Thirty Years After Rwanda’s Genocide: Where the Country Stands Today

In Brief

Thirty Years After Rwanda’s Genocide: Where the Country Stands Today

After the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, the country has made tremendous strides toward peace and development. But critics say these have come at the cost of political freedoms.   

April 7 marks thirty years since the Rwandan genocide, in which a radical faction from the majority Hutu ethnic group launched a campaign to eradicate the ethnic Tutsi minority and other opponents, divisions some experts say were fueled by the legacy of Belgian colonial policies of ethnic identification. The one-hundred-day massacre saw at least eight hundred thousand people killed. In the years since, Rwanda has sought to rebuild society by focusing on reconciliation and economic development, efforts that have been shrouded in controversy under the authoritarian rule of the country’s longtime leader, President Paul Kagame.

How did Rwanda approach reconciliation?

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The genocide ended with the military victory of the Tutsi-led political group and today’s ruling party, the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), headed by current President Paul Kagame. A new, RPF-led government then pursued a nationwide approach of “unity and reconciliation” [PDF]. It also developed a new constitution that underscored equality of Rwandan citizens and discouraged any forms of public identification based on ethnic grouping, to emphasize social cohesion. However, a Human Rights Watch report later noted that these efforts were heavily marred by forced relocation, reeducation camps for followers of the previous government, and other extreme measures.   

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Genocide perpetrators faced distinct channels for justice. The United Nations led an International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) that adjudicated cases against the leaders of the genocide, while the national court system focused on those involved in its planning. Most other cases went to gacaca courts, the Kinyarwanda word for “grass,” which were a community-led justice system based on an indigenous method of dispute settlement where groups gathered out in public spaces to resolve local disputes. The gacaca system reflected elements of restorative justice, which focuses in part on repairing harm done to victims, and emphasized that victims could have the opportunity to learn the truth and where perpetrators received the chance to ask for forgiveness. More than 12,000 grassroots gacaca courts adjudicated over 1.2 million cases. 

“Healing from a genocide requires truth and justice,” Claude Gatebuke, activist and survivor of the Rwandan genocide, tells CFR. “And justice includes not only restorative justice… but also real accountability for the perpetrators.”

Several photographs of people that were lost in the genocide hang on hooks from wires in five rows.
Family photographs of genocide victims hang on display at the Kigali Genocide Memorial, in the capital of Kigali, Rwanda. Ben Curtis/AP

The gacaca system is often hailed as an ambitious, unique model for post-conflict peacebuilding, but some experts point out that the approach at times conflicted with the ICTR and national courts rulings or muddled evidence. Critics say the gacaca courts contributed to the current political entrenchment of Rwanda’s government by granting Hutus lesser punishments in exchange for their cooperation—and thereby shoring up Hutu loyalty to the RPF—while bypassing many Tutsi crimes.

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What is the current political situation? 

Kagame took office in an internal coup in 2000 and has governed Rwanda since. He is credited with much of the country’s present-day development and stability, and he has cemented control of the political system, winning the three elections he has entered with more than 90 percent of the vote. However, analysts note that the election environment is not free or fair. 

Critics say Kagame’s government has increasingly drowned out dissent, including by suppressing opposition members and skeptical journalists exposing critiques of the government. The government has faced a barrage of allegations of kidnappings, assassinations, torture, and extreme levels of surveillance of the opposition. Human rights watchdog Freedom House rates Rwanda as “not free” regarding civil liberties such as freedom of speech, and points to a lack of free and fair elections. 

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Rwandans voted to amend the constitution in 2015 to allow Kagame to seek office again. With virtually no realistic opposition candidates—potential contenders have either failed to gain real footing in the polls or have been barred from running altogether—the upcoming presidential election, on July 15, is likely to result in another seven-year term for incumbent Kagame. But some analysts say that Rwanda’s youth, born after the genocide, could soon demand more political openness.

A map of Rwanda with important points such as area (slightly smaller than Maryland) and population (13.4 million)

What are Rwanda’s development strengths and weaknesses? 

Despite these problems, the country has drawn plaudits for its successful economic and social development. Its economic growth has been among the continent’s best, averaging 8 percent per year over the last two decades. This success has been built on profits from agricultural exports such as tea and coffee, mineral extraction, tourism, and a large public sector. More recently, diversification efforts have fueled a rising tech sector and workforce development initiatives. 

Health outcomes have also improved, on the back of community-based health insurance that covers some 90 percent of residents. Life expectancy doubled in the two decades post-genocide. High rates of child mortality and HIV/AIDS, which plague many African countries, have fallen. In addition, Rwanda weathered the COVID-19 pandemic fairly well; it has one of the continent’s highest COVID-19 vaccination rates and has made strong investments in rural health posts. 

On social issues, Rwanda is considered a model for reducing gender disparities among lawmakers: its parliament has the highest proportion of women of any legislative body worldwide. Its level of education retention, the rate of children staying in school, is the highest on the continent. Rwanda is also hailed as a pacesetter on climate goals, having been one of the first countries to submit updated plans to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050. However, the true extent of Rwanda’s development progress has been questioned over potential data incongruencies. 

Still, women and LGBTQ+ communities say they face major barriers to equality and inclusion in practice. Kigali has also placed a strong emphasis on relationship-building and development through sports, initiatives that have come under fire for “sportswashing” its human rights violations. 

What is Rwanda’s role on the international stage? 

Western governments often seek to pressure African countries over their human rights records, but Rwanda is a complicated exception: Several Western countries have expressed regret for standing by during the genocide, and Kigali has since become a global “aid darling,” receiving around $1 billion a year from other countries, the most assistance per capita in East Africa. Its low corruption, high stability, and established infrastructure make it a low-risk aid recipient.

It is also an important Western ally on several fronts. The United Kingdom is controversially eyeing Rwanda as a site for sending migrants, and the United States hopes Rwanda can help edge out the continental spread of Russia’s paramilitary Wagner Group. In addition, Kigali paid Paris a favor when Rwanda intervened to stop jihadis from taking over a French gas project in Mozambique in 2021. Rwanda also contributes one of the highest numbers of peacekeepers to UN missions. 

However, Rwanda has drawn international criticism over its role in the ongoing conflict in the neighboring Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), which the United Nations calls one of the largest humanitarian crises in the world. The Democratic Forces for the Liberation of Rwanda (FDLR), a Hutu extremist group involved in the genocide, still takes refuge in the DRC, and UN experts and others say Kagame supports a Tutsi rebel group there known as the March 23 Movement (M23). Kagame has denied those claims despite UN reports of evidence showing Rwanda’s involvement. Some experts say that Rwandan intervention in the eastern Congo reflects Kagame’s ambition to assert regional dominance and secure access to mineral supplies.

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