Wednesday, February 26, 2003

# Posted 10:39 PM by Ariel David Adesnik  

RWANDAN GENOCIDE, PART II: As described below, I am in the midst of trying to figure out what sort of moral responsibility the United States bears for its failure to stop the Rwandan genocide. The question I want to answer in this post is "What did the United States government know about the genocide and when did it know it?"

According to historian and activist Alison Des Forges, the US knew what was happening as soon as the massacres began on April 6, 1994. According to political scientist Alan Kuperman, neither the US, the UN, nor Des Forges herself understood the dimensions of the violence until April 20, at which point it would not have been possible to save more than a fifth of the eventual victims.

While I thought Kuperman made a much stronger case, the issue itself is significant enough to merit a third opinion. So I turned to the work of Samantha Power, former executive director of Harvard's Carr Center for Human Rights and author of "A Problem From Hell": America and the Age of Genocide (For a summary of her views from the Atlantic Monthly, click here.)

(NB: While aware of all the praise and awards that Power's book has won, I also chose to consult it because Samantha graduated from Yale a few years before I did and held the same Junior Fellowship at the Carnegie Endowment after graduating. When I was considering whether or not to accept the Fellowship, Yale referred me to Samantha, who recommended it enthusiastically. Not that I would've turned it down anyway, but she did help persuade me.)

Power's condemnation of the US is unequivocal. As she writes,
The Rwandan genocide would prove to be the fastest, most efficient killing spree of the twentieth century. In 100 days, some 800,000 Tutsi and politically moderate Hutu were murdered. The United States did almost nothing to try to stop it. Ahead of the April 6 plane crash, the United States ignored extensive early warnings about imminent mass violence. It denied Belgian requests to reinforce the peacekeeping mission. When the massacres started, not only did the Clinton administration not send troops to Rwanda to contest the slaughter, but it refused countless other options...Remembering Somalia and hearing no American demands for intervention, President Clinton and his advisers knew that the military and political risks of involving the United States in a bloody conflict in central Africa were great, yet there were no costs of avoiding Rwanda altogether.
While I haven't made it through all of Carr's chapter on Rwanda yet, the evidence so far seems to support Kuperman's account more than it does Des Forges' or her own..

While Carr documents the elaborate Hutu preparations for the genocide, there is insufficient evidence that either US or UN officials knew what might happen. In April 1993, one UN rapporteur explicity warned of a possible genocide in Rwanda, pointing to 2,000 political murders that had taken place since 1990. Yet as Carr notes elsewhere, Hutu violence claimed the lives of 50,000 victims in neighboring Burundi in October 1993.

Was this an indication that such violence might spread to Rwanda? Or that warnings of violence in Rwanda were exaggerated when compared to the situation elsewhere? According to Carr's interviews with US diplomats stationed in Rwanda in April 1994, they were fully committed to the UN brokered peace process and expected no major violence. Wrong (and/or self-serving) as such perceptions might, they don't provide much traction for the view that Washington should have known better.

On January 11, 1994, UN peacekeeping commander Gen. Romeo Dallaire cabled New York to let the UN know that a Rwandan informant had warned of an impending genocide. According to Carr, Dallaire assessed the informant's report as "reliable." According to Kuperman, Dallaire
raised doubts about the informant's credibility in this cable, stating that he had "certain reservations on the suddenness of the change of heart of the informant. . . . Possibility of a trap not fully excluded, as this may be a set-up." Raising further doubt, the cable was the first and last from Dallaire containing such accusations, according to U.N. officials. Erroneous warnings of coups and assassinations are not uncommon during civil wars. U.N. officials were prudent to direct Dallaire to confirm the allegations with Habyarimana himself, based on the informant's belief that "the president does not have full control over all elements of his old party/faction." Dallaire never reported any confirmation of the plot.
Unfortunately, neither Carr nor Kuperman indicates where one can find the original text of the memo. Even so, Kuperman seems to be on firmer ground here.

The next point of conflict between the Kuperman and Carr accounts concerns Gen. Dallaire's state of mind in April 1994. According to Carr,
Dallaire and other foreign observers passed through two phases of recognition. The first involved coming to grips with the occurrence not only of a conventional war but of massive crimes against humanity. The second involved understanding that what was taking place was genocide.
Carr's interviews with Dallaire suggest that he reached the first stage of recognition on April 9 and the second stage on April 10, at which point he requested 5,000 reinforcements.

In light of the fact that Dallaire had the benefit of hindsight while being interviewed, it is worth wondering whether he exaggerated his own awareness of the genocide and commitment to stopping it. If Dallaire's statements to the British press in April 1994 are any indication, what he told Carr was just about an outright lie.

In Foreign Affairs, Kuperman writes that Dallaire
identified the problem as mutual violence, stating on April 15 that "if we see another three weeks of being cooped up and seeing them [the Hutu and Tutsi forces] pound each other" (The Guardian), the U.N. presence would be reassessed...

On April 11, The New York Times reported that fighting had "diminished in intensity" and Le Monde wrote three days later that "a strange calm reigns in downtown" Kigali. The commander of Belgian peacekeepers stated that "the fighting has died down somewhat, one could say that it has all but stopped" (Paris Radio France International). On April 17, Dallaire told the BBC that except for an isolated pocket in the north, "the rest of the line is essentially quite quiet." Only on April 18 did a Belgian radio station question this consensus, explaining that the decline in reports of violence was because "most foreigners have left, including journalists."

In light of Dallaire's failure to understand what was going on around him, one has to wonder what decision makers in Washington understood -- especially since the American diplomatic corps had left Rwanda shortly after the outbreak of violence.

Quoted in an interveiw with Carr, the second-ranking US diplomat in Rwanda claims, after returning to Washington, to have told State Department colleagues that the violence in progress was nothing less than "genocide" in progress. In the absence of documents to corroborate this claim, however, one has to suspect that it is no more accurate than Dallaire's.

On April 11, a talking points memo informed Frank Wisner, the undersecretary of defense for policy, that "unless both sides can be convinced to return to the peace process, a massive (hundreds of thousands of deaths) bloodbath will ensue." This memo is the closest one comes to hard evidence that the American government knew what was happening. Yet its reference to the peace process suggests that Washington had completely failed to recognized that Hutu extremists had already begun their genocide and that no diplomatic options were left.

The first mention of genocide in an American document seems to be in a May 9 report by the Defense Intelligence Agency. By that time, however, the dimensions of the killing in Rwanda were well known to the public. All in all, there just doesn't seem to be evidnece that the US understood just how serious the Rwandan massacres were.

Should the US have responded with force even if the massacres taking place did not amount to genocide? From a moral perspective, the obvious answer is 'yes'. But after the humilitation of Somalia and the lackluster response to the ongoing genocide in Bosnia, there is little reason to believe that the US or any other country would have done something in the event of violence that wasn't severe enough to warrant the term genocide.


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