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  • Writer's pictureDurham Pro Bono Blog

100 Days of Horror: Self-Determination in the International Failure to stop the Rwandan Genocide

Disclaimer: The views expressed are that of the individual author. All rights are reserved to the original authors of the materials consulted, which are identified in the footnotes below.

In the year 1994, tensions mounting between ethnic groups in Rwanda reached a boiling point when a plane was shot down, resulting in the death of the Hutu Rwandan president. This began a hundred days of horror by Hutu militants (RPF) against Tutsi civilians and Hutus.[1] While the genocide continued, the rest of the world remained oblivious to the crisis, while those responsible for maintaining global peace failed to prevent the bloodshed. Over 800,000 innocent civilians died, including women and children.[2]

Despite the ratification of the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, the UN and other world leaders reacted too late. Although UN troops were stationed in Rwanda, their efforts were minimal, and the UN eventually pulled them out.[3] On the other hand, many ‘more developed’ countries either did not intervene or did not care. As media coverage of the genocide was minimal, the UN initially remained oblivious to the killings, and failed to recognize the systematic and one-sided massacres until weeks had passed and the bodies were piling up in massive numbers.[4]

Although it is easy to blame the UN for their actions, intervention in foreign countries has proved to be a controversial concept in international law. Nations have a right to ‘self-determination’ – the legal right of people to determine their own political fate and freely form their representative government in the international legal order.[5] First arising out of anti-colonialism, the legal principle was officially adopted in the United Nations General Assembly or Resolution 1514 (XIV) in the 1960s.[6] In the circumstances of civil war between two ethnic groups fighting for their own autonomy, intervention would have been complicated as it would have decided the outcome of the war. The role of the United Nations is to stay a neutral organization.

The problem with this is that the Rwandan crisis was a genocide, an ethnic cleansing involving the most brutal war time atrocities possible, and not merely a continuation of civil war.

There is an exception to the self-determination rule – that a neighboring state has the right to intervene if a conflict affects them.[7]

However, Uganda was pro-RPF, whereas Zaire and Burundi were fighting their own internal conflicts and had no interest in the crisis.[8] To make matters worse, due to the lack of Western media presence in Rwanda, a lot of crucial details regarding the unfolding events resulted in poor information reaching the UN security council. On the other hand, Western countries either did not care to intervene, or intervened with dubious intentions and disastrous consequences. France and Belgium played important external roles in escalating the fighting between the two sides by allegedly providing troops and military training for the RPF.[9]

After extensive media coverage, the international pressure to act dramatically increased, and France conveniently chose to intervene on behalf of the Tutsis. Although intervention saved approximately 9000 Tutsis, the mission only began when the massacre was almost finished.[10] This suspicious timing coupled with a 2008 Rwandan Report accusing France of supporting the Hutu regime and training the RPF strongly suggest that France had actually contributed towards the genocide. The failed interventions and meddling from foreign countries beg the question – is the principle of self-determination, in practice, more about self-interest?

It has been 25 years since the Rwandan crisis and the principle of self-determination still remains unclear in international law.

After the Bosnian genocide in Yugoslavia, the Badinter Commission released an Opinion that deliberately remained silent on the matter of self-determination except to note responsibilities of the new States towards the human rights of their future minorities.[11] This general reluctance was underpinned by conflicts of ethnic nationalism that potential comment could further exacerbate, if encouraged.[12] Furthermore, cyclical ethnic violence has continued in other parts of the world, such as the neighboring Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), and the lack of intervention and prosecution remain a huge international problem for the UN and its affiliates.[13] Although questions remain on how the international community should respond to genocide, the international obligation to protect those that are vulnerable is as strong as ever. Starting with the principle of self-determination, both our international political organizations and the laws that bind nation states themselves need reform.

Louise Lau (International Law)


[1] BBC News. (2019). Rwanda: How the genocide happened. [online] Available at: [Accessed 29 Nov. 2019].

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ludlow, D. R. (1999). Humanitarian Intervention and the Rwandan Genocide. Journal of Conflict Studies, 19(1). Retrieved from

[4] Ibid.

[5] Eagleton, C. (1953). Self-Determination in the United Nations. The American Journal of International Law, 47(1), p.88.

[6] United Nations General Assembly or Resolution 1514 (XIV)

[7] Human Rights Watch. (2014). Rwanda: Justice After Genocide—20 Years On. [online] Available at: [Accessed 29 Nov. 2019].

[8] (2019). Rwanda Accuses France of Complicity in 1994 Genocide. [online] Available at: [Accessed 29 Nov. 2019].

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Ibid.

[12] Pellet, A. (1992). The Opinions of the Badinter Arbitration Committee A Second Breath for the Self-Determination of Peoples. European Journal of International Law, 3(1), pp.178-185.

[13] BBC News. (2019). 'Domino effect' of Rwanda genocide. [online] Available at: [Accessed 29 Nov. 2019].

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