Skulls Of Rwandan Genocide Victims At Genocide Memorial Near Kigali
Up to 1,000,000 people were slaughtered over just three months in 1994 in Rwanda. Reuters

A new study examining the court testimony of those tried for their role in the 1994 Rwandan genocide found that the perpetrators often accounted for their actions by suggesting they were actually good people.

Researchers analysed 10,000 pages of testimony from defendants who came before the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) to find out how they tried to explain their involvement in the violence, which killed up to one million people.

Their findings showed that an "appeal to good character" was used by the defendants more than all other explanations combined to argue why they weren't guilty of the horrifying crimes they were accused of committing. The results are published in the journal Social Problems.

"Genocide has been called the crime of crimes, and these accused perpetrators very much understood that," said Hollie Nyseth Brehm, a co-author of the study and assistant professor of sociology at Ohio State University.

"They were trying to protect their reputation. Rather than acknowledging their role, they emphasised what good people they were and talked about their good deeds and admirable character traits."

The shocking violence in 1994 saw hundreds of thousands of minority Tutsis killed by the majority Hutus. In the aftermath, the UN set up the ICTR, and between 1995 and 2015, 75 people were tried for planning and executing the violence.

For this particular study, the researchers looked at the testimony of 27 defendants, all men, who testified on their own behalf for between one and 17 days. Among them were political leaders, heads of the military and wealthy businessmen. Nearly all were indicted for complicity in genocide as well as genocide or conspiracy to commit genocide.

The researchers analysed the testimony of the defendants through the frame of a classic criminology theory, which proposes that people use five specific techniques to neutralise their guilt and justify their participation in criminal activities.

These are: denial of responsibility, denial of injury, denial of the victim, condemnation of the condemners and an appeal to higher loyalties.

"When it comes to genocide, we like to think that the perpetrators are irredeemably evil, but they are not – they are psychologically normal people who are acting this way under social circumstances," said Nyseth Brehm.

"After it is over, perpetrators use these and other techniques to explain to their friends and family – and themselves – why they behaved the way they did."

The analysis showed that the defendants used two of these techniques frequently: denial of responsibility and condemnation of the condemners – in other words, attacking those who criticised them.

Rwanda genocide
28 July 1994: Rwandan refugees carry food distributed by the Red Cross at the Kibumba camp in Zaire Ulli Michel/Reuters

However, the researchers also found evidence for two neutralisation techniques that had not been identified before, one of them being the appeal to good character.

"They argued that they were such good people that they couldn't be guilty of genocidal crimes," Nyseth Brehm said. "They often talked about how they actually saved Tutsis from the violence and advocated for peace."

One defendant said this about massacres near to where he lived: "I was saddened by that news as well as frightened... I did not have enough means to act in that situation. However, I did not fold my arms. I did what I had to do and what I could do."

Others asserted their good character by saying they had nothing against the Tutsis. "I never said the Tutsi are not full-fledged human beings."

"Rather than acknowledging the bad things they had done, the defendants often tried to talk about their traits and actions that proved what good people they are," Nyseth Brehm said.

Many painted themselves as the victim in the situation saying they and their friends and family were being targeted by Hutus. "I felt it was possible for me to die because I had been under permanent threat. I was being persecuted," said one former mayor.

Although some Hutus were killed during the violence, the vast majority of the violence was directed at the Tutsis.

Nyseth Brehm said this study is one of the few to examine the explanations given for genocidal violence, instead of focusing on what perpetrators were thinking before the crime.

"We were looking not at what enabled them to commit the crime, but how they made sense of it afterward. How could they justify what they did?" she said.

In her previous research in Rwanda, Nyseth Brehm has seen how people involved in genocide have dealt with their guilt in ways consistent with this study.

"A lot of the people I have talked to in Rwanda have to convince themselves that they are good people as a way to move forward. They have difficulty coming to terms with what they did."