How good people turn evil – the Rwandan Genocide

The following article explores the Rwandan genocide, highlighting the involvement of “ordinary” people in mass killings. Drawing on historical context and perpetrator testimonies, it reveals complex motivations behind genocide. It emphasizes the need for vigilant civil societies and robust institutions like the rule of law to prevent future atrocities.

Introduction

Humans are generally good – at least, that is what most people want to believe. This view is mirrored in the thoughts of countless philosophers like John Locke. Most people cannot imagine using violence against other human beings. Or at least, most people want to believe that. We want to have a positive self-image; we want to believe that we are intrinsically good people. That includes living peacefully with our neighbours. However, history is full of examples of humans persecuting other social groups who are knowingly harmed by others: The support of the broad German society for the concentration camps in the Third Reich (Goeschel & Wachsmann 2010) or the genocide against the Rohingyas (UNHR 2023). One historical example is even more shocking: In the genocide of Rwanda in 1994, “normal” people got involved in brutal violence, turning against and killing their neighbours and friends. How is such an escalation in genocides possible? What makes good people turn evil?

Causes of and motivations behind genocide

Genocides are a complex phenomenon and are never monocausal. Even though a common belief is that the main root of these atrocities is a deep-seated hatred amongst social groups, Strauß (2016) contradicts that as “deep social divisions—ethnic conflict; distrust between ethnic, regional, or religious groups; and the existence of prejudice and stereotypes—are fairly common globally”, genocides, on the other hand, are relatively uncommon. He lists instability and conflict, ideology, and previous discrimination and violence as causal factors. These findings show that most people are not intrinsically motivated by their emotions to participate in a genocide. Rather, there seems to be a strategy behind it. This is supported by the fact that there are early warning signs, which of course are not bullet-proof, but can alert the International Community (ibid., USHMM w.D.a). These signs include tension and polarization, apocalyptic public rhetoric, labelling civilian groups as the “enemy”, and removing moderates from leadership or public service. 

Naturally, there is no genocide without perpetrators. But how does a person become a perpetrator? Literature suggests that a specific percentage of every society are perpetrators, at least in theory (Baum 2008). While some sources put this percentage number at 2 – 15%, others put it at 15 – 20 %. Whatever the exact number may be, this social research shows that in every society, there are people who do not share the same empathy and compassion towards other people as the majority of society. After committing an atrocity, those perpetrators do not feel remorse or guilt.

Hutu against Tutsi: The Rwandan genocide

After gaining independence in 1962, “Rwanda’s population was composed of three ethnic groups: Hutu, Tutsi, and Twa” (USHMM w.D.b). The Hutu population, being the majority, was in power, and Tutsis had been discriminated against from the 1960s on. During this period, there were already incidences of mass violence against Tutsis, and many had to flee the country. A turning point in the long-term conflict between both ethnic groups was when “a Tutsi rebel force invaded Rwanda from the north” in 1990 (ibid.). Hutu extremists got radicalized when the war between the government and rebels reached a stalemate, leading to a peace agreement that foresaw a government with power shared between Hutu and Tutsis. When Rwandan President Habyarimana was killed by a missile attack, Hutu extremists took advantage of the convoluted circumstances. Violence spread when the extremists killed moderate Hutus, standing in their way of promoting genocide against the Tutsis. Tutsis and suspected Tutsis were killed in major massacres when seeking refuge in churches, schools, and government buildings, as well as in their own homes. Actual numbers of the death toll vary, according to the USHMM (w.D.b), “as many as one million people, mostly Tutsis, were slaughtered in 100 days” while other scholarly sources rank the death toll lower. Strauß (2004) puts the number on “at least 500,000 civilians”. 

The genocide against the Tutsis is not only extremely shocking due to the high death toll in a short time but also because of the broad involvement of “ordinary” citizens. In the especially for the reconciliation process implemented gacaca – a traditional community court system – more than 1.2 million cases were tried (USHMM w.D.b). How could that many people become involved in the (mass) killings? 

Rwandan perpetrators

The violence of the Rwandan genocide puzzles scholars. “Neighbors are not supposed to kill neighbors, let alone commit genocide against them”, Fujii (2010) states. The whole setting of the Rwandan genocide goes against all typical warning signs of genocide. Not only is the killing kith and kin on that scale very uncommon but also the question of why rural civilians became perpetrators when peace would have gained them more than violence arises (ibid.).

Straus (2016) focuses on emotions as a motivation behind participation in the genocide. He talks about a period of “emotional momentum”. In interviews and the courts post-genocide, perpetrators gave two main motivations. One was built on this emotional momentum: Many perpetrators allegedly were afraid because of the unrest and violence before the genocide. In fear for their lives, “they chose to take part in the violence” (Strauß 2016). At the same time, they feared repercussions by the authorities, which planned the genocide, if they did not take part in the violence. 

However, Fujii (2010) gives a different explanation. According to her field study, there is little evidence that supports a strong hatred among Hutus against Tutsis. She also dismisses fear as the motivator for participation. Instead, she uses the social interaction argument. Most of the perpetrators who did not have any military training before the genocide and did only kill, not plan the atrocities – “Joiners” in Fujii’s terms – seemed to have killed people who had been accused of something. Social dynamics were at the centre of changing behaviour. “Even the most active Joiners[…] did not act the same ‘offstage’ as ‘on’” (ibid.). Another important factor was the group identity and strength in numbers, thus the creation of new groups produced more killings which in turn created more and stronger groups. A vicious cycle started. 

But who exactly were the perpetrators or “Joiners”? Reviewing certain testimonies shows different personality types. In the testimony of Jean de Dieu Twahirwa, a convicted perpetrator of the Rwandan genocide, he confesses to killing three Tutsi in a massacre at a Catholic Church (Aegis Trust 2020). When asked about his motivations, he confirms what Straus (2016) and Fujii (2010) already stated: It was the “leaders”, who motivated him and other perpetrators in the mass killings. “They really motivated us to get involved in the killings,” he said (Aegis Trust 2020). His feelings towards Tutsis seem to have been dualistic even during the Genocide. On the one hand, he felt threatened by the Tutsis, believed they wanted to suppress Hutus and called them snakes, on the other hand, he said that he felt sad when he saw his former classmates being killed at the Catholic Church. After the incident at the church, he claimed to have fled Rwanda, and he did not take part in any other killings. Even after the genocide, he stated he needed to confess to his crimes to relieve himself of the guilt and to ask for forgiveness. 

Twahirwa’s motivations, following the orders of authorities, are mirrored by other testimonies. The Rwandan genocide 

“was sponsored and conceived from above by a small group of powerful extremists in President Habyarimana’s regime. These mighty few objected to the power-sharing terms of a recently signed peace agreement between Habyarimana and the RPF. Through genocide, they sought to maintain their monopoly on power” (Fujii 2010).

Were the “Joiners” then only used as instruments by the elite who planned the genocide? It is worth looking at some other testimonies as well. For example, the testimonies of members of the Kibundo gang, a group of farmers who killed 50,000 of their Tutsi neighbours which were about 85 % of the Tutsi population in that region (Baum 2008). One of the perpetrators states: “Some offenders claim that we changed into wild animals, that we were blinded by ferocity … that is a trick to sidetrack the truth” (ibid.). Even while confessing, there is a total lack of remorse for their committed atrocities. 

Learnings from the past

The various perpetrator groups involved in the genocide of the Tutsis should give us pause for thought, and we must learn different lessons from their involvement. It is worrying that there are people in our society who feel less empathy than the majority of society. At the same time, the involvement of people who themselves feel and express empathy and remorse shows that it is not only the people who are categorized as ‘perpetrators’ by academia who become perpetrators themselves but also people outside this group. This means that in certain situations, people can also become perpetrators who would never expect it of themselves.

The fact that ordinary people without a prior history of extraordinary violent behaviour can become perpetrators involved in genocide or other atrocities is troubling. These findings are in line with the findings of Holocaust research (Hale 2020) and the results of experiments like the Milgram Experiment (Miller 2014). We have to acknowledge that individuals who are not inherently violent can still be driven to commit horrific acts under the influence of fear, social dynamics, and authoritative manipulation. This understanding compels us to recognize the potential for atrocity in any society and thus gives us an approach to global genocide and mass atrocity prevention. By acknowledging that genocides are not solely the product of deep-seated ethnic hatred but rather the culmination of strategic manipulation and social pressures, international efforts can focus on early intervention strategies. 

Particularly in this day and age, when politics and social media fuel emotions and especially hatred, we need a vigilant civil society that closely monitors these developments, exposes abuses, and takes a stand against them. And precisely because all people can become potential perpetrators, we need institutions such as the rule of law to protect minorities from the arbitrariness of others.

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