Genocide in Rwanda

Essay, 2016

4 Pages, Grade: 4.0

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Willamette University

6 November 2014

Genocide in Rwanda: Let’s Get Realist

On April 16, 1994, Hutu militia living in Rwanda began a massive manslaughter of the minority population, killing hundreds of thousands of Tutsi civilians. The Hutu force’s attempt at “ethnic cleansing” caught the attention of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) whose purpose was to uphold international peace and security. In this essay, I will argue that the UNSC’s failure to effectively mitigate genocide in Rwanda is best explained by the realist theory that conflicting nation-states greatly influence the behavior of international institutions. The social constructivist perception of “us” versus “them” supplements this perspective by revealing that the survival of a nation-state depends on a widely accepted legitimacy that is based on a liberalist facade of humanitarian intervention.

Both realism and liberalism begin the analysis of international politics with anarchy, denoting the uncertainty that results from the absence of an overarching political authority with sovereignty over nation-states (Baylis, 2008, 93). Unlike realists who view nation-states as aggressive competitors, each struggling to become the most secure hegemon, liberals reason that anarchic conflicts may be mitigated through cooperation (Baylis, 2008, 114-5). Liberals argue that the massive scale and fast pace of killings in Rwanda made genocide inevitable, thus the UNSC was not incompetent or blameworthy. “The earliest President Clinton credibly could have made a determination of attempted genocide was on April 20, 1994—two weeks into the violence” at which point, presumably only 15 to 25 percent of the genocide’s ultimate death toll could have been prevented (Kuperman, 2000, 103-110). Liberals claim that repeated instances of cooperation, interactions in different issue areas, and the threat of betrayal contribute to the interdependence of nation-states (Mearsheimer, 1994, 321-2). They propose that Rwanda did not have enough of these ties to benefit from the international support system. Realists criticize liberalist ideals on cooperation as being excessively optimistic in their promise to “eliminate security competition among states and [create] a more peaceful world” (Mearsheimer, 1994, 326). According to realism, representatives of great power nation-states have no reason to sacrifice some of their own resources and security to give them to another competing nation-state. Realists assert that great powers, such as those constituting the UNSC, do not revolve around human rights issues or diplomatic cooperation. Nation-states are only concerned with increasing their own power and using international institutions to maintain the legitimacy of their relative gains (Mearsheimer, 1994, 320). As long as conflicts in Rwanda do not threaten the security of these great powers themselves, genocide is not only permissible, but also irrelevant.

Stemming from a realist foundation, dualism conveyed by the “us” versus “them” mentality of social constructivism uses the guise of cultural divisions as a way to degrade the legitimacy of other nation-states by dehumanizing the peoples of those nations. In the struggle for survival, leaders of nation-states employ racialized violence as a tool to reinforce interstate systems of dominance and oppression (Mamdani 2008). Just as European colonists branded “Negroids” and “Arabs” hundreds of years ago, and forced them to compete for African land, Belgians created ethnic divisions between the Tutsi and Hutu in order to exploit Rwanda for its raw materials. Great powers representing the UNSC essentially behave in accordance with the hegemonic realist theory that constructs “racial categories of identity” in order to create a hierarchy of legitimacy within the international system (Koomen). Mamdani’s (2008) bifurcated system describes how “state sovereignty obtains in large parts of the world but is suspended in more and more countries in Africa and the Middle East” (4). He exposes the UN’s tendency to categorize various forms of brutality in a way that allows for some cases to necessitate more intervention than others (Mamdani, 2008, 9). This further puts African nation-states at a political disadvantage and allows the mass killings in Rwanda to be stigmatized as being “just another tribal war, [rendering] meaningless any call of assistance” (Newbury, 1995, 16). Not only did great powers of the UNSC construct racial ideology as a mechanism to tolerate violence in Rwanda, they also fostered their global appearance as liberal humanitarians to ensure their own survival. Barnett (1997) admits, “The UN had more to lose by taking action and being associated with another failure than it did by not taking action and allowing the genocide” (561). Thus it is clear that nation-states only want to protect the legitimacy of the international institution they belong to. Clinton’s apology that leaders like himself did not “fully appreciate” the extent of the killings fabricated the council’s innocence while the UNSC’s reluctance to coin the term “genocide” alleviated its responsibility to intervene (Power, 2, 2001). Ultimately, failure of the UNSC to effectively mitigate genocide in Rwanda is best explained using a realist premise of self-preservation. Realists understand that a nation-state maintains its relative gains and increases its own power by feigning cooperation through the establishment of international institutions. The UNSC’s fashioned image as a liberal humanitarian actor enabled great powers to impose sovereignty of Eurocentric nation-states throughout the global system. Additionally, racial divisions served as a mechanism to heighten competition between “us” versus “them,” allowing the UNSC to tolerate violence in Africa. The realist assertion that nation-states ruthlessly struggle to become the legitimate hegemons of a corrupt and hierarchal international system puts weaker nations like Rwanda at risk for unmitigated genocide.

Works Cited

Barnett, Michael N. "The UN Security Council, Indifference, and Genocide in Rwanda."Cultural Anthropology 12.4 (1997): 551-78. Web.

Baylis, John, Steve Smith, and Patricia Owens. The Globalization of World Politics: An Introduction to International Relations. New York, N.Y: Oxford UP, 2008. Print.

Koomen, Johanna. “Who’s Afraid of the International Criminal Court?” Willamette University. Salem, OR. 4 Nov. 2014. Class Lecture.

Kuperman, Alan J. "Foreign Affairs - Rwanda in Retrospect - Alan J. Kuperman."Foreign Affairs - Home. N.p., n.d. Web. 6 Nov. 2014. < retrospect.html>.

Mamdani, Mahmood. "The New Humanitarian Order."Nation 10 Sept. 2008: 18-22. The Nation. Web. 5 Nov. 2014. <>.

Mearsheimer, John J. "The False Promise of International Institutions."International Security 19.3 (1994): 5. Web.

Newbury, Catharine. "Background to Genocide: Rwanda."JSTOR: An Error Occurred Setting Your User Cookie. N.p., n.d. Web. 1 Nov. 2014. <>.

Power, Samantha. "Bystanders to Genocide."The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 01 Sept. 2001. Web. 01 Nov. 2014. < genocide/304571/>.

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Genocide in Rwanda
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Maya Austen (Author), 2016, Genocide in Rwanda, Munich, GRIN Verlag,


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