Hotel Rwanda movie poster.
Hotel Rwanda movie poster.

Ethics on Film: Discussion of "Hotel Rwanda"

Jul 14, 2008


The decades following Rwanda's independence from Belgium in 1962 saw growing ethnic tensions and periodic violent attacks and reprisals between Rwanda's Hutu majority and its Tutsi minority. Thousands of Tutsis fled into exile in neighboring countries and in 1990 a failed invasion by a Tutsi rebel exile group sparked a civil war that officially ended in August 1993. On April 6, 1994, the Rwandan president, a Hutu, was killed when his plane was shot down over Kigali airport. Hutu politicians blamed Tutsis for the president's death and within hours, loosely organized Hutu militia groups known collectively as the Interhamwe began mobilizing across Rwanda. In a preplanned campaign, these Hutu gangs killed roughly 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus over the course of 100 days. And, in full awareness of the situation, the international community did virtually nothing to halt the slaughter.

Hotel Rwanda tells the true story of one man's courage in the midst of this genocide.

Paul Rusesabagina, a manager at a Belgian-owned luxury hotel in Kigali, Rwanda's capital, is as skilled at pleasing the hotel's (mostly white) guests as he is at currying favor with the Rwandan army officers who frequent the hotel bar and the local businessmen with whom he deals. Paul, a Hutu, is married to a Tutsi and his children are considered mixed. When the mass killings begin, Paul's Tutsi neighbors rush for safety to his house. Reluctantly, Paul takes them in and bribes a Rwandan army officer to allow him to bring them to the hotel. This is only the beginning of the flood of refugees to come to the hotel. In total, the number of Tutsis and moderate Hutus sheltering in the hotel and its grounds would rise to over 1,000.

As the violence worsens, the UN withdraws most of its peacekeeping force (there to implement the Arusha Accords that ended the civil war), leaving roughly 300 soldiers behind. Foreign governments send in troops, but only to evacuate their citizens, many of whom are guests at the hotel. The head of the UN peacekeeping force, distraught over the withdrawal of his troops, tells Paul to look at himself from a Western perspective to try and understand why the international community has abandoned them—because they are African.

Paul holds firm, and through his connections, his guile, and his courage, he manages to save not only himself and his family, but also 1,268 innocent people.

Historical Accuracy

The history of the peoples of Rwanda and its neighboring countries is complex and disputed, so inevitably this movie contains some simplifications.

For instance, a conversation between a journalist and a Rwandan at the hotel bar gives the impression that there were no social distinctions between Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda before Belgian colonial rule. The reality was not so simple.

Prior to Belgian colonial rule, it seems that were distinctions between Hutu and Tutsi, but they were primarily economic rather than racial. The Tutsis were the aristocracy and the Hutu were the common people. It was not impossible to change status, and "become" a powerful Tutsi (which means "rich in cattle") or an ordinary Hutu. The Belgians heavily favored the Tutsis and exacerbated and codified the formerly flexible divide between the two groups. For a good explanation of the genocide and what led up to it, see theHistory section of the Human Rights Watch Report, Leave None to Tell the Story.

Another historical inaccuracy in the film concerns its portrayal of the leader of the UNAMIR mission. In Hotel Rwanda, he is Colonel Oliver, a fictional character based on Lieutenant General Romeo Dallaire. To see Dallaire's version of events as well as his struggle and work after the genocide, we suggest reading Shake Hands with the Devil or watching the documentary based off the book and his experiences.

Ethical Issues and Discussion Questions

1. At the beginning of the film, Paul places far greater value on protecting his family than protecting his neighbors. But as the film progresses his sense of obligation to his neighbors and his countrymen deepens. Indeed, rather than abandon the refugees he is sheltering, he sends his family to safety while he stays behind. Is his decision the morally right one? In making decisions, how much weight should one give to the welfare of one's family compared to the welfare of one's neighbors? How much weight should governments give to the welfare of foreign peoples compared to that of their own citizens?

2. The UN Colonel tells reporters that his troops are "peace-keepers," not "peace-makers." By UN mandate, UN troops were permitted to use their weapons only in self-defense. If the Colonel had disobeyed orders and authorized his troops to fire on Interhamwe fighters, would he have done the right thing?

3. Do you agree that racism played a role in the international community's failure to act to stop the genocide, as the UN colonel says? The film makes no mention of other possible contributing factors, such as the disastrous U.S. humanitarian intervention in Somalia in 1993, less than a year before, which ended after a U.S. helicopter was shot down and the bodies of U.S. soldiers were dragged through the streets of Mogadishu. Does this justify the U.S. and the UN's refusal to intervene?

4. The film shows that there was a close relationship between the French and Hutu governments, even while the killings were going on. On the tenth anniversary of the genocide, Rwanda's president accused the French of consciously training and arming the Hutus, knowing that they would massacre Tutsis. The French deny this, yet it is indisputable that France was the Rwandan government's number-one supplier of weapons. Does this fact alone make France more culpable for the genocide than the rest of the international community? How should responsibility be allocated for what happened, both inside and outside Rwanda?

How has the international community, in particular Belgium, France, the United States, and the UN, faced up to the question of responsibility and blame in the years since the genocide?

5. In 2005, world leaders formally adopted the Responsibility to Protect [R2P]—the duty to intervene in when national governments fail to fulfill their responsibility to protect their citizens from atrocious crimes—and in 2006 the UN Security Council passed Resolution 1674, which commits the Council to protect civilians during armed conflicts. Do you agree that under certain circumstances, R2P should override sovereignty? Can you cite any examples where R2P has been or should be implemented?

Outside Resources

Paul Rusesabagina: No 'Ordinary Man' National Public Radio interview with Mr. Rusesabagina. (April, 2006) The Responsibility to Protect-Engaging Civil Society project works to advance Responsibility to Protect (R2P) and to promote concrete policies to better enable governments, regional organizations and the UN to protect vulnerable populations.

An Ordinary Man: An Autobiography Paul Rusesabagina, 2006

Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda Romeo Dallaire and Samantha Power, 2004 We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda Philip Gourevitch, 1998

"Leave None to Tell the Story: Genocide in Rwanda", Human Rights Watch, March 1999

"Resolution 1674 (2006)", United Nations Security Council, April 28, 2006Subscribe to the Carnegie Ethics Newsletter for more on human rights issues.

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