Rwanda’s Horror Twenty Years Later

Edd Doerr

Twenty years have elapsed since the horror of the Rwanda massacre, in which half a million to one million people—about 10 percent of the population of this small central African country—were killed in just a few months. This bears looking at now, because a major factor in the tragedy was human overpopulation—a global problem that threatens all of us.

Rwanda and its virtual twin country, Burundi, are each about the size of Maryland. Their populations are both mainly ethnic Hutu (two thirds in Rwanda and over 80 percent in Burundi) with a strong Tutsi minority (about 14 percent in Burundi and slightly higher in Rwanda). The Hutu settled the two countries earlier, but the Tutsi became dominant in both; it was rather like the Tutsi were the upper class and the Hutu the peasants.

Germany ruled both countries late in the nineteenth century, but Belgium took over during World War I and ran them until independence in 1962. Catholic missionaries moved in during the European occupations, so that today Rwanda is about two-thirds Catholic, and Burundi is over four-fifths Catholic. The European-Catholic occupations did nothing to alter the unstable balance between Hutu and Tutsi. Birthrates in the two countries have long been among the world’s highest.

The Hutu and Tutsi have never gotten along very well. The Hutu generally resented Tutsi domination, while the Tutsi worried what might happen to them if the Hutu ever dominated. The 1962–63 “genocide” by the Hutu in Rwanda killed thousands of Tutsi. In April 1972, an unsuccessful Hutu uprising in Burundi resulted in many thousands of deaths on both sides. The story is well told by Thomas Patrick Melady in his 1974 book, Burundi: The Tragic Years (Orbis Books). Melady, a history professor by profession, was U.S. ambassador to Burundi when the violence broke out. He mentions the high birthrate and overpopulation but only very briefly. (Melady, a Catholic, was next named U.S. ambassador to Uganda and from 1989 to 1993 was U.S. ambassador to the Holy See [Vatican], appointed by President George H. W. Bush. I have commented, most recently in a letter published in the liberal National Catholic Reporter, that every U.S. ambassador to the Vatican since President Ronald Reagan opened diplomatic relations with that religious body in 1984 has been a Catholic. That appears to conflict with Article VI of the U.S. Constitution, which bars religious tests for public office.)

The Rwanda “genocidal violence of the spring of 1994 can be partly attributed to that population density,” wrote French historian and Africa specialist Gerard Prunier in his comprehensive book on the matter, The Rwanda Crisis: History of a Genocide (Columbia University Press, 1995), after showing how the country’s population grew from 1.6 million in 1934 to 7.1 million in 1989. Prunier also notes that “The church also had a monopoly on education” and “By 1931 . . . Catholicism became the quasi-official religion,” which undoubtedly discouraged family planning in the overpopulated country. Prunier adds: “Although . . . there were admirable acts of courage among ordinary Christians [during the genocide] the church hierarchies were at best useless and at worst accomplices in the genocide.”

Before the dust began to settle on the Rwanda genocide, the United Nations population conference convened in Cairo in 1982. There was apparently very little comment about the tsunami of bloodshed hundreds of miles to the south. I could find only this from conference participant Mary Gore (then the wife of Al Gore): “Rwanda is a tragedy and a warning. It is a warning about the way in which extremists can manipulate the fears of a population threatened by its own numbers and by its massive poverty.” It was at the Cairo conference that U.S. population scientist Stephen Mumford distributed copies of the National Security Study Memorandum 200 (NSSM 200) report on overpopulation and related issues that had been ordered by President Richard M. Nixon and completed under President Gerald Ford in late 1975 but then mysteriously “classified” and buried for fourteen years, after which Mumford unearthed and published it. (To my knowledge, I am the only person who published reviews of Mumford’s 1996 book, The Life and Death of NSSM 200: How the Destruction of Political Will Doomed a U.S. Population Policy [Center for Research on Population and Security], in the Voice of Reason (the journal of Americans for Religious Liberty), in USA Today magazine, and in my column in The Humanist.)

Scientist Jared Diamond devoted a chapter in his 2005 book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (Viking), to the Rwanda genocide (“Malthus in Africa: Rwanda’s Genocide”). The 1994 massacre was triggered in April of that year by the shooting down of a plane in which the presidents of both Rwanda and Burundi were killed; the crime was never solved. Diamond writes: “While the killings were organized by the extremist Hutu government and largely carried out by Hutu civilians, institutions and outsiders from whom one might have expected better behavior played an important permissive role. In particular, numerous leaders of Rwanda’s Catholic Church either failed to protect Tutsi or else actively assembled them and turned them over to killers.” The UN and the French and U.S. governments did nothing. Diamond cited Prunier’s quote of a Tutsi survivor: “The people whose children had to walk barefoot to school killed the people who could buy shoes for theirs.”


So here we are in 2014. Since 1945 world population has tripled to well over seven billion and promises to continue expanding to about nine billion by 2050. Climate change is all too real, and overpopulation is contributing enormously to CO2 increase in the atmosphere, global warming, environmental degradation, resource depletion, soil erosion and nutrient decline, deforestation, desertification, freshwater shortages, sea-level rise, biodiversity shrinkage, rising consumption levels, and sociopolitical instability and violence, much of which was predicted by the NSSM 200 report. That report recommended universal access to contraception and the legalization of abortion.

Democrats in the United States have generally favored moving in that direction, but Republicans, conservatives, and the religious Right have been opposed. We know that equalizing education and rights for women would go a long way toward lowering birthrates, but religious fundamentalists of all sorts have stood in the way. Religious leaders—the Vatican and the bishops, Protestant fundamentalist preachers, Hasidic and Islamic leaders—have blocked progress. Thoughtful Catholics, Protestants, Jews, Muslims, humanists, and others favor progress and need to bring pressure to bear on those in power.

Let me recommend Alan Reisman’s 2013 book, Countdown: Our Last Best Hope for a Future on Earth (Little, Brown) for its astonishingly comprehensive and wide-ranging coverage of climate change and overpopulation. We inhabitants of planet Earth will either control our numbers humanely and intelligently or Mother Nature will do it for us in a very unpleasant way.

Finally, a report in The Economist (U.K.) on August 23 noted that Africa’s population is expected to double to 2.4 billion by 2050, 2.2 billion of those in the sub-Sahara. With the Sahara desert slowly spreading southward, deforestation continuing, and barbarous fanatics such as Nigeria’s Boko Haram (education = sin) running loose, we may well see more Rwandas.


Edd Doerr, president of Americans for Religious Liberty ( and former president of the American Humanist Association, is the author of over 3,500 published books, sections of books, articles, columns, book and film reviews, translation
s, letters, short stories, and poems. He has made over two thousand speeches and radio and television appearances.

Edd Doerr

Edd Doerr is a senior editor of Free Inquiry. He headed Americans for Religious Liberty for thirty-six years and is a past president of the American Humanist Association.

Overpopulation was the cause of Rwanda’s 1994 genocide, which the world has largely overlooked.

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