The horror of the Rwanda massacre, human overpopulation and religious leaders

    By Edd Doerr | 26 August 2014
    Church and State

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

    Rwanda and its virtual twin country Burundi are each about the size of Maryland. Their populations are both predominantly ethnic Hutu (2/3 in Rwanda, over 80% in Burundi) with a strong Tutsi minority (about 14% in Burundi, slightly higher in Rwanda). The Hutu settled the two countries earlier, but the Tutsi became dominant in both, rather like the Tutsi being the upper class and the Hutu the peasants. Germany took over both countries toward the end of the 19th century, but Belgium took over during WW I and ran both until independence in 1962. Catholic missionaries moved in during the German and Belgian occupations, so that today Rwanda is about 2/3 Catholic and Burundi over 80%. The European and Catholic occupations did nothing to alter the unstable balance between Hutu and Tutsi. Birth rates in the two countries have long been very high.

    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. In 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 prof by profession, was US ambassador to Burundi when the violence broke out. Melady mentions the high birth rate and overpopulation, but only very briefly. (Melady, a Catholic, was next the US ambassador to Uganda and from 1989 to 1993 was US 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 US ambassador to the Vatican since Reagan opened diplomatic relations with that single religious body in 1984, has been a Catholic, which appears to conflict with Article VI of the US 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, 424 pp, 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 further notes: “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.” And: “The only faith which provided a bulwark against barbarity for its adherents was Islam”, a marginal 1.2% of the population. Prunier’s book is probably the best one available on the Rwanda massacre.

    Before the dust had even begun to settle on the Rwanda genocide the UN population conference convened in Cairo. There was apparently very little comment about the tsunami of bloodshed hundreds of miles to the south. The only one I could find was this from conference participant Mary (Mrs 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 US population scientist Stephen Mumford distributed copies of the National Security Study Memorandum 200 report on overpopulation and related issues that had been ordered by President Nixon, finished under President Ford in late 1975 but then mysteriously “classified” and buried for 17 years, when Mumford got his hands on it 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, 579 pp), in the Americans for Religious Journal, in USA Today magazine, and in my column in The Humanist.)

    Moving on. Scientist Jared Diamond devoted a chapter in his important 2005 book, Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed: Revised Edition Viking, 575 pp), to the Rwanda genocide (“Malthus In Africa: Rewanda’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, a crime that was never solved. Diamond writes: “While the killings [the massacre] 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 US governments did nothing. At the end of the chapter 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 7 billion and promises to continue expanding to about 9 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, soil nutrient decline, waste accumulation, deforestation, desertification, fresh water shortages, sea level rise, biodiversity shrinkage, consumption levels rising, 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 US 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 birth rates, but religious fundamentalists of all sorts have stood in the way. Religious leaders – the Vatican and the bishops, Protestant fundamentalists, 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 also recommend Alan Reisman’s 2013 book, Countdown: Our Last, Best Hope for a Future on Earth? (Little, Brown, 528 pp) for its astonishingly comprehensive and wide-ranging coverage of this whole matter of climate change and overpopulation (which I reviewed in Americans for Religious Liberty’s journal No. 126, available on line at 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 (UK) for August 23 notes that Africa’s population is expected to double to 2.4 billion by 2050, 2.2 billion in the sub-Sahara. With the Sahara desert slowly spreading southward, deforestation continuing, and barbarous fanatics like Nigeria’s Boko Haram (education = sin) running loose, we may well see more Rwandas.

    Edd Doerr was president of the American Humanist Association from 1995 to 2003, serving previously as vice-president and board chair under Isaac Asimov from 1985 to 1991. He has been executive director and then president of Americans for Religious Liberty since 1982. A former teacher of history and Spanish, he is the author, co-author, editor, or translator of twenty books, mostly on religious liberty and reproductive rights. He served on the governing body of the Religious Coalition for Reproductive Choice from 1973 until 2004 and on the boards of NARAL, the ACLU of Maryland, and the National Committee for Public Education and Religious Liberty. More than 3,000 of his articles, columns, reviews, and letters have been published in The Humanist and many other publications. For over ten years he has been writing a column in the journal Free Inquiry from the Council for Secular Humanism.

    20 Years After the Genocide in Rwanda

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