THIS week marks the 27th anniversary of the genocide in Rwanda, where more than 800 000 people were killed in just 100 days.
The executioners used crude tools – machetes, clubs and other blunt objects, or herded people into buildings and set them aflame with kerosene.
The mass killing of Rwanda’s Tutsi minority was ignited on April 6 1994, when a plane carrying President Juvénal Habyarimana was shot down and crashed in Kigali, killing the leader who, like the majority of Rwandans, was an ethnic Hutu.
The Tutsi minority was blamed for downing the plane and the bands of Hutu extremists began slaughtering the Tutsi, with support from the army, police and militias.
As has become the tradition every April 7th, the day the genocide began, President Paul Kagame lights a remembrance flame in the capital at the Kigali Genocide Memorial, where more than 250 000 victims are buried.
It marks the beginning of a week of commemoration activities and the start of a hundred days of national mourning.
But most forgotten is that it is the 100 days the US did not recognise the massacre as a genocide, leading then President Bill Clinton to ignore the mass killings of close to a million people.
US stood by and watched
The US has, for long, played the big brother role in global politics with wide-ranging influence on other countries.
Where the US seems disinterested, other countries follow suit.
Since the end of the Cold War, the US had repeatedly demonstrated that it could move the UN to take rapid action, but that was not the case in the Rwandese genocide.
The US made a conscious choice that the prevention of 800 000 deaths in Africa was simply not in its national interest.
The US Government simply denied the existence of a genocide.
And it seems this policy originated well before the genocide occurred.
Former UN Ambassador Samantha Power describes an incident in late 1993 where a member of the Pentagon’s African Affairs Bureau suggested that Rwanda be added to its list of possible trouble spots. His superiors replied that:
“If something happens in Rwanda… we don’t care. Take it off the list. US national interest is not involved and we can’t put all these silly humanitarian issues on lists… just make it go away.”
Clinton aware of plan to eliminate Tutsis
According to classified documents, Clinton’s administration knew Rwanda was being engulfed by genocide in April 1994, but buried the information to justify its inaction.
Senior officials privately used the word genocide 16 days into the killings, but chose not to do so publicly because the president had already decided not to intervene.
An examination of presidential papers reveals Clinton mentioned Rwanda in 23 speeches or documents issued during the 100 days of genocide.
Only two, near the end of the period, ever used the word ‘genocide’.
Even after the genocide subsided, Clinton avoided the term.
Clinton issued his first statement on Rwanda on the date now recognised as the start of the genocide – April 7.
Intelligence reports obtained using the US Freedom of Information Act show the Cabinet and almost certainly the President had been told of a planned “…final solution to eliminate all Tutsis…” before the slaughter reached its peak.
US policy during the Rwandese genocide reveals that it was not an important concern of the Clinton Administration, which treated it not as a human rights disaster requiring urgent response, but as a peacekeeping headache to be avoided.
This attitude drove the administration’s dealings with the UN.
And Clinton’s double standards were exposed.
As a presidential candidate in 1992, Clinton attacked the Bush Administration for its passive Bosnia policy, declaring: “If the horror of the Holocaust taught us anything, it is the high cost of remaining silent and paralyzed in the face of genocide.”
However, Clinton did not publicly use the word genocide until June 27, and, even then, diluted its impact by saying ‘acts of genocide’.
Clinton did not mention ‘genocide’ again until July 15 – about the time the genocide ended.
On that date, Clinton closed the Rwandan Embassy in the US.
“The United States cannot allow representatives of a regime that supports genocidal massacre to remain on our soil,” his one-sentence statement declared.
The only other reference Clinton made to ‘genocide’ in 1994 came on August 1 1994.
Although he mentioned Rwanda in 43 speeches and statements in 1994 (20 after the end of the genocide), he only mentioned ‘genocide’ or ‘genocidal’ on three occasions.
As post-mortem, American historian and human rights activist Alison Des Forges proclaimed: “They feared this word would generate public opinion which would demand some sort of action and they didn’t want to act. It was a very pragmatic determination.”
Simply put, the US had no interests in Rwanda, a small Central African country with no minerals or strategic value.
In Shake Hands with the Devil: The failure of humanity in Rwanda, Lt General Romeo Dallaire cites a phone call he received from a US staffer who queried how many people had perished, how many were refugees and how many were internally displaced.
The staffer indicated “…it would take the deaths of
85 000 Rwandans to justify the risking of one American soldier.”
Yet it is estimated had the US intervened at the start of the genocide, about 300 000 lives could have been saved.
In 2013, speaking to CNBC Meets Tania Bryer, Bill Clinton said: “If we’d gone in sooner, I believe we could have saved at least a third of the lives that were lost.”
US influence at the UN
As for the Rwandan genocide, the US did use its influence at the UN to discourage a robust UN response.
Indeed, it was US influence that forced the UN to screen potential missions so as to pick winners and avoid losers.
And in this case the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR) was a loser.
A US Department of State Cable Number 099440 to US Mission to the United Nations, New York, on April 15 1994 headlined Talking Points for UNAMIR Withdrawal reads:
“This telegram forwards Department of State guidance to the US Mission to the UN in New York instructing US diplomats there that ‘the international community must give highest priority to full, orderly withdrawal of all UNAMIR personnel as soon as possible’. Advising that this withdrawal does not require a UN Security Council resolution — which would have likely focused international criticism — the Department instructs the mission ‘that we will oppose any effort at this time to preserve a UNAMIR presence in Rwanda’.”
April 15 was the first of two days of UN Security Council debate on next steps in Rwanda — for which the Rwandan Ambassador was present and about which he reported back to the interim government in Rwanda.
Over that same weekend, aware the UN Security Council was in retreat, the interim Council of Ministers, the genocide’s architects, met in Kigali and decided to take the programme of extermination to the rest of the country.
On April 21 1994, in the middle of the genocide, the United Nations Security Council, at the behest of the US — which had no troops in Rwanda — voted to withdraw all but a remnant of UNAMIR.
The US did not believe the mission was viable.
We did not know what was happening!
Later in his presidency, Clinton claimed he did not truly understand the depth of what was happening in Rwanda while the genocide occurred.
However, William Ferroggiaro of the National Security Archive dismissed these claims:
“Diplomats, intelligence agencies, defence and military officials — even aid workers — provided timely information up the chain. That the Clinton administration decided against intervention at any level was not for lack of knowledge of what was happening in Rwanda.”
In fact, Clinton’s administration knew about the potential for a genocide when it took office in January 1993.
Major Brent Beardsley, UN military assistant in Rwanda, told PBS Frontline, ‘Interview with Major Brent Beardsley,’ in the documentary Ghosts of Rwanda that:
“Genocides just don’t happen spontaneously. They’ve got to be planned and they’ve got to be organised. They’ve got to be trained. There’s got to be equipment. You’ve got to sow the seeds of hysteria in the population, and that takes time.”
In early January of 1994, UNAMIR received information from Jean-Pierre, an Interahamwe training officer, that the militia was being organised into death squads, which could easily round-up predetermined Tutsis and execute them within 20 minutes.
UNAMIR commander Dallaire reported this to UN headquarters in a now infamous January 11 cable, spelling out his concerns.
His fears were dismissed.
This game of denial played by the Clinton administration towards Rwanda was largely due to the normative and policy implications inherent in the UN Genocide Convention.
The 1948 establishment of the United Nations Genocide Convention (UNGC) was meant to embody the moral and popular consensus throughout the international community that nations should never again idly stand by while genocide was perpetrated.
The Convention affirmed that recognising genocide required action to prevent it — a commitment post-Somalia that President Clinton was unwilling to make.
Clinton’s attitude towards the UN can be further traced to an increasingly hostile Senate that was reluctant to foot the bill for another peacekeeping mission.
This gave him more reason to ignore the genocide because non-recognition ensured that America did not have to fund a response.
As a result, the President did not convene a single meeting of his senior foreign policy advisers to discuss options for Rwanda because, in his mind, there were none.
This attitude was reflected in US Presidential Decision Directive 25 (11) which logically spelt out the reasons why further deployments of US troops as peacekeepers needed to be based on clear national interest and UN reform.
US Senator Bob Dole summed up America’s attitude when he stated: “I don’t think we have any national interest there…The Americans are out, and as far as I’m concerned that ought to be the end of it.”
Effectively, this was the end of any debate on US involvement.
Therefore, America’s overwhelming influence ensured that any debate on the Rwandan issue was muffled and any interest to recognise the genocide by the UN was rejected.
By marginalising the massacres in Rwanda, ignoring all the warnings that were presented and avoiding to call what was occurring by its rightful name — genocide — America is culpable of the mass killings.
And today, America pretentiously boasts of being the beacon of human rights yet 27 years ago, it stood by and watched as close to a million people were being butchered.
Patience Rusare is a Rotary Peace Fellow at Makerere University’s College of Humanities and Social Sciences. She is also an Institute of Economics and Peace (IEP) Ambassador.