On 6 April 1994, the deaths of the Presidents of Burundi and Rwanda in a plane crash caused by a rocket attack, ignited several weeks of intense and systematic massacres. The killings – as many as 1 million people are estimated to have perished – shocked the international community and were clearly acts of genocide. An estimated 150,000 to 250,000 women were also raped. Members of the presidential guard started killing Tutsi civilians in a section of Kigali near the airport. Less than half an hour after the plane crash, roadblocks manned by Hutu militiamen often assisted by gendarmerie (paramilitary police) or military personnel were set up to identify Tutsi.
On 7 April, Radio Television Libres Des Mille Collines (RTLM) aired a broadcast attributing the plane crash to the RPF and a contingent of UN soldiers, as well as incitements to eliminate the “Tutsi cockroach”. Later that day the Prime Minister, Agathe Uwilingiyimana and 10 Belgian peacekeepers assigned to protect her were brutally murdered by Rwandan government soldiers in an attack on her home. Other moderate Hutu leaders were similarly assassinated. After the massacre of its troops, Belgium withdrew the rest of its force. On 21 April, after other countries asked to withdraw troops, the UNAMIR force reduced from an initial 2,165 to 270.
If the absence of a resolute commitment to reconciliation by some of the Rwandan parties was one problem, the tragedy was compounded by the faltering response of the international community. The capacity of the United Nations to reduce human suffering in Rwanda was severely constrained by the unwillingness of Member States to respond to the changed circumstances in Rwanda by strengthening UNAMIR’s mandate and contributing additional troops.
On June 22, the Security Council authorized French-led forces to mount a humanitarian mission. The mission, called Operation Turquoise, saved hundreds of civilians in South West Rwanda, but is also said to have allowed soldiers, officials and militiamen involved in the genocide to flee Rwanda through the areas under their control. In other areas, killings continued until 4 July 1994 when the RPF took military control of the entire territory of Rwanda.
Government officials, soldiers and militia who had participated in the genocide fled to the Democratic Republic of Congo (D.R.C), then known as Zaire, taking with them 1.4 million civilians, most of them Hutu who had been told that the RPF would kill them. Thousands died of water-borne diseases. The camps were also used by former Rwandan government soldiers to re-arm and stage invasions into Rwanda. The attacks were one of the factors leading to the war between Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo that took place in 1996. Former Rwandan forces continue to operate in the D.R.C alongside Congolese militia and other armed groups. They continue to target civilian populations and cause deaths, injury and harm.
The Rwandan government began the long-awaited genocide trials at the end of 1996. The delay was due to the fact that the country had lost most of its judicial personnel, not to mention the destruction to courts, jails and other infrastructure. By 2000, there were over 100,000 genocide suspects awaiting trial. In 2001, the government began implementing a participatory justice system, known as Gacaca, (pronounced GA-CHA-CHA) in order to address the enormous backlog of cases. Communities elected judges to hear the trials of genocide suspects accused of all crimes except planning of genocide or rape. The defendants in Gacaca courts have been released provisionally awaiting trial. The releases have caused a lot of unhappiness among survivors who see it as a form of amnesty. Rwanda continues to use the national court system to try those involved in planning genocide or rape under normal penal law. These courts do not offer provisional release for genocide defendants.
The Gacaca courts give lower sentences if the person is repentant and seeks reconciliation with the community. These courts are intended to help the community participate in the process of justice and reconciliation for the country.
At the international level, the Security Council on 8 November 1994 set up the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, currently based in Arusha, Tanzania. Investigations began in May 1995. The first suspects were brought to the court in May 1996 and the first case began in January 1997. The UN Tribunal has jurisdiction over all violations of international human rights that happened in Rwanda between January and December 1994. It has the capacity to prosecute high-level members of the government and armed forces that may have fled the country and would otherwise have gone unpunished. The court has since convicted the Prime Minister during the genocide Jean Kambanda, to life in prison. It was also the first international court to convict a suspect for rape as a crime against humanity and a crime of genocide. The court also tried three media owners accused of using their respective media to incite ethnic hatred and genocide. By April 2007, it had handed down twenty-seven judgments involving thirty-three accused.