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.