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Coauthored with Patrick McCormick, research associate in the International Institutions and Global Governance program.
Twenty years ago yesterday two surface-to-air missiles ripped into a plane carrying Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana and Burundian President Cyprien Ntaryamira. Hutu militias responded by launching a violent genocide against Rwanda’s Tutsi minority. Over the next 100 days, the country became an abattoir.
After twenty years and countless postmortems, one question still reverberates. Would the United Nations, the United States, and other major powers respond any differently today? The answer is not encouraging. Whether in Darfur, Syria, or the Central African Republic, mass atrocities recur with alarming frequency.
The first step in improving international efforts to combat genocide is to learn from the past. Rwanda teaches at least three critical lessons:
Lesson 1: Early warning is not the problem. Early action is.
In her Pulitzer Prize-winning book A Problem from Hell, Samantha Power dispels the myth that policymakers simply don’t know what’s going on. “By 8:00 A.M. the morning after the plane crash,” recalls Joyce Leader, then deputy U.S. chief of mission in Rwanda, “we knew what was happening, that there was systematic killing of the Tutsi.” Leader told her State Department colleagues “that three kinds of killings were going on: casualties in war, politically motivated murder, and genocide.” Over at the Pentagon, Frank Wisner, the undersecretary of defense for policy, received an eye-opening memo: “Unless both sides can be convinced to return to the peace process,” it read, “a massive (hundreds of thousands of deaths) bloodbath will ensue.” Within the first few days of the killing, Power writes, the Pentagon deployed “some two dozen U.S. special forces…on a one-day reconnaissance mission to Kigali.” They returned, in the words of one senior officer, “white as ghosts,” having seen “so many bodies on the streets that you could walk from one body to the other without touching the ground.”
News of the genocide soon reached the highest levels of the Clinton administration. The CIA’s daily briefing for President Clinton, Vice President Gore, and other senior officials clearly described the events as “genocide” and detailed the killing on the ground.
Nor was the media in the dark. As early as April 10, the New York Times quoted Herve Le Guilouizic, medical coordinator of the International Committee of the Red Cross, on its front page. “Yesterday, we were talking about thousands of dead, today we can start with tens of thousands.”
Even before the genocide began, the United Nations had “early warning.” Killing on an immense scale, it turns out, takes planning. On January 11, 1994—nearly three months before the genocide began—Canadian Major General Roméo Dallaire, force commander with the United Nations Assistance Mission in Rwanda (UNAMIR), dispatched an urgent cable to UN Headquarters in New York. A “very, very important [Rwandan] government politician,” had informed the general that he had been “ordered to register all Tutsi in Kigali,” and “he suspects it is for their extermination.” He added that “in twenty minutes his personnel could kill up to 1,000 Tutsis.” In a return fax signed by Iqbal Riza, deputy to UN undersecretary general for peacekeeping Kofi Annan, Dallaire was directed to disclose his concerns to President Habyarimana, despite evidence that genocide plans were being prepared within the president’s inner circle.
Clearly, the problem was not early warning. It was early action.
Lesson 2: Debates over terminology only distract.
In spring 1994, U.S. officials wrung their hands over whether to characterize the slaughter of civilians as a civil war with atrocities committed on both sides, as ethnic cleansing, or as genocide. As Power documents, “American officials… shunned the use of what became known as the ‘g-word,’” in part from fear that employing the term would compel action by the United States pursuant to the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide.
A June 10 statement from State Department spokesperson Christine Shelly illustrated the administration’s uncertainty about how to respond. After noting that “acts of genocide” had occurred in Rwanda, a reporter prompted her to clarify the distinction between “acts of genocide” and “genocide.” Shelly refused to answer how many acts of genocide would constitute genocide and only replied
“Well, I think the—as you know, there’s a legal definition of this … clearly not all of the killings that have taken place in Rwanda are killings to which you might apply that label … But as to the distinctions between the words, we’re trying to call what we have seen so far as best we can; and based, again, on the evidence, we have every reason to believe that acts of genocide have occurred.”
A decade later, protracted squabbles over legal definitions would similarly hamstring the administration of George W. Bush from launching a vigorous U.S. response to mass atrocities in Darfur. By the time Secretary of State Colin Powell concluded that acts of “genocide” had indeed occurred in Darfur, precious months had been wasted.
Lesson 3: Mass atrocities do not require advanced killing technology.
The Rwandan genocide was committed not with gas chambers or chemical weapons but with machetes and small arms, in response to extermination lists broadcasted by radio. It was often committed one-on-one, by neighbor against neighbor, family member against family member. And yet Rwandans were murdered at a pace three times faster than Jews perished in the Holocaust. Philip Gourevitch vividly renders this reality: “It almost seemed as if, with the machete, the nail-studded club, a few well-placed grenades, and a few bursts of automatic-rifle fire, the quiet orders of Hutu Power had made the neutron bomb obsolete.” Leaders stoked tribal allegiances and called on their Hutu countrymen to take up arms and do their part to eliminate anyone who happened to be Tutsi.
None of which should be taken as implying it was disorganized. As Human Rights Watch notes, the Rwandan government had often “mobilized the population for campaigns of various kinds, such as to end illiteracy, to vaccinate children, or to improve the status of women.” In a horrific twist, “the organizers of the genocide similarly exploited the structures that already existed—administrative, political and military—and called upon personnel to execute a campaign to kill Tutsi and Hutu presumed to oppose Hutu Power.” Existing state structures provided networks to carry out premeditated murder.
When it comes to preventing mass atrocities, the first step is discarding illusions that provide excuses to sit on one’s hands. The second is recognizing that stopping genocide is fundamentally a problem of political will. In his desperate cable of January 1994, Dallaire urged his superiors to action. “Peux ceux que veux,” he declared: where there’s a will, there’s a way. Alas, there was no will.