The antagonism between Hutu and Tutsi that led to the 1994 genocide has its roots in the colonial period.[1] From seizing power in 1897, the German colonizers failed to acknowledge the particular meanings given to the categories of Hutu and Tutsi in precolonial society.[2] In general, the term ‘Hutu’ was used to describe the followers (or clients) of a more powerful or wealthy person and would eventually be used to refer to the majority of ordinary people. The term ‘Tutsi’ described the status of an individual as being rich in cattle.[3] However, these distinctions were fluid and citizens could be referred to as either depending on their day-to-day situation.[4] Colonialism altered the existing social systems in such a way that Rwanda felt its effects through the violence within the country during the 1950s and in the 1994 genocide.

After Germany’s defeat in World War I, control over the area that would become Rwanda was transferred to Belgium.[5] The Belgians created a system that demanded Rwandan subordination and made Hutu kingdoms subject to a central Tutsi monarchy. Further, the Belgians decreed that only Tutsi would be able to serve as colonial officials, while removing Hutus from positions of power and preventing them from pursuing higher education.[6] The Belgians’ preference for the Tutsi stemmed from European racism and traditional standards of beauty, which the Tutsi fit more closely[7] and were thus seen as more acceptable to western society.[8] Subsequently, the Hutu began to see the Tutsi as agents of colonial oppression.[9] Both German and Belgian rule in Rwanda was fundamental to turning Hutu and Tutsi into the highly charged, politically salient categories they are known as today.[10] Belgian support for Tutsi remained strong throughout the 1950s, until a Hutu counter-elite began to gain power and published a “Hutu Manifesto” in 1957.[11] This manifesto, though relatively moderate in its demands, provoked a backlash among Tutsi officials and created an increasingly polarized discourse within the country. In 1959, the conservative Tutsi Kigeri Ndahindurwa assumed power. This led to an outbreak of violence that began with a Tutsi assault on a Hutu subchief and retaliatory strikes by Hutus.[12]

Before Rwanda gained independence from Belgium in 1962,[13] the Hutus gained power through national elections in 1960 and 1961.[14] The victor was the Hutu nationalist political party, the Patri du movement de l’emancipation des Bahutu (Parmehutu). Following these elections, the new government held a referendum and 80 percent of Rwandans voted to end the monarchy. During this time widespread persecution of Tutsis, including massacres, began and drove thousands of Tutsis from their homes into surrounding countries.[15] Over the next decades, over 20,000 Tutsi were killed and more than 300,000 fled Rwanda.[16]

In 1973, Juvénal Habyarimana seized power and instituted a one-party system. During his rule, tensions between groups rose again. Northerners felt that people from the south were overrepresented in government, and the Habyarimana regime introduced overlapping regional and ethnic quotas. The Tutsi were treated as foreign exploiters and made to feel that they should be grateful to be left in peace.[17] Meanwhile, land became increasingly scarce and concentrated in fewer hands. A 1984 land audit found that half of the country’s productive land was owned by just 15 percent of the population.[18] Additionally, under Habyarimana’s regime, the system of communal unpaid labor, known as umnganda, was instituted in Rwanda.[19] The system required citizens to report to neighborhood leaders for community work.

In October 1990, the Rwandan Patriotic Army/Front (RPA/F), composed largely of Tutsi refugees,[20] invaded Rwanda from Uganda and other neighboring states.[21] Government forces repelled the RPF/A, and war broke out in the northeast of the country.[22] In August 1993, the Arusha Peace Accords were signed by the Rwandan government and the RPF.[23]

In early April 1994, President Habyarimana’s plane was shot down, killing him along with the Burundian president.[24] After the crash, government roadblocks were set up across Kigali and the interahamwe, Hutu youth militia members, began checking identification cards and killing Tutsis and moderate Hutus.[25] The genocide began on 7 April 1994 after Habyarimana’s death, but it had been secretly planned and plotted by the akazu and other Hutu extremists over a number of years.[26] Hours after the crash, the interahamwe began “the work” for which they had been trained. They killed a thousand people within an hour of the order being given.[27] The genocide began with the eradication of Hutu and Tutsi members of the political opposition, journalists, civil society leaders, and human rights defenders[28] and ended with hundreds of thousands of Hutu people turning upon their Tutsi neighbors and acting en masse to kill three-quarters of the Tutsi population.[29] Between April and July 1994, approximately 800,000 Tutsi were murdered along with perceived Hutu and Twa sympathizers.[30] Tutsi women, in particular, were targeted for their ability to reproduce and their deaths furthered the goal of destroying the Tutsi people as a social group.[31]

Two days after the massacres began, the RPA, the military arm of the RPF,[32] resumed its military operations and crossed into Rwanda from the north. The rebel forces defeated the Hutu government on 18 July 1994. During this period, the RPF/A was also responsible for numerous killings and forcibly displacing a large section of the Hutu population. Human Rights Watch estimates that the RPF was responsible for 25,000 to 30,000 deaths.[33]

Transitional Justice

In the aftermath of the genocide, the Rwandan government and the international community embraced criminal prosecutions as the primary approach to the restoration of order and justice in the country.[34] Immediately following the genocide, the government began arresting suspected perpetrators.[35] By 1996, approximately 120,000 people were imprisoned and the government stopped arresting all but the most serious perpetrators due to extreme overcrowding in the country’s prisons.  It soon became evident that the national courts could not handle the enormous number of genocide cases. The gacaca courts were developed to process most of these cases.[36]

On 1 July 1994, the United Nations (UN) Security Council appointed a Commission of Experts to investigate and make recommendations concerning the acts of violence in Rwanda.  In September 1994, the commission submitted its preliminary report, recommending the establishment of an international criminal tribunal to prosecute war crimes and genocide.[37] On 8 November 1994, the UN Security Council authorized the establishment of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) to prosecute the most serious perpetrators.[38] Following the precedent of the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia, the ICTR was established under Chapter VII of the UN Charter, concerning threats to international peace.[39]

Located in Arusha, Tanzania, the ICTR was given jurisdiction over persons accused of genocide, crimes against humanity, and violations of Article 3 of the Geneva Convention and Protocol II. Given a limited mandate to try crimes, the ICTR could only prosecute crimes committed from 1 January 1994 to 31 December 1994.[40] Formal proceedings began in November 1995 and the ICTR commenced its first trial in 1997.[41] By 2009, the ICTR had completed 45 cases, leading to 38 convictions. In 2007, Rwanda removed the death penalty from its national legislation, leading to the transfer of several suspects from Arusha to the national courts.[42]

In 1996, with foreign assistance, the Rwandan government began to make major changes to its legal system, including training judges and lawyers and establishing new courts.[43] In an attempt to speed the prosecution of approximately 130,000 genocide suspects, the government passed the Organic Law of 1996. This law divided genocide suspects into four categories based on the severity of their crimes: broadly orchestration of the genocide; torture, murder, or injury with intent to kill; injury without intent to kill; and property crimes. It established a plea-bargaining system that offered reduced sentences for suspects’ confessions.[44]

By 2000, the national courts had heard less than 3 percent of genocide cases, and it was clear that the vast majority of cases would never be heard at this rate.[45] This realization precipitated the creation of the gacaca jurisdiction. Aimed at speeding up genocide trials, reducing the prison population, and rapidly rebuilding the nation’s social fabric, gacaca was designed to handle low-level suspects, leaving the more senior accused to the national courts and the ICTR. For two years the gacaca courts used information provided by local community members to compile reports on what occurred between 1990 and 1994 and created lists of victims and suspects.[46]

The first gacaca trials started in 2005. Gacaca hearings normally took place in an open outdoor space, and the role of the community was to provide eyewitness testimony, debate the evidence, and assist the judges in determining guilt or innocence. After trying almost two million cases, the gacaca courts closed in 2012.[47]


One of the major shortcomings of Rwanda’s transitional justice process has been its failure to provide equal justice to all victims. Between 1994 and 1995, soldiers of the RPF, who ended the genocide and formed the current government, killed thousands of people. Gacaca courts, however, have not prosecuted any RPF crimes. In 2001, gacaca courts had jurisdiction over crimes against humanity, war crimes, and genocide. As they began their work the following year, President Paul Kagame cautioned against confusing crimes committed by RPF soldiers and genocide. In 2004, amendments made to gacaca laws removed war crimes from the jurisdiction of the courts. To this day, Rwandans who suffered or lost relatives at the hands of the RPF are waiting for justice.[48]


In order to commemorate the victims of the genocide, Rwanda holds an annual event where victims and survivors are publicly honored.[49] Rwanda has also established hundreds of memorial sites throughout the country.[50] Seeking to rehabilitate survivors of the genocide, including orphans, the elderly, and disabled persons, the Rwandan government established the Genocide Survivors Assistance Fund in 1998.[51] The fund provides critical assistance in education, housing, and healthcare to a large number of survivors. The government included the possibility for survivors to claim compensation from individual perpetrators, but none of the compensation awards by national courts has been enforced.[52]


Widespread and systematic rape was a distinguishing feature of the 1994 genocide.[53] Approximately 25,000 women were raped, often accompanied by sexual mutilation, sexual slavery, and forced impregnation.[54] Although the ICTR has jurisdiction to prosecute sexual crimes, it is not prevalent at the court. Due to the stigma associated with being raped, many victims sought prosecutions via conventional courts as they could enact measures to respect their privacy and keep their identity confidential.[55] In May 2008, in order to quickly process the complaints of thousands of rape victims, the Rwandan government transferred jurisdiction of genocide-related rape cases to gacaca courts. Many victims were angered by this shift, fearing that their identity and privacy would not be protected; however, some victims stated that their experience at the gacaca courts was less traumatizing than expected.[56]


The gacaca courts had mixed success. Although they successfully gathered a voluminous record on how the genocide occurred at the local level and promoted reconciliation in many communities by facilitating face-to-face dialogue between victims and perpetrators, the process was considered extremely time-consuming and many Rwandans found the constant recounting of the genocide traumatizing.[57]

International Actors

From the beginning of the RPF invasion in 1990 through the Arusha peace process and the creation of UN Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR), the African Union (AU) has been an active and key actor in Rwanda.[58] The AU played an important role in the peace process and established a small peace operations mission. It fielded the Neutral Military Observer Group I (NMOG I) from August 1992 to July 1993 and the Neutral Military Observer Group II (NMOG II) from August 1993 to October 1993.[59]

The UN has been the main international body to assist Rwanda in its transitional justice process. In 1993, the UN established UNAMIR with Security Council Resolution 872 to help implement the Arusha Peace Agreement.[60] UNAMIR’s initial mandate was to assist in ensuring the security of Kigali and monitor the ceasefire agreement. Throughout the conflict, UNAMIR’s mandate was expanded to assist in ending the genocide, facilitating the return of refugees, and protecting the ICTR. UNAMIR officially closed in 1996. The UN also played a vital role in the establishment of the ICTR in 1994 and reforming Rwanda’s judicial system.[61]


[1] This report draws on information from previous case studies done by Kristin Brandt and Nicole Beardsworth.

[2] Lavinia Stan and Nadya Nedelsky, eds., Encyclopedia of Transitional Justice, vol. 2 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2013); A. Walter Dorn and Jonathan Matloff, ‘Preventing the Bloodbath: Could the UN Have Predicted and Prevented the Rwandan Genocide?’ Journal of Conflict Studies 20, no. 1 (2000): 4; Catharine Newbury, ‘Ethnicity and the Politics of History in Rwanda,’ Africa Today 45, no. 1 (1998): 10.

[3] Alison Liebhafsky Des Forges, ‘Leave None to Tell the Story’: Genocide in Rwanda (New York: Human Rights Watch, 1999), 32.

[4] Helen M. Hintjens, ‘When Identity Becomes a Knife: Reflecting on the Genocide in Rwanda,’ Ethnicities 1, no. 1 (2001): 27.

[5] Johan Pottier, ‘Land Reform for Peace? Rwanda’s 2005 Land Law in Context,’ Journal of Agrarian Change 6, no. 4 (2006): 513.

[6] Des Forges, 34.

[7] These myths were common in Europe in the 19th and 20th centuries, and were driven by Darwinist evolutionary theory morphed into social Darwinism and so-called ‘scientific racism.’ See Rutledge M. Dennis, ‘Social Darwinism, Scientific Racism, and the Metaphysics of Race,’ Journal of Negro Education 64, no. 3 (1995): 243–52.

[8] Hintjens, 28.

[9] Ibid., 30.

[10] Filip Reyntjens, ‘Rwanda: Genocide and Beyond,’ Journal of Refugee Studies 9, no. 3 (1996): 243.

[11] Newbury, 12.

[12] Ibid., 11.

[13] Paul Christoph Bornkamn, Rwanda’s Gacaca Courts: Between Retribution and Reparation (Oxford University Press, 2012).

[14] Madeline Morris, ‘The Trials of Concurrent Jurisdiction: The Case of Rwanda,’ Duke Journal of Comparative and International Law (1997): 350–351.

[15] Ibid.

[16] Dorn and Matloff, 7; Des Forges, 37.

[17] Helen M. Hintjens, ‘Explaining the 1994 Genocide in Rwanda,’ Journal of Modern African Studies 37, no. 2 (1999): 247.

[18] Pottier, 514.

[19] Des Forges, 38.

[20] Morris, 351.

[21] Stan and Nedelsky, 412.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Morris, 351.

[24] Bornkamn, 15.

[25] Stan and Nedelsky, 413.

[26] Dorn and Matloff, 24.

[27] Reyntjens, 248.

[28] Dorn and Matloff, 24.

[29] Filip Reyntjens, ‘Rwanda, Ten Years on: From Genocide to Dictatorship,’ African Affairs 103, no. 411 (2004): 178.

[30] Stan and Nedelsky, 412.

[31] Newbury, 93.

[32] Bornkamn, 13.

[33] Des Forges.

[34] Izaabela Steflja, ‘Challenges of Transitional Justice in Rwanda,’ Backgrounder No. 18. (2012).

[35] Megan Westberg, ‘Rwanda’s Use of Transitional Justice after Genocide: The Gacaca Courts and the ICTR,’ Kansas Law Review 59 (2011).

[36] Ibid.

[37] Rwanda: Accountability for War Crimes and Genocide—A Report on a United States Institute of Peace Conference (1995).

[38] Westberg, 336.

[39]  Des Forges; United States Institute of Peace, Rwanda: Accountability for War Crimes and Genocide (1996).

[40] Ibid.

[41] Stan and Nedelsky, 412.

[42] Amnesty International, ‘Annual Report 2013: Rwanda’ (2013), https://www.amnesty.org/en/region/rwanda/report-2013.

[43] Stan and Nedelsky, 415.

[44] Organic Law No. 08/1996 of 31 August 1996 on the Organization of Prosecutions for Offenses constituting the Crime of Genocide or Crimes against Humanity committed since 1 October 1990–1 September 1996, http://www.refworld.org/docid/3ae6b4f64.html (accessed 28 November 2013).

[45] Stan and Nedelsky, 416.

[46] Human Rights Watch, Justice Compromised: The Legacy of Rwanda’s Community-based Gacaca Courts (2011).

[47] Human Rights Watch, Rwanda (2013).

[48] Ibid.

[49] ‘Access to Reparation for Survivors of the 1994 Genocide in Rwanda’ (paper presented at Civil Society Conference organized by African Rights and REDRESS in collaboration with IBUKA, Rwanda, 17 August 2011).

[50] Harvard University, ‘Through a Glass Darkly: Genocide Memorials in Rwanda 1994–Present,’ http://genocidememorials.cga.harvard.edu/data.html.

[51] ‘Access to Reparation.’

[52] Ibid.

[53] Heidi Nichols Haddad, ‘Mobilizing the Will to Prosecute: Crime of Rape at the Yugoslav and Rwandan Trials,’ Human Rights Review 12 (2011): 109–132.

[54] Ibid., 110.

[55] Human Rights Watch, Justice Compromised.

[56] Ibid.

[57] Ibid.

[58] African Union, Rwanda: The Preventable Genocide (2000).

[59] Terry Mays, ‘African Solutions for African Problems: The Changing Face of African-Mandated Peace Operations,’ Journal of Conflict Studies 23 (2003).

[60] United Nations, ‘Rwanda: United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda, http://www.un.org/em/peacekeeping/missions/past/unamir.htm.

[61] Stan and Nedelsky.

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