“The BBC and the Rwandan Genocide”: A Response to Justin Podur

In a commentary originally published via the Telesur website, “The BBC and the Rwandan Genocide,”[1] York University Associate Professor Justin Podur writes favorably about the recent BBC 2 documentary, “Rwanda’s Untold Story,”[2] a documentary that shines some critical light not only on the role of the dictator Paul Kagame and his Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) both during the bloody events of 1994 and over the 20 years since, but also on the standard history of the “Rwandan genocide.”

The BBC 2 does this largely by providing airtime to well-informed figures conventionally marginalized within the establishment media.  Among these are Theogene Rudasingwa and Kayumba Nyamwasa, former high-ranking Kagame acolytes now forced to live in exile for opposing his rule and dedicated to his downfall.  Another is Aloys Ruyenzi, a former member of Kagame’s personal guard, who recounts what he heard at a meeting between Kagame and his closest staff during which Kagame gave the order for the shooting down of Rwanda President Juvénal Habyarimana’s Falcon 50 jet on April 6, 1994, the event which Kagame used to launch the RPF’s final offensive to seize state power in Rwanda.

Yet another is Carla Del Ponte, a former chief prosecutor at the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR), who recounts how she was relieved of her job in 2003 for having opened an investigation into RPF crimes and then rejected overtures from the United States and Britain to terminate it.  Still another is former FBI counter-terrorism agent James Lyons, who was Commander of Investigations at the ICTR; Lyons tells the BBC 2 that in 1996-1997, his team had developed solid sources claiming that Kagame was responsible for the Habyarimana assassination, only to have ICTR Chief Prosecutor Louise Arbour order the investigation shut down and the evidence destroyed.

Among the other guests is the distinguished Belgian scholar Filip Reyntjens, a specialist in the history of the Great Lakes region of central Africa; Reyntjens states frankly on camera that he regards Kagame as the “most important war criminal in office today.”  Also the Belgian Colonel Luc Marchal, a former high-ranking member of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Rwanda (UNAMIR) with responsibility for the capital city, Kigali.  And, perhaps most important of all, the BBC 2 devotes a substantial segment of its documentary to the work of two American professors at the University of Michigan, Allan Stam and Christian Davenport, who from 1998 on carried out important field research in Rwanda, and who have gone on to develop many powerful and provocative interpretations about what really happened in Rwanda in 1994.[3]

In his review, Podur devotes several paragraphs to analyzing the competing methods used by the historian Gérard Prunier, Reyntjens, Davenport and Stam, and others to estimate both the scale of the killings in Rwanda in 1994 as well as the ethnic composition of the victims.  We ourselves have undertaken the same task in the past,[4] and have done so again in a forthcoming book titled Enduring Lies: The Rwandan Genocide in the Propaganda System, 20 Years Later (The Real News Books).

Curiously, Podur takes unique exception to our efforts but to none of the others.  We find  this strange, as we hew closely to the methodology of Davenport and Stam, two of the stars of the BBC 2 documentary.

In one crucial exchange between Jane Corbin, the BBC 2 presenter, and Allan Stam, we learn (from the 29:40 mark of the Vimeo copy of the documentary on):

Jane Corbin: It’s widely accepted that around a million Rwandans died in the genocide in just three months, and the government says over 90 percent were Tutsis.  But some academics question this official version.

Allan Stam: Violence was committed in 1994 by almost every side, and every participant in this war, and breakdown of social order.  Random violence happened, and hundreds of thousands of people died for no particular purpose.

Jane Corbin: The population records at the time of the genocide and in the troubled years before were not always reliable.  But the American academics claim they used the most accurate figures available.

Allan Stam: If a million people died in Rwanda in 1994—and that’s certainly possible—there is no way that the majority of them could be Tutsi.

Jane Corbin: How do you know that?

Allan Stam: Because there weren’t enough Tutsi in the country.

Jane Corbin: The academics calculated there had been 500,000 Tutsis before the conflict in Rwanda; 300,000 survived.  This led them to their final controversial conclusion.

Allan Stam: If a million Rwandans died, and 200,000 of them were Tutsi, that means 800,000 of them were Hutu.

Jane Corbin: That’s completely the opposite of what the world believes happened in the Rwandan genocide.

Allan Stam: What the world believes, and what actually happened, are quite different.

By all appearances, Podur is sympathetic to this logic; we find it impeccable.

Among the relevant factors that need to be taken into account are the population of Rwanda at the start of April 1994, the percentages of the population that were Hutu or Tutsi, how many Rwandans perished from April 6 through late July, 1994, and how many Hutu and Tutsi survived the bloodshed.   Davenport-Stam are quite flexible on all but one of these factors (i.e., the number of Tutsi survivors, which they place at 300,000[5]), given the possible variables.  After all, their work is empirically driven, rather than dogmatic.

Let us apply the Davenport-Stam methodology a bit further.

In his September 1993 Report to the UN Secretary-General based on his reconnaissance mission to Rwanda during August of that year, the Canadian Lieut.-General and eventual force commander of UNAMIR Roméo Dallaire wrote that Rwanda’s population was then 7,347,000 persons, of which 90 percent were Hutu (or roughly 6,612,300), and 9 percent were Tutsi (roughly 661,230).[6]

These are approximations, obviously, based on the reported percentages; we are using them only to illustrate  and apply the logic of Davenport and Stam’s methodology.

Table 1 captures the logic of their methodology, using Rwanda’s August 1993 demographics as reported to the UN by Roméo Dallaire.
Table 1.  Ranges and ethnic compositions of deaths in the “Rwandan genocide,” based on Roméo Dallaire’s September, 1993 Reconnaissance Mission Report to the UN Secretary-General  [*]

Total Deaths Tutsi survivors Tutsi Deaths Hutu Deaths
500,000 300,000 361,000 139,000
800,000 300,000 361,000 439,000
1,100,000 300,000 361,000 739,000

[*] Adapted from Table 1, Section 4 of our forthcoming book, Enduring Lies: The Rwandan Genocide in the Propaganda System, 20 Years Later (The Real News Books).  With rounding, based on a Tutsi population in Rwanda as reported by Dallaire in September 1993 of approximately 661,000, and based on Davenport-Stam’s estimate for Tutsi survivors of 300,000 as of August 1994.

What Table 1 shows is that the smaller the total number of deaths in Rwanda in 1994, the greater the percentage comprised of Tutsi.  Conversely, the greater the total number of deaths, the greater the number of Hutu deaths overall, and the greater the percentage comprised of Hutu.  Based on an estimated number of 300,000 Tutsi survivors (the one constant in Davenport and Stam’s work), if 500,000 Rwandans perished during the April – July period, then 361,000 of them were Tutsi, and 139,000 were Hutu.  (See the second row.)  Similarly, based on upper-end estimates of the death toll, if 1.1 million Rwandans perished during the April – July period, then once again 361,000 of them were Tutsi, but 739,000 were Hutu.  (See the fourth row.)  In short, with the commonly reported numbers for the total killed in Rwanda in 1994 of 800,000 or more, it appears that the Hutu victims of the “Rwandan genocide” greatly outnumber the Tutsi victims.

Given that we use a methodology in assessing the number and ethnic composition of the probable deaths in Rwanda in 1994 very similar to that of Davenport and Stam,  why, then, does Justin Podur take such a strong issue with us?

We believe that this rests on the fact that Podur cannot slough off a belief in the standard model of the “Rwandan genocide,” which in essence maintains that the genocide in Rwanda was the result of a deliberate and planned effort on the part of the country’s Hutu majority to exterminate its minority Tutsi population.  Podur cannot conceive of the events of 1994 in any other way.  He simply rules out the possibility that Paul Kagame and the RPF were the principal génocidaires driving the events of April through July (and beyond).  He skirts by the awkward fact that the Hutu were the principal victims in authoritative number counts.

In explaining his view of the source of the genocide, Podur objects to our having written back in 2010 that the “RPF was the only well-organized killing force within Rwanda in 1994, and the only one that planned a major military offensive.”[7]  But our statement was accurate and is supported by the evidence on the military superiority and readiness and actions of the RPF in contrast to the Armed Forces of Rwanda (FAR), and even the judgments of the ICTR.

One of Dallaire’s tasks during his August 1993 reconnaissance mission to Rwanda was to carry out an assessment of the military capabilities of the belligerents: The RPF and the FAR.  In the words of his Report to the Secretary-General, whereas the FAR was in very poor shape, and had been in this broken down condition at least since its rout by the RPF the previous February (1993), the RPF was a “well led, effective, disciplined force,” and “displayed the potential to easily defeat the [FAR].”[8]

By April, 1994, this disparity in fighting capabilities had widened greatly, with the RPF receiving uninterrupted flows of supplies and personnel across Rwanda’s border with Uganda, and with a lot of these supplies in turn winding up stockpiled at the RPF’s compound in Kigali, in contravention of the Arusha Peace Accords of August 1993.

So when Kagame ordered his RPF to pull the trigger on April 6, 1994, and shot-down the presidential jet, killing Habyarimana and leaving the remainder of his government and the armed forces in a state of complete disarray, it is quite accurate to say that the “RPF was the only well-organized killing [or fighting] force within Rwanda,” exactly as we argued in 2010.

Moreover, we suspect that Justin Podur is unfamiliar with the extent to which the trial and appellate chambers of the ICTR have come around to a position on the alleged Hutu “conspiracy to commit genocide” against the Tutsi that is closer to so-called “revisionists” and “genocide deniers” than most commentators are willing to acknowledge.  In our forthcoming book, we show that in each of the 15 cases in the four major joined-trials before the ICTR (Government I and Government II; Military I and Military II), the ICTR has either acquitted Hutu defendants on the “conspiracy to commit genocide” charge or reversed on appeal its previous convictions on this charge.  We believe that such acquittals are a remarkable outcome at the ICTR, given its longstanding anti-Hutu, pro-Tutsi biases.  As has generally been recognized, once one removes conspiracy from the commission of alleged acts of genocide, one also removes intent (as in “intent to destroy in whole or in part”).   The Judgment in the Military I trial went so far as to reason that, “in the context of the ongoing war with the RPF,” the actions of the FAR following the assassination of Habyarimana were “consistent with preparations for a political or military power struggle.”[9]  As history has shown, Rwanda in 1994 witnessed both a political and military power struggle in which the well-organized, militarily superior RPF vanquished the disintegrating FAR and the post-Habyarimana interim government.

Podur provides no evidence that the FAR was either a well-organized fighting force or that it turned away from combatting the RPF in order to carry out the killing of Tutsi civilians.  Why would the interim government, hastily assembled in the aftermath of the assassination of Habyarimana, and the FAR opt to exterminate Tutsi civilians when an imminent RPF victory would end their careers and maybe their lives as well?  Why did both the interim government and the remnants of the FAR repeatedly call for ceasefires with the RPF—rejected by the RPF in Rwanda and by the United States and Britain in the Security Council—if the interim government’s and the FAR’s aim was to kill Tutsi civilians?  In our forthcoming book, we stress that with the shooting down of President Habyarimana’s jet on April 6, whereas Kagame’s RPF forces were able to mobilize immediately, each component of Habyarimana’s armed forces was taken by surprise, disorganized, and shortly thereafter in retreat.  Even Roméo Dallaire, an establishment favorite on Rwanda 1994, and a soldier about whom Barrie Collins observes was “not neutral but sympathetic towards the RPF and opposed to Habyarimana, the MRND and France,”[10] is still able to recognize the military superiority of the RPF throughout the armed conflict.[11]   If Kagame’s RPF could conquer Rwanda in little more than three months, is it not amazing that there could have been a Hutu genocide against the Tutsi?

Podur does recognize and acknowledge that “Kagame’s massacres, proxy warfare, and occupation of the [Democratic Republic of] Congo have led to the deaths of, by best estimates, millions of people”—many of these Hutu refugees who fled Rwanda from late 1990 through 1995.  But the continuity over the past twenty years  in the structure of power, the aims of  the principal killers and the targets and victims of  the  only “well-organized killing force” operating first in Rwanda and soon thereafter in the DRC, is a story that Justin Podur does not grasp.

—- NOTES —- 

[1] Justin Podur, “The BBC and the Rwandan Genocide,” Telesur, October 11, 2014. <http://tinyurl.com/nn8fuda >
[2] See Jane Corbin and John Conroy, “Rwanda’s Untold Story,” BBC 2, October 1, 2014 (as now posted to the Vimeo website). < http://vimeo.com/107867605 >
[3] See, e.g., Christian Davenport and Allan Stam, “What Really Happened in Rwanda?”  Miller-McCune, October 6, 2009. < http://tinyurl.com/lpjan8o >
[4] See Edward S. Herman and David Peterson, The Politics of Genocide (Monthly Review Books, 2nd. Ed., 2011), “Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo,” p. 51-68.  Also see our “Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo in the Propaganda System,” Monthly Review, May, 2010. <http://tinyurl.com/p7omr2f >
[5] In their October 6, 2009 article for Miller-McCune, Davenport and Stam wrote that the Tutsi organization IBUKA claimed “about 300,000 Tutsi survived the 1994 slaughter.”  “What Really Happened in Rwanda?”  < http://tinyurl.com/lpjan8o >
[6] See the Report of the Secretary-General on Rwanda (S/26488), September 24, 1993. <http://tinyurl.com/k27chgg >   Dallaire’s Reconaissance Mission Report was circulated among members of the UN Security Council as an appendix to S/26488, but since it was classified for “UN Eyes Only,” it was not made publicly available at the time.  Note that the numbers we provide for the Hutu and Tutsi population are based on the percentages Daillaire reported, and are not to be found in Dallaire’s Report.  For a copy of Dallaire’s Report, see Peter Erlinder, Ed., Report of the UN Reconnaissance Mission to Rwanda—August 1993 (Saint Paul, MN: International Humanitarian Law Institute, 2011), here para. 30, pp. 34-35.
[7] Herman and Peterson, “Rwanda and the Democratic Republic of Congo in the Propaganda System.”  < http://tinyurl.com/p7omr2f >
[8] In Erlinder, Ed., Report of the UN Reconnaissance Mission to Rwanda—August 1993, para. 31-69, pp. 35-40; here para. 67, p. 40.

[9] Judge Erik Møse et al., Judgment, Prosecutor v. Théoneste Bagosora et al., Case No. ICTR-98-41-T, December 18, 2008, para. 2109-2010, p. 539.  < http://tinyurl.com/ncarqtd >.
[10] Barrie Collins, Rwanda 1994: The Myth of the Akazu Genocide Conspiracy and Its Consequences (London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014), p. 126.
[11] Roméo Dallaire, Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda (Toronto: Vintage Canada, 2004).


  1. avatar
    David Peterson October 24, 2014 12:38 am 

    Friends: Edward S. Herman and I were informed today (Oct. 23) that Telesur does not publish responses to its articles/commentaries.

    The issue had arisen, because Justin Podur’s attack on our work on Rwanda originally had been published via Telesur. (See “The BBC and the Rwandan Genocide,” October 11, 2014. )

    Please take a memo to anyone who wants to smear someone else in a public forum, while enjoying the impunity afforded by there being no right to reply: Telesur should be your first choice.

    David Peterson

  2. avatar
    David Peterson October 20, 2014 5:33 pm 

    ( * Friends: From the latest Judgment on Appeal in the so-called Government I trial before the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. — Keep in mind that an alleged Hutu “conspiracy to commit genocide” against the minority Tutsi population refers to a conspiracy that had to exist some time prior to April 6, 1994, so that once the assassination of Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana had been carried out, the Hutu conspirators could also carry out their plan to exterminate the Tutsi. The Appeals Chamber rejects this, just as the Trial Chamber did.)

    D. Pre-8 April 1994 Allegations and Conspiracy to Commit Genocide (Ground 4)

    739. The Trial Chamber also observed that the term “Hutu Power” was to be understood as reflecting a general opposition to the Arusha Accords.1992 However, the Trial Chamber did not consider “Hutu Power” to be synonymous with a genocidal ideology to massacre Tutsis and concluded that: “[i]f the Prosecution intended the term to be interpreted in this manner, it should have expressly stated this in the Indictment”.[1993]

    740. The Appeals Chamber recalls that, when based on circumstantial evidence, the finding of a
    conspiracy must be the only reasonable inference based on the totality of the evidence.[1994] The Appeals Chamber observes that the Trial Chamber considered evidence of the pre-8 April 1994
    events but expressly declined to find that the only reasonable inference to be drawn from this
    evidence was that Karemera and Ngirumpatse intended the crimes covered by the Statute to be
    committed. The Trial Chamber explained its reasoning as follows:

    In light of the ongoing conflicts with other political parties and the RPF, and the assassination of
    political leaders, the Chamber considers that it is also reasonable to infer that the Accused and
    other MRND leaders were merely seeking to protect themselves and their supporters from attacks
    from other opposition political parties, or the RPF, by forming, expanding, training, and arming
    the Interahamwe prior to 8 April 1994.[1995]

    741. The Appeals Chamber is satisfied that the considerations identified by the Trial Chamber
    reasonably support its finding on the reasonable possibility that Karemera’s and Ngirumpatse’s
    involvement in the pre-8 April 1994 events had not been conducted with the intent that crimes
    covered by the Statute be committed. Consequently, the Trial Chamber did not err in concluding that it was not the only reasonable inference that could be drawn from the circumstantial evidence that Karemera and Ngirumpatse possessed the requisite mens rea for a conviction for conspiracy to commit genocide in relation to the pre-8 April 1994 events.

    742. For the foregoing reasons, the Appeals Chamber finds that the Prosecution has failed to
    demonstrate that the Trial Chamber committed any error in the assessment of the evidence which
    would occasion a miscarriage of justice. Accordingly, the Prosecution’s Fourth Ground of Appeal is

    1992 Trial Judgement, paras. 513-514.
    1993 Trial Judgement, para. 514.
    1994 Seromba Appeal Judgement, para. 221; Nahimana et al. Appeal Judgement, para. 896.
    1995 Trial Judgement, para. 1446.

    Judge Theodor Meron et al., Judgment on Appeal, Édouard Karemera and Matthieu Ngirumpatse v. The Prosecutor, Case No. ICTR-98-44-A, September 29, 2014, para. 739-742, pp. 247-248.

  3. peter erlinder October 19, 2014 7:52 pm 

    Peterson, Hermann, and Podur agree that the BBC documentary “Rwanda’s Untold Story” sheds much needed light on the mis-telling of the “Rwanda genocide” narrative that, to date, has been the version told by the “Kagame/RPF victors.”

    It is no surprise that the victors tell the story of war. What IS surprising is that so many are willing to accept the Kagame/RPF hagiography with suspended disbelief, and that they continue doing so when presented with contrary evidence.

    Like Robert McNamara’s confessions of complicity in war crimes, the BBC documentary has testimony former UN Tribunal Chief Prosecutor del Ponte and FBI Investigator Lyons, revealing the UN had the evidence to prosecute Kagame for the assassination of Habyarimana in 1997.

    Del Ponte was fired in 2003 by the U.S./UK when she tried to act on the evidence. Conspirators in the assassination confessed on camera.

    The debate that followed seemed to ignore these facts, as well as the fact that the UN Tribunal acquitted all former government and military leaders of conspiracy and planning to commit genocide or any other crimes BEFORE the assassination of the two presidents.

    This judgement was cited by Peterson and Herman but has not been fully appreciated because it was possible only if the Court was presented with an alternative narrative that explained the mass violence in the absence of a planned genocide.

    That alternative narrative is in the ICTR Military-1 Trial record in thousands of UN documents, put into evidence by the Ntabakuze Defense. It is the result of legal strategy based on UN documents that told a story that debunked the RPF version.

    The alternative narrative and supporting UN and USG documents can be found in my book, The Accidental Genocide, which reproduces the Brief which first describes how the war actually developed, day by day for 100 days.

    Prof. Peter Erlinder (ret)
    UN-ICTR Ntbakuze Lead Defense Counsel- Mil.-1

  4. avatar
    Justin Podur October 19, 2014 10:36 am 

    Ed, David:

    First, I didn’t want you to think I was singling you out just to disagree with you. When the BBC doc came out, I, like Jonathan Cook, thought back to that ugly McCarthyite episode with Monbiot. Because Monbiot’s particular focus was your writing, I thought I had to address your writing – and my disagreement with it. I was trying to model how I think people should disagree, just sticking to the facts and trying to point out exactly where the disagreement is. That was why I mentioned you in the first place.

    As for the disagreement. You write above that you “hew closely” to Davenport and Stam, and you do, until you make the leap that Davenport and Stam don’t make, in which you attribute to the RPF massacres their data attribute to the Rwandan government and militias. Their animations show most of the biggest massacres taking place in areas under Rwandan government control. And the datasets they based their work on, including the African Rights and the HRW report by Des Forges, describe a lot of these massacres in a lot of detail, including who did them. It’s the same types of reports, with the same types of testimonies, that describe massacres by Kagame’s RPF, including Kibeho and others. Even after reading your reply above, I continue to think this is a big leap you guys are making, beyond the evidence.

    As for the numbers, I think, and I think Davenport and Stam acknowledge, all of the estimates are pretty rough, including the ones Davenport and Stam give. On their genodynamics website, they summarize Ibuka’s data (which I am not very familiar with, I only know about it through them) by saying it is an enumeration only for Kibuye prefecture. Is the estimate of 300,000 survivors a scaling up of some kind? You guys know that Prunier bumped the pre-genocide population of Tutsis up from 9% to 12% for his calculation. In his 1997 article, Reyntjens proceeds by assuming the pre-genocide population of Tutsis was 10%, and that 3/4 were killed in the genocide, which is where he arrives at his estimate of 600,000 Tutsis and 500,000 Hutus.

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