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Why Do Some Conflicts Escalate to Genocide and Others Not?

The purpose of this research paper is to explain why do some conflicts escalate to genocide and others not? Looking at two cases of conflict in Africa, Rwanda and Darfur, I will argue that European colonizers through construction of racial categories for local ethnic groups played a key role in creating the context for genocide. In the absence of such categorization, conflicts among African groups generally did not escalate to genocide. While European colonizers pursued their economic and geo-political interests, simultaneously, they constructed and divided ethnic locals into racial categories that served as the principal dividing line during genocide in Africa. For example, the categorization of Tutsi group as superior to Hutu and Twa in Rwanda had lethal consequences during the 1990s when the country exploded into a major conflict and ultimately genocide. Such constructed notions of superiority, that one local group was “more European” than other groups and thus entitled to higher status, proved to be a major force on whether the conflict turned into genocide. In the absence of such constructed racial divisions, where conflict was a result of disagreements and rising tensions between government and opposing groups, conflicts largely grew into a civil war where many people were killed including innocent civilians; however, such conflicts generally tend to fall short of genocide. For example, the rebellion of black Africans from Darfur against the country’s Arab government leadership is a civil war that did not escalate into genocide.

In the pages that follow, I unpack the cases of Rwanda and Darfur further to demonstrate the conditions and variables that lead to conflict and genocide. First, I will offer a brief discussion of what conflict is, what genocide is, and they key differences between the two concepts. Second, I will situate the discussion within the broader context, providing some examples of conflict and genocide in the broader African context, and how such context might help us better understand and explain the escalation from conflict to genocide. Third, I will offer a detailed analysis of the case of Rwanda and Darfur and show why the Rwanda conflict escalated to genocide and Darfur not. Finally, I will provide some implications from the findings and a conclusion of the argument.

Conflict and Genocide: Working Definitions

Broadly speaking, conflict is understood as a serious disagreement between two or more parties that cannot agree on a solution about certain issues. This is generally the case because the sides in the conflict have a different opinion or preference regarding issues and outcomes. In the context of deeply divided societies, conflict occurs regularly among groups such as political parties, interest groups, ethnic groups, racial groups, and religious groups  (Guelke, 2012). While in most such conflicts the groups try to find solutions to their disagreements in a peaceful manner, in some cases conflicts explode into bloodshed (Williams, 2011). For example, the conflict in Rwanda between Hutu and Tutsi tribes produced many killed and large scale of destruction in the country (Straus, 2008 ). In this paper, I seek to better understand and explain dynamics of more violent conflicts such as the one in Rwanda and Darfur. Thus, an important question to ask is: when and why do some conflicts produce more bloodshed and horror than others?

Genocidal conflicts are conflicts that produce the most bloodshed and horror. By the term genocide, I understand the most heinous crime that is intentional and targets a particular ethnic, religious, or racial group (Naimark, 2016). Genocides occur because the perpetrating group is generally filled with hate against and desires the systematic destruction of the victim group. Again, the case of mass killings of the Tutsi by the Hutu majority in Rwanda during 1994 is a telling example of the terrors this type of conflict produces. The mass killing of Armenians during the Ottoman Empire in 1915 is another conflict that ended in tragedy (McCarthy, 2015). Finally, the killing of more than 6 million Jews by the Nazi regime is the “crime above all crimes” (Confino, 2015)

The key difference between the two terms elaborated above is the intention one group has towards the other group. In the case of genocide, the perpetrating group has the intention to kill and eliminate the unwanted group, as well as destroy all the traces left behind (Schabas, 2009 ). Additional differences about why some conflicts escalate to genocide and others might not include historical context, cultural variations, political institutions, as well as geopolitical context. In what follows, I discuss such variations in the broader context of Africa, followed by a detailed analysis of the cases of Rwanda and Darfur.

Conflict and Genocide in Africa

Africa has a long history and list of conflicts and genocide. Among the most prominent examples of conflict and genocide include the Nigerian Civil War in 1967, the conflict in Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the Somali Civil War in 1991, the South Sudan – North Sudan Civil War including the Darfur genocide in 2010, and the Rwanda genocide during 1994. While the causal mechanisms behind these conflicts vary, they all produced massive amounts of destruction and killing of millions. These conflicts left a legacy that haunts the continent to this day. Many observers of African politics have argued that conflicts and genocides in the continent have also made peace among tribal and ethnic groups less possible (McCauley, 2017). In fact, some scholars believe that conflict and genocide remain the major obstacles to peace and reconciliation across the region (Keller, 2014). Security, democracy, and development all rely on sustainable peace.

The study of conflict and genocide in African remains critical for the reason of global security. When there is turmoil and suffering in Africa, the world can’t and shouldn’t stay still and indifferent. Because conflicts, in this interconnected world, will spill in other parts of the globe, African leaders together with world leaders must take steps to prevent conflicts, especially stop existing conflicts from escalating into genocide. Global leaders and international institutions, like the International Criminal Court, must act preventively and swiftly to hold perpetrators accountable for their crimes.

The Case of Darfur and Rwanda

The Case of Darfur

The conflict in Darfur, a region in Western Sudan, started in 2003 under the leadership of Omar Al-Bashir, when the Sudanese government formed the militia group Janjaweed which was charged with countering the Justice and Equality Movement group made up of ethnic Fur, Masalit, and Zaghawa who were fighting chronic economic marginalization in the country and demanding power sharing in Al-Bashir’s government (Bassil, 2015). Another important element enforced by the Janjaweed group against the ethic Fur, Masalit, and Zaghawa was the imposition of the sharia law against the non-Arabs in the region. This Islamist move, by many in the group, was understood as a holy project which held the power and truth. To many outside observers, this was clearly based on dogmatic ideology and the objective was to consolidate power using the faith of Islam as representation of God on earth (Sorbo, 2013). While the militias were fighting the groups opposing the government of Al-Bashir, they also engaged in raping and killing civilians, women, and children.

In addition to terrorizing and killing the civilian population, the Janjaweed militia group also prevented any food assistance and medical supplies from reaching the civilian populations in Darfur. The international humanitarian organizations attempted to assist the civilians, but the militia group made it impossible. Because of this humanitarian prevention, thousands of people died due to lack of food and medical attention (Weiss, 2016). Shortages of food and medical care caused many people to leave their homes, causing humanitarian and refugee crisis not only in the country but in the surrounding countries as well (Prendergast, 2006).

The conflict in Darfur between the government-supported militias and the non-Arabs that were seeking government reforms was chiefly caused by disagreements and rising tensions the groups had in relation to economic marginalization and power-sharing. The government and militia groups deported and killed millions to establish legitimacy and control over the region, while the non-Arabs fought to bring the change that will end discrimination and bring more balanced power sharing. For all the war crimes and crimes against humanity the International Criminal Court issued arrest warrants for the president of Sudan, Omar Al-Bashir and others involved, however, the suffering and pain that people of Darfur have endured will never be wiped out of their memory.

The Case of Rwanda

Unlike conflict in Darfur, the Rwanda conflict is a case of Genocide. During the 100 days of slaughter, between April and July of 1994, around 800,000 people were massacred by the Hutu extremists (Sanders, 2017). While the 100 days of 1994 are critical point in understanding Rwanda genocide, I will argue that 1960s are an important starting point to understand the genocide in Rwanda, especially why some conflict escalate into genocide. Looking at the 1960s as a transitioning period in Rwanda will shed led on the dynamics that paved the way for the genocide in 1994.

When the Belgians left Africa, in the 1960s, they left in the African nation a legacy of racism and ethnic division. While in Africa, Belgians constructed racial categories for the local population to divide and rule them. They constructed Tutsi and Hutu groups are ethnically and racial different. Using minor physical and racial features, European argued that one group was “more European” than the other group. Hence, according to their objective, the more European group was better equipped to govern. While the governance was imposed on the “less European” group, this racial categorization had serious consequences in the motivation of perpetrators during the 1994 genocide (Destexhe, 1995). This colonial context played a key role not only in how Hutu and Tutsi saw each other but also how they treated each other in 1994.

During genocide in Rwanda, the slaughtering of Tutsis by the Hutu extremists was not only a result of government policy changes to recognize one main ethnicity but more importantly informed by the historical context and racial differences constructed by European colonizers. The killing of the Tutsis was essentially an outcome of racial and ethnic hatred that was built before the 1960s. During the 1994, when the inter-racial hatreds exploded the escalation from conflict to genocide was unstoppable. As a result, close to a million people died in Rwanda wiping out about 20% of the total population (Maron, 2021). Unlike the conflict in Darfur, where government created militias to fight against non-dominant groups and kill many civilians along the way, in the case of Rwanda, the passionate and intentional killing of the other group was largely due to the hatred that was constructed during the colonial system and fueled by more recent conditions.

The Future of Conflict and Genocide

Human history is a history of conflict and genocide. Conflicts and genocide have reoccurred time and over again. From the earliest recorded history till present much destruction has occurred, many people have been forced to leave their homes, and many have been killed and massacred. However, this should not imply that we cannot better manage if not completely abolish conflicts around the world. For better conflict management, and prevention of genocide, we can take numerous progressive steps. The first step is to educate ourselves about the causes of conflict and genocide. Why do they occur? What are variations among conflicts and genocides? How can we prevent them from happening again? The second step is to create a political will to act to better manage conflicts and prevent genocide. At least the most powerful countries must agree and create an international regime against conflict, especially genocide. They must come up with a join and permanent resolution that collectively retaliates against any aggressor. Finally, the third step, we must reorganize the International Criminal Court and put “more teeth” into the institution to persecute all war criminals with maximum years in prison.  Only when taking such steps, we can assure the establishment of the conditions that will prevent conflicts from escalating to genocide and bring more peace, reconciliation, and human rights in Darfur, Rwanda, Africa, and around the world.

Works Cited

Bassil, N. (2015). The Post-Colonial State and Civil War in Sudan . London : I. B. Tauris.

Confino, A. (2015). A World Without Jews: The Nazi Imagination from Prosectuion to Genocide. New Haven : Yale Univeristy Press .

Destexhe, A. (1995). Rwanda and Genocide in the Twentieth Century . New York : New York University Press .

Guelke, A. (2012). Politics in Deeply Divided Socities. Malden: Polity.

Keller, E. (2014). Identity, Citizenship, and Political Conflict in Africa. Bloomington : Indiana Univeristy Press .

Maron, J. (2021, May 8). What Led to the Genocide Against the Tutsi in Rwanda? . Retrieved from Human Rights Violations :

McCarthy, J. (2015). Turks and Armenians: Nationalism and Conflict in the Ottoman Empire. Madison: Turko-Tatar Press.

McCauley, J. (2017). The Logic of Ethnic and Religious Conflict in Africa . Cambridge: Cambridge Univeristy Press .

Naimark, N. (2016). Genocide: A World History . Oxford : Oxford University Press .

Prendergast, J. (2006, February 28). International Crisis Group. Retrieved from

Sanders, J. (2017). Rwanda Gencoide: The Unspeakable Evils of Ethnic Cleansing and Genocide in Rwanda . N/A: Independently Published .

Schabas, W. (2009 ). Genocide in International Law . Cambridge : Cambridge University Press .

Sorbo, G. a. (2013). Sudan Divided: Continuing Conflict in a Contested State. New York: Palgrave .

Straus, S. (2008 ). The Order of Genocide: Race, Power, and War in Rwanda . Cornell : Cornell Univeristy Press.

Weiss, T. (2016). Humanitarian Intervention. Malden: Polity .

Williams, P. (2011). War and Conflict in Africa . Malden : Polity .





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