The Influence Of The Bystander Phenomenon During Genocides: The Case Of Rwandan Genocide

Time and time again it has been said to be ‘Never Again’ but literature still explores atrocities such as genocide in order to try and understand individual factors that lead to its development and influence the likelihood of genocide happening and how to prevent and recover from it. Genocide has been classified as the intention to destroy and decimate a national, religious or racial group and therefore could be done under any acts such as murder, serious bodily harm and any infringement of human rights. One key aspect that is explored throughout research is the implications and the role of the bystander phenomena in genocides. An individual is far less likely to report a crime when another witness is present, as frequently all witnesses will assume someone other than themselves will report the crime, therefore many crimes tend escalate as those witnessing them do not intervene until it is ‘too late’. Consequently, numerous research papers have been carried out exploring the effect of the bystander phenomenon during the Rwanda genocide, as many view this as a genocide that could have been prevented. This essay aims to look at how the bystander phenomena effects genocide and it is development both from those acting as bystanders in the country whilst the genocide takes place and other countries who choose to stay quiet until it is ‘too late’. This essay aims to understand and explore how bystanders in the country of Rwanda and the west effected the development of the genocide as well as seeing if different types of bystanders have more of an effect on how a genocide plays out.

During the dates of 7th of April and 15th of July 1994 500,000 to over 1 million people were killed in Rwanda by Hutu-led government and extremist groups with over 500,000 women also being raped and tortured (Stanton, 2004). Years later the tensions in the country are still prominent as many view bystanders in both Rwanda itself and other countries who stood by and allowed the atrocities occur as partly responsible. Cohen (2013) stated that denial is a main component that lead an individual to become a bystander. This is split into four subsections; cognition states that the individual tends to dismiss the facts and actions surrounding the situation at hand. The second subsection is emotion which states that in some cases the individual will lack empathy and therefore not care about what is occurring. This could be seen in Rwanda when individuals that were part of the Hutu tribe that did not actually commit any crimes but also did not care enough to help those of the Tutsi tribe.

Thirdly, morality allows the individual to see whether or not the act is wrong and whether or not they believe it is. At this stage it is often too hard to come out and help someone as taking responsibility to stop the situation is too high risk. Finally, Cohen (2013) states that often the individual will struggle to take the steps needed to help or prevent a situation therefore becoming a bystander to it, also known as action or lack thereof. This theory provided by Cohen (2013) perhaps adds some background understanding as to why so many individuals in Rwanda and the rest of the world at the time just stood back and allowed a genocide to occur. Staub (2011) describes bystanders as falling into two categories; a ‘passive’ bystander is an individual who chooses not to help or act during a situation or a ‘active’ bystander which is an individual that belongs to neither the perpetrators or victims of the violence but chooses to help. However, this may allude at the fact that distinguishing an individual as a bystander, for this instance during the Rwandan genocide, could be difficult as at the best of times it is hard to identify someone as a bystander but during genocidal actions an individual may find themselves a bystander out of fear not due to neglect of the situation.

An easy way to explain the acts following the Rwandan genocide is to simply blame the Hutu government and those countries who stood by and allowed it to develop, and while they are at fault it has to be argued that bystanders in the Rwanda at the time also hold part of the blame. While literature states that bystanders in the country were not as prominent in the facilitation of the genocide in Rwanda they still had an acting part in it. The Twa (ethnic minority group in the country at the time who were neither victims nor perpetrators) are the most frequently spoken about group of ‘passive’ bystanders to the Rwandan genocide (Thomson, 2009). The Twa were seen as a minority group at the time only making up 1% of the Rwandan population, many ran just stood back and let the actions unfold and some viewed the Tutsi as having more privilege than them or even the Hutu (Drumbl, 2002). Nevertheless, the lack of intervention by individual groups such as the Twa were seen as damaging and potentially at the time may have fuelled the continuation of the actions carried out by the Hutu against the Tutsi. Whilst it cannot be completely proven that the lack of action from such groups was a factor in the genocide in Rwanda it can be argued that individual bystanders do in fact have a higher influence on how a situation develops and the blame does not always fall on a singular state or national political system.

Bystanders, such as the twa potentially allowed for the facilitation and sometimes even encouragement of the behaviours of the perpetrators (as aforementioned) as more often than not they feel as though since no one has taken any action to stop them the genocidal acts are either seen as ‘acceptable’ (Staub, 1989). Furthermore, the actions of the perpetrators can end up influencing the opinions of the bystanders and some may begin to agree which in turn may mean they are more reluctant to help. In relation to bystanders during the Rwandan genocide this could mean that perhaps the Twa (as a minority group within the country) felt powerless (as aforementioned sometimes bystanders do not aid others out of fear) and simultaneously the lack of intervention from them and other subgroups within the country did further damage than good. If they had aided or protested against the actions of the Hutu extremists, then perhaps casualties would have been lessened in terms of numbers.

Subsequently, following the genocide those who were victims, bystanders and perpetrators had to learn to reintegrate and return to coexisting. Often after such horrendous acts’ nations tend to develop what social psychologists call motivated denial, whereby they ignore and dismiss the incidents that occur as a way to re-establish moral self-image in the groups within the nation such as bystanders. Research has suggested while some descendants of the bystanders to the Rwandan genocide are able to identify and sympathise with those who descend from the victims not all do and therefore reconciliation within the country is still an issue and hard to achieve goal. However, actions to date are still being taken to once again bring harmony to the state of Rwanda. In 2013 the ‘I am Rwandan’ campaign was launched in order to promote interactions between descendants of victims, bystanders and perpetrators. Alongside this president Kagame asked for a formal apology to be provided by the Hutu tribe members stating ownership must be taken on behalf of those who committed the crimes. This however could lead to further division between the groups in Rwanda and assign more blame to those who were simply Hutu bystanders and not actual perpetrators therefore being seen as doing more harm than good.

Conversely, a bystander is not always simply a single individual, a state, organisation or an international political system whose actions or lack thereof influence and effect the development and spiral of a country into genocidal acts (Donà, 2018). Many argue that other countries were too focused on ‘petty’ politics rather than a humanity issues at hand in Rwanda. Criticism for the lack of responsive help from the US and the United Kingdom (UK) is a widely spoken throughout literature regarding the Rwandan genocide, their efforts were seen as a horrendous failure and therefore the fallout of the genocidal actions were very poorly reflective of the country. In relation to the established bystander categories by Staub (2011) the US can be considered as an ‘active’ bystander and they did not perpetrate the acts but incredibly facilitated the occurrence of them. Dowden (2014) stated that with the backing of the United Kingdom (UK) and Belgium the US was able to forcibly make the UN Security Council remove UN peacekeepers from the grounds of Rwanda as the acts of genocide at the time were not too prominent. Furthermore, the US and UK justified said actions as ‘stringent cost-cuts’ as the UN had sent far too many peacekeeper missions out in the 5 years prior to the Rwandan genocide and therefore Rwanda ultimately became an unexpected victim of cost-cuts. Due to the active bystandership of predominantly the US tensions in Rwanda were allowed to progress into genocidal acts and whilst the US did not themselves commit the act many claim that they had a major role to play in the genocide, had they acted sooner and not intervened with the United Nations peacekeepers then perhaps the duration of the genocide would not have been as long and casualties would not have been as high.

Additionally, the US argued that the word genocide should be avoid, despite already having admitted that genocidal acts were occurring in the country. A major reason bystanders are able to be excused from the blame of the crimes they witness or allow to happen is that many are powerless to help; however institutions and governments such as the US, the UN and the UK are not powerless and therefore this can lead to the understanding that perhaps the west were more than just bystanders at times to the Rwandan genocide. However, it can be argued that the UK was more of a ‘passive’ bystander than an active one, due to the lack of historical interaction with Rwanda many deem the inaction from the UK to be due to the lack of information, knowledge and sadly care they had. Consequently, whilst it is still clear that the UK had a hand to plan in the development and facilitations of the Rwandan genocide in comparison to the role of the US the bystandership is more of a passive one.

Conclusively, it can clearly be seen that the role of the bystander is prominent. Within the country the role is more of a passive one and due to lack of power, the focus post genocide is more on harmony and coexistence in the country itself. However, the west has been seen as having a major role as a bystander in particular for the Rwandan genocide. Their actions or lack thereof meant the genocide could continue to unfold and worsen this should be used a future reminder that if help can be provided waiting until it is too late could make the bystander on par with that of the perpetrators. 

16 August 2021
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