A new study has found that the men who were tried for their role in the Rwandan genocide appealing that they are actually very good people. That is the most common way accused men try to account for their actions in testimony before the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. The results appear in the journal Social Problems.

Researchers examined >10,000 pages of testimony from 27 defendants at the ICTR to determine how the men tried to explain their involvement in the genocidal violence. The team found that an appeal to a good character was used by defendants more than all other explanations combined to say why they were not guilty of the horrible crimes they were accused of committing.

In 1994, mass violence claimed up to 1 million lives in the East African nation of Rwanda. Accused perpetrators were trying to protect their reputation. Rather than acknowledging their role, they emphasized what good people they were and talked about their good deeds and admirable character traits.

For this study, the researchers focused on 27 defendants, all men. Nearly all were indicted for complicity in genocide and either genocide or conspiracy to commit genocide. The researchers analyzed the testimony using a classic criminology theory that suggests people use five specific techniques to neutralize their guilt and justify their participation in criminal activities.

The techniques are the denial of responsibility, denial of injury, denial of the victim, condemnation of the condemners and appeal to higher loyalties. The findings showed that the defendants used only two of these techniques frequently: denial of responsibility and condemnation of the condemners (attacking those who criticize them).

However, they found two neutralization techniques that had not been identified before, one of them being an appeal to good character. 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. The other new technique the researchers identified was victimization.

The researchers found that more than one-third of defendants used the victimization and appeals to good character techniques between one and 12 times per day of testimony. Defendants relied especially heavily on the appeal to good character technique. The results showed that this technique was employed more than all the classic techniques combined.