The Paradox of Humanitarian Military Intervention in Rwanda

Ross Conroy
Class Year:
African Studies

Opération Turquoise was undertaken to promote French political interests first, not primarily for humanitarian purposes. It is imperative that the international community learns from such lessons when designing military interventions in the future.

In 1994 the country of Rwanda saw the world’s most abhorrent crime—genocide—perpetrated on a massive scale throughout its famed, ‘thousand hills.’ The world watched, but refused to intervene for months, as members of Rwanda’s Hutu ethnic majority murdered up to one million people, mostly of the Tutsi minority—until one country chose to act. With the support of the United Nations (UN), France led a military mission, codenamed Opération Turquoise, into Rwanda. The French mission was ostensibly meant to aid the Tutsi population being exterminated by the Hutu regime and dreaded Interahamwe militias; however, France in fact misled the UN and acted in its own interest. Rather than protecting the Tutsis under siege, France sided with its longtime ally, the genocidal Hutu regime, and ushered them safely out of the country into neighboring Zaire, providing them with weapons and logistical support along the way.


Thanks to a generous grant from Stanford Global Studies, I spent Spring Break in Rwanda, continuing research that I began last year on the impacts of the French military intervention on Rwanda’s subsequent development, security, and reconciliation in the post-genocide period. I was able to visit the Rwandan National Commission for the Fight Against Genocide and access their library and archive. While there, I found a memoir of one of the French soldiers who was deployed with Opération Turquoise. He was appalled by what he saw in Rwanda, and by the way he felt the French government and his superiors misled him and his fellow soldiers. He explained how he had been briefed before arriving in Rwanda that it was the RPF perpetrating massacres against the Hutu population and their mission would be to protect those Hutu under siege. Upon arriving in Rwanda, he saw for himself that this was far from the truth, and that it was the Hutu government that was responsible for the killings against their own citizens. Soon after completing his mission, he left the French military, disgusted by what he had experienced.

I was also able to access the library and archive at the Kigali Genocide Memorial, where I found many books, articles, and documents describing the French role in Rwanda. One of the most illuminating was a collection of 700 pages of declassified French documents that were written to then French President François Mitterrand concerning Rwanda from 1984 to 1996. Perhaps the most profound and moving experience during my research was my visit to the Bisesero Genocide Memorial. Bisesero, a small sector in Southeastern Rwanda near the town of Karongi, was one of the sites most notorious for French inaction. In June of 1994 the French passed through Bisesero and they discovered as many as 25,000 beleaguered Tutsis, many emaciated and near death, who had mounted an armed resistance to those trying to exterminate them. Rather than staying to protect the Tutsis, the French left after one night, promising to come back. While in Bisesero, the French saw and interacted with Interahamwe militias, and as soon as the French left, these militias closed in for the kill.

They returned three days later, after having initially been denied permission to do so, and found that where before there had been almost 25,000 people, there were now over 20,000 corpses. During those three days, the Tutsi defenses finally gave way, and only between 500 and 2,000 were able to escape the bloodbath. Being there was a grizzly contrast, as Bisesero is one of the most beautiful locations I have been to in Rwanda, with picturesque views of Rwanda’s famed thousand hills falling slowly down into the calm blue of the enormous Lake Kivu. This beauty juxtaposed against hundreds of skulls, many bearing machete marks, bullet holes, and massive fractures inflicted by traditional clubs, was a tortuous contrast that encapsulated the terror of the genocide. Indeed, so too was it reflective of the French ineptitude in the face of such barbarity.


My time in Rwanda was full of contrasts. Today, Rwanda is thriving. It is one of the fastest growing, safest, and stable countries in Africa. Its people are some of the most friendly, industrious, and thoughtful that I have ever met. Their beauty, and the beauty of the country’s rolling hillsides makes it all the more difficult to believe the horrors that took place there more than twenty years ago—yet there are reminders everywhere. This research trip has highlighted once again the importance of learning lessons from the 1994 genocide against the Tutsis, so that the phrase ‘Never Again’ may one day become a reality.

There are many lessons to be learned from Rwanda’s history, but my study focused on one specific aspect—humanitarian military intervention. Humanitarian military intervention has been derided in many contexts because of its unintended and intended consequences. Opération Turquoise is no different. I believe there is an important lesson to be learned about the intention of foreign intervention, and that when it is undertaken to protect those facing persecution, violence, death, and even elimination, it must be done solely to serve the interests of those in peril. Opération Turquoise was undertaken to promote French political interests first, not primarily for humanitarian purposes. It is imperative that the international community learns from such lessons when designing military interventions in the future. Recent conflicts, such as those in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Syria, prove that as of yet, we still have a lot to learn.