Hotel Rwanda and Just War Theory

Hotel Rwanda is a 2004 American drama film that tells the true story of hotelier Paul Rusesabagina (played by Don Cheadle) and his efforts to save his fellow citizens from the Rwandan Genocide that transpired in the spring of 1994.

The film begins by showing the rising political tensions between the Hutu and Tutsi ethnic groups of Rwanda, which quickly culminates in an outbreak of mass violence and genocide. During the course of these worsening events, Rusesabagina and other protagonists are forced to come to terms with an unprecedented scale of violence, while at the same time trying to do what they can to save hundreds of fellow citizens who have no sanctuary.

Through the resourceful use of his hotel and its supplies, his own personal savvy, and a network of allies, Rusesabagina eventually succeeds in saving his family (which is part Tutsi, the targeted minority) along with over a thousand refugees – albeit not without facing traumatizing circumstances, many close calls, and loss of nearly a million fellow Rwandans by the end of the conflict.

The film explores several ethical, philosophical, and political themes. There is the altruism and moral obligation that Rusesabagina displays towards strangers who are not of his ethnic group (and the subsequent risks he takes to help them), the sense of hopelessness in trying to save lives with few resources and little international support, the moral breakdown of society as Rwandans violent turn on their neighbors and fellow citizens.

Indeed, a recurring element throughout the film was the sense of abandonment and shock felt by the protagonists at the world’s apathy to such a grave moral plight. This is highlighted by the presence of both the Red Cross and United Nations Peacekeepers, both of which are overburdened and unprepared for the crisis – and both of which serve as proxies for the global community. The inability of these organizations to intervene – particularly the peacekeepers, who cannot act without official authorization (which never comes) – serves as a stark reminder of the world’s moral failure. The protagonists are forced to make due with what they can, and to survive overwhelming odds on their own.

One of the central philosophical questions raised by the film – and the real-life genocide it is based on – is whether the UN, United States, and other countries should have intervened militarily to put a stop to the genocide. Would doing so have been just? Or were there good reasons not to?

By my reasoning, military intervention was a moral imperative that should have been undertaken. When analyzing the criteria for a just war, such an intervention fits perfectly: clearly, the cause is just, as hundreds of thousands of innocent people were being massacred by the state and its militias. Rwanda was not in the midst of a civil war pitting two militarized political factions, which would be a comparatively more ambiguous scenario; rather, it was enduring a one-sided slaughter on the scale of genocide.

In this respect, comparative justice would also have been met. Given the scale of death of unarmed civilians, the killing of the genocide’s perpetrators would have been an acceptable cost, especially as the film showed that mere bribery and blackmail was often sufficient to deter the genocide brigades – thus it could be argued that the mere presence of armed troops from foreign nations would serve largely as a deterrence without the need to kill.

As such, both the probability of success and the proportionality of the response would also have been acceptable. As shown in the film, the Rwandan state was very corrupt and susceptible to bribery, and most of the genocide perpetrators were relying on small arms and machetes to carry out their campaign – there were no tanks, plans, or advanced weaponry involved. The element of a single national military (if not several) could easily rout and intimidate such ragtag and corrupt forces.

Furthermore, it should be noted that the United Nations officially holds that the formal recognition of a genocide obligates member states to intervene out of moral duty – cynically, however, this was why many states were not willing to identify what transpired as a genocide, despite clear evidence that a minority group was being explicitly targeted for extermination for its identity (one of the main recognized criterion for a genocide).

The need for a competent authority to lead the effort would also have been easily met. Aside from the governments of various nation states (many of which would ostensibly be developed democracies like the US) mandates and resolutions sanctioned by the UN are viewed in international law as legitimate sources of authority. A UN resolution to permit military action would have sufficed, especially as the UN had already legitimized the presence of peacekeepers in the country through another mandate.

Finally, even taking all these guidelines into account, would intervention have been a last resort? Given that at least some of the perpetrators, including their leaders, were pliable to corruption (albeit only to a point) it’s possible that negotiations or financial bargaining could have been sufficient in stopping the conflict peacefully. But given the presence of extremists willing to kill hundreds of thousands of their fellow citizens, it seems unlikely that there wouldn’t be a need for some degree of military action. Considering the many unarmed, civilian lives at stake, resorting to military intervention would’ve been the least bad option.

So in short, I believe a military intervention to stop the Rwandan Genocide would have been just, given that such an action can follow all the parameters and prerequisites of just war theory.

As for why this genocide began in the first place, it was a convergence of several factors (some of which were explored in the film): mainly, it emerged due to a history of ethnic hostility and rivalry stemming from colonial preferences for the minority Tutsis over the other majority Hutus, the latter of which had their fears of Tutsi domination stoked by opportunists and paranoid extremists. As shown in Hotel Rwanda, economic and political insecurity, a lack of civil society, and rampant corruption only heightened the level of fear and hate that often leads breeds violence. Indeed, every genocide that has ever occurred – including the most infamous one of all – was triggered or intensified by economic, political, and social problems (indeed, the genocide occurred very shortly after a civil war between factions of both ethnic groups). The subsequent mass panic is put upon a minority group with which there are preexisting animosities, and from there violence ensues.

What Keeps Me Up At Night

It seems as if I’m starting a trend with topics that cause me to feel psychological and emotional discomfort. I hope no one tires of this, as I fear it may become too redundant or somber for some of my readers (if not already). In my defense, this blog was intended to intersect subjects that are both personal matters and of general interest to me. More often than not, there is an intersection of the two.

This is just such an instance. Last night, as I trawled through my pipeline of news reports, columns, and articles (a nightly ritual), I came across a brief but deeply disturbing post in Foreign Policy about the Srebrenica Massacre that transpired during the Bosnian War of the mid-1990s.

That entire conflict entailed a horrific genocide that cost the lives of hundreds of thousands of people, the overwhelming majority of them civilians. Like most victims of genocide, they were mostly targeted for nothing more than being of the wrong ethno-religious group (in this case, Bosnian Muslim, or Bosniak) at the wrong time.

That is precisely what makes genocide the most unsettling manifestation of human evil: aside from the sheer scale of the slaughter, the act is driven by a collective and deep-seated homicidal hostility to the existence of a particular group of people. While there are certainly other dynamics at play – fear, misunderstanding, a sense of vengeance, and so on – the idea that individuals would come together in order to concertedly wipe out an entire people is horrifying on an unprecedented level. What’s it like to relate with that kind of mentality? What’s it like to live within such a bloodthirsty and hateful collective?

Most importantly, what’s it like to be the victim? That’s precisely what columnist Matt Dobbs asked when he described, in grim detail, the fate of six young men who were taunted and abused before being executed in cold-blood. It was all caught on a graphic video, hyperlinked in the article, which speaks horrifying volumes about the level of callousness of the perpetrators. They were completely dispassionate about what they were doing. Taking innocent lives, and inflicting physical and mental abuse to top it off, meant nothing to them. The only emotions they displayed were satisfaction, pride, and borderline glee.

Reflecting on this hasn’t helped my psyche, to say the least. It deeply saddens me to know that what transpired in that footage is hardly an isolated incident. It’s happened before, is happening now, and will keep on happening for the foreseeable future. What exactly goes through these people’s minds – I mean both the victims and their killers – in the moments leading up to acts like this? I can’t even begin to comprehend the intense fear and disbelief, the sense of powerlessness over their fate. I’m certain the converse is true of most of their killers: they feel fulfillment and power.

It’s these sorts of reflections that tormented me last night, and that will no doubt continue to do so for some time. I’ve been reading and studying this sobering material for nearly a decade now, and for the most part I’m more detached and tolerant of it than many people would be; but I am only human, and our minds can only take in so much suffering and senseless pain before they start to feel some residual agony as well.

The only time I sleep well is when I accept my supreme fortune in having a warm bed to sleep in, and how I should be grateful enough to make the most of it. That’s about the only silver lining I can derive from any of this. My flirtations with misanthropy and depression become greater by the day it seems. It’s a cycle I’m becoming accustomed to, and I’m not ashamed to air that out. Can anyone else relate to some degree?

Holocaust Remembrance Day

It almost slipped me by, but today is International Holocaust Remembrance Day, a globally-recognized memorial day for the  millions of people that were systematically butchered in the world’s largest genocide. It was established by the UN only in 2005, the 60th anniversary of the end of the Holocaust, when the Nazi concentrations camps were liberated.

It’s hard to fathom death on such a large-scale. A loss of single human being is tragic enough, but imagine multiplying that agony by 10 to 17 million, the overwhelming majority of whom were targeted for the crime of being born into the wrong ethnicity, faith, or sexual orientation at the wrong time. Each of them was an independent human life – they had names, dreams, loved ones, experiences, plans for the future. All of them ceased to exist within only six years. The speed and brutality was to such a horrifying extent that the term genocide was created as to describe it – mass murder simply couldn’t capture it all well-enough.

It may have been the largest and most infamous case of genocide, but it wasn’t the last, nor was it even the first. People have probably been systematically wiping each other out since we first broke off into tribes and distinct ethnic groups. Cases of ethnic cleansing come and go with brutal regularity.

Since the Holocaust, we’ve had notorious incidents in Cambodia, Rwanda, Darfur, and the former Yugoslavia, as well as little-known cases in East Timor, Iraqi Kurdistan, the Congo, Guatemala, and still elsewhere. Then there are the pre-Holocaust cases such as the Armenian Genocide, the Holodomor, and the various massacres of indigenous people throughout centuries of European colonization. Most of these tragedies remain unknown or underrated, even by some academics.

I hope to live long enough to see this awful and recurring trend cease once and for all. While systematic violence and murder of the Holocaust’s scale no longer exist, we still have a long way to go before the hatred, ignorance, and fear that underpins these actions is extinguished – if that ever happens. I hope never again really comes to mean something.