The Order of Genocide: Race, Power, and War in Rwanda by Scott Straus. Cornell University Press, 2006. 273 pp.


In The Order of Genocide: Race, Power, and War in Rwanda, Scott Straus applies a microscopic lens to the critical case of genocide in Rwanda in order to examine the causes of genocidal violence. Straus carefully scrutinizes the possible explanations for the genocide in Rwanda with three methods: 1) interviews of convicted perpetrators in Rwandan prisons who had pled guilty; 2) a micro-comparative study of genocidal dynamics at the local level; and 3) in-depth interviews of individuals who emerged as particularly aggressive killers during the genocide.

In his comparison of genocidal dynamics at the local level, Straus examines not only regions where genocidal violence was prevalent, but also localities where large-scale violence occurred at lower levels than in communes with high levels of violence. This comparison helps Straus isolate the key variables that appear to have driven genocidal violence. In the end, Straus’s rigorous and multi-layered methodological design is a model of social science research that should be read widely, not only by scholars of genocide and human rights, but also by other scholars of international relations and the social sciences.

Straus’s findings are rich in detail and are worth reading in their entirety. His primary findings can be summarized briefly. First, he argues that war and the insecurity with which it was accompanied were necessary conditions for the Rwandan genocide. Prior to the Tutsi rebellion in the early 1990s, underlying ethnic animosity and mistrust existed but had not exploded into genocidal violence. The Tutsi military challenge and subsequent insecurity emboldened hardliners and undermined moderates, thereby creating the context in which pre-existing ethnic classifications could be used to mobilize ordinary Rwandans to participate in genocide. At first glance, this finding might seem uncontroversial. However, in the face of widely-held beliefs that racial animus and “age-old tribal hatreds” made genocide inevitable, the finding is important. Fear in an insecure political environment—and not ethnic hatred—was the key variable that drove perpetrators to kill on such a large scale. Most perpetrators were “ordinary men” who were motivated primarily by fear rather than hatred.

Second, the strength of the Rwandan state facilitated the large-scale mobilization of civilians to perpetrate mass political violence. Whereas international relations scholars increasingly examine failed states as incubators for mass political violence, Straus reminds us that strong state institutions can be used (and, in the Rwandan case, may have been necessary) to mobilize genocidal violence. In this regard, political elites connected with national institutions played a crucial role in mobilizing mass political violence in Rwanda. Straus shows that local elites connected with the state played a significant role in shaping the nature and extent of the violence in various localities. In places where hardliners were in positions of power, genocidal violence was particularly extreme. In regions where genocide was delayed and/or the overall levels of violence were lower, key local political figures resisted pressures to participate in or mobilize civilians in the effort to target Tutsi.

Finally, Straus concludes that ethnic differentiation was a key variable in facilitating genocide in Rwanda. However, his conclusion is not based on the commonly held view that genocide is driven by the demonization of an ethnically-differentiated Other, although some perpetrators certainly did hate the Tutsi. Instead, Straus contends that ethnicity provided a reliable marker for identifying “the enemy” in a time of war. Governing elites, especially hardliners, were threatened by the Tutsi insurgency and actively encouraged Hutu civilians to equate all Tutsi with the enemy. In this way, pre-existing ethnic categories helped to legitimize killing in the context of war, but ethnic divisions were not at the heart of the genocide. Instead, many Hutu perpetrators killed Tutsi not because they hated them but because they genuinely feared them as security threats.

The implications of Straus’s findings are simultaneously simple and profound. Genocidal violence is not inevitable. Although genocide can be planned from above, it must be implemented, to at least some degree, from below. If political elites at the local level refuse to participate or to mobilize civilians, the state may not have sufficient “civilian soldiers” on the ground to carry out genocidal plans. Similarly, while ethnic differentiation may be inevitable, it does not need to degenerate into genocidal violence. Finally, the Rwandan case suggests that perpetrators are often motivated by fear in an environment of political insecurity. If there is a way to minimize the security concerns of individuals living in conflict zones (to be sure, no easy task), it may be possible to reduce the likelihood that war turns genocidal.

Of course, there are no simple ways to translate the advancement of scholarly understanding into practical efforts to stop genocide. Yet, by unflinchingly exploring the dynamics of genocide at the micro-level, Strauss demonstrates that we can understand how genocide occurs, thus giving rise to some small hope that that the international community can put into place appropriate responses that might limit the devastation wrought by genocide.

Debra L. DeLaet, Drake University
November 2007


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