chair-in-Office, we urge Rwanda to model Commonwealth values of democracy, rule of law, and respect for human rights.”

Rwanda’s human rights violations have been denounced by the biggest Anglo-Saxon human rights organisations, such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International, which ranked Rwanda among the worst countries in the world in this area. Hence the animosity and cutting reply from President Kagame to Great Britain:

It is as though this simple recognition of what the word [genocide] should be would be a reward bestowed on Rwandans in exchange for ‘good behaviour’. … What a shame.”

In rebuttal, Kagame referred to a passage from the recent report on the French archives, which “shows that President Mitterrand and his closest advisers knew that a genocide against Tutsi was being planned by their allies in Rwanda”. The French report does in fact provide a documented approach and strong critique of France’s role supporting the Habyarimana regime between 1990 and 1994, but stops short of stating that France was “complicit in the genocide”. “It also marks a change,” Kagame commented. “It shows the desire, even for leaders in France, to move forward with a good understanding of what happened, and we welcome this.” This is a new step forward from a country that has been regularly challenged by the Kigali authorities since the first official commemorations in April 1995.

But the most important part was yet to come. On 19 April, Rwandan authorities finally revealed their own “investigative report,” prepared by an American law firm, on the role of the French government in connection with the genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda. This report was updated in light of the French report’s conclusions, but was much harsher. According to the Rwandan Minister of Foreign Affairs, the investigation against France establishes that the responsibilities of French political leaders at the time “enabled a foreseeable genocide”. It also settles “the truth, based on recognised facts and existing archives,” and states that “France did not participate in planning the genocide … nor in the killings and violence,” adding, “the French government is not complicit. But it’s a question of law and the Rwandan government will not bring this question before a court.” In this way, the foundations for a “healthy relationship” have been laid, contingent on an official apology, which “would be a step in the right direction to rebuild trust”.

It is worth highlighting that the two reports agree that France was not complicit in the genocide, and mutually renounce taking the dispute between the two countries to court. In France, the 2019 case dismissals cleared a path for “archival historians” to take over. Following their analysis of a significant body of official data that had been classified until that point, they pronounced conclusions of a legal character, despite not being specialised in the area of Rwanda. Similarly, the Rwanda-appointed American lawyers came to the same conclusions, having spelled out a long, detailed history of Rwanda’s liberation from the genocidal regime, a regime that was continuously supported by France, first politically when it took over in the 1970s, then militarily during the war, without forgetting about the relations with the current authorities. These conclusions are part of an established policy, unrecognised as such, following a spectacular defence that France was not complicit in the genocide, which is what their client wanted.

Researchers specialising in this region, who were deliberately kept out of the report-writing process for these two documents, are now invited to assess their unprecedented contributions and recent “established truths”. Such truths are likely to rewrite approaches to the war and genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda in 1994.

2022: Challenges ahead

It would seem that next year’s commemorations will involve a wealth of events and contributions. Without trying to predict the diplomatic and political factors that will be in play, we can already mention two international commemorations that concern Rwanda either directly or indirectly. The first will be held on 1 July, the anniversary shared by “warring brothers” Burundi and Rwanda celebrating sixty years of independence.

In Rwanda, where 1 July is an unremarkable public holiday, the regime will probably continue to mainly celebrate 4 July, the date that they took Kigali in 1994. In Burundi, it’s the opposite. Authorities intend to give strong symbolic and political meaning to the occasion, remembering both the country’s independence and the 50th anniversary of the genocide against the Hutu in 1972. Giving a national and international recognition to this “hidden” genocide will be at the heart of this year’s commemorations.

Without getting too deep into the debate around the concealment of this part of history, it should be said that multiple UN reports mention the massacre of Hutu by the Tutsi in 1965 and 1972 in their list of massacres it considers genocides (Report, 1985,pp. 12, 20, 22), as well as the acts of genocide perpetrated against the Tutsi minority on 21 October 1993 and in the following days (Report, 1996, pp.89). But, in the absence of in-depth investigations, these crimes have remained free of legal repercussions.

Since Rwanda and Burundi achieved independence, the region has been marked by closely intertwined national political crises, dominated by divided ethnic groups. The various massacres and genocides in 1959–61, 1965, 1969, 1972, 1988, 1973, 1993–94 and 2015 remain profoundly fixed in the memories of both Burundians and Rwandans. While the “Tutsi” domination of Burundi and “Hutu” domination of Rwanda (now inverted after two civil wars) have established since the independence the political authoritarianism of military regimes and/or de facto single parties, the debate sparked by UN representatives about commemorating one group of victims over the other will endure in various forms, on both sides of the border.

Ouverture du débat dès cette année au Burundi.

The specifics of Burundi’s event to commemorate the 1972 genocide of the Hutu have not yet been decided. However, it would therefore appear paradoxical that at the next commemoration of the 1972 Hutu genocide, The Burundian authorities do not confirm the position of principle in the name of which they did not associate themselves last year with the “sponsor” countries of the Rwandan resolution, nor to explicitly mention the “other victims”. For the vast majority of Burundians, fifty years after the 1972 genocide and a return to peace, it is high time to honour the memory of all the victims of national divisions.

In many places, the open debates, established by the Truth and Reconciliation Commission alongside the current work of exhuming and registering the victims from 1972, have allowed for liberating moments of expression for Hutu and Tutsi populations. These populations have learnt to live together and establish a dialogue. On the ground, strong public motivation and the involvement of ethical institutions in mourning efforts has curbed or even contained politicians’ intentions to set their own agendas onto the process.

In this context, the “duty of remembrance” and “duty of history” are moving forward together. This could finally pave the way for the writing of a plural, shared, national history.

Such demands could not leave the authorities permanently insensitive. In April, the Burundian Senate and the TRC have opened the debate. It could even be contagieux in Rwanda.


André Guichaoua is professor of sociology at the University of Paris 1 Panthéon Sorbonne. An expert witness for the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, he has published “From War to Genocide, Criminal Politics in Rwanda”, 1990–1994, University of Wisconsin Press, 2015.

This article has been initially published by The Conversation under a Creative Commons licence, in a slightly reduced version. It has been modified by Justice Info with the author’s permission.