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A People Betrayed, the Role of the West in Rwanda's Genocide

By Linda R. Melvern
St. Martin's Press, 2000

Reviewed by Terree Bowers California Committee South Former Prosecutor with the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda
A People Betrayed : The Role of the West... The Rwandan genocide, coming in the last decade of the twentieth century, will remain forever as a permanent, bloody stain on the record of the so-called New World Order. With all the glorious rhetoric of the post- World War II conventions, treaties, and humanitarian resolutions; with the end of the Cold War and the promise of an international community built on the rule of law and collective security; with the United Nations' ambitious new goals of nation building and peacemaking; the close of the twentieth century was supposed to be marked by the civilized evolution of the world community and the gradual eradication of the endless, regional bloodletting throughout the globe. But instead, when it came time to summon the mettle to confront and prevent the undeniable ethnic slaughter of innocents in Rwanda, the international community, in particular the Western governments faltered and mocked the mandate, "Never Again."

The failure is even more shameful in that, by most accounts, a relatively small increase in the peacekeeping force in Rwanda, combined with a minimal show of resolve by the Security Council would have prevented the killing from reaching genocidal proportions.

Linda Melvern's book, A People Betrayed, The Role of the West in Rwanda's Genocide, lays bare the political intrigue, complacency, ineptitude, negligence, and downright malevolence which led to this preventable tragedy. Her work presents a riveting, comprehensive overview of the historical prelude to the genocide, the pre-genocidal political machinations, the contemporaneous bureaucratic bungling which allowed the genocidal killing to take root and move to the southern part of Rwanda, and the general international malaise which allowed a racist regime to carry out a well-planned genocidal campaign under the very noses of the most powerful nations on earth.

There is enough shame to cover the world map, and Melvern documents it all, including behind-closed-doors meetings of the Security Council whose permanent members characterized the conflict as a civil war so they could rationalize not taking action to stop the genocide. Melvern describes a United States so paralyzed with its recent experience in Somalia that its representatives steadfastly refused to expand the mandate of the peacekeeping force, urged its withdrawal, and when confronted with indisputable evidence of the genocide, resisted even using the term to describe what was happening.

Melvern goes so far as to suggest that the Rwandan genocide should be "the defining scandal of the presidency of Bill Clinton." She quotes a deputy secretary of defense, James Woods, as saying, "I think it was sort of a formal spectacle of the U.S. in disarray and retreat, leading the international community away from doing the right thing and I think that everybody was perfectly happy to follow our lead - in retreat."

While the United States' complicity is based on its inaction, Melvern makes a good case for holding the French responsible for their actual assistance to the racist Hutu extremists. The French helped arm the Hutu regime, trained the militia, which actually carried out much of the bloodiest cleansing, and assisted with the training of the Presidential Guard, which was instrumental in the organized implementation of the genocide. Obsessed with the ever-present fear that French culture was under attack by English-speaking elements in Africa, the French government turned a blind eye to the precursors to the genocide and possibly to the ongoing genocide, itself. France even helped evacuate some of the Hutu extremists once the genocide began. Melvern notes that some believe that the original intent of the eventual French intervention, "Operation Turquoise," was an effort to divide Rwanda into two regions, like Cyprus, thus preserving an alliance with the Hutu extremists, whose French was so fluent.

Even then-U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali does not escape the revealing glare of Melvern's moral searchlight. First, Melvern describes Boutros-Ghali's early role in securing the sale of arms from Egypt to the Rwandan Hutu regime. This occurred before Boutros-Ghali became Secretary-General of the United Nations, but provides an ironic backdrop for Boutros-Ghali's failure to get the Security Council to act once the massacres began.

Melvern details all of the wrangling within the U.N. hallways. One cannot help but come away with the impression of a Secretary- General, who at first was too disinterested as he toured Europe while the Rwandan genocide began, and then later, too inept to swing the mammoth bureaucracy of the Security Council and U.N. into desperately needed action.

There are other aspects to this extraordinary book that must be noted. It is concise and easily read, but Melvern does such an excellent job of explaining all of the interlocking intrigues that the reader comes away with a depth of knowledge and a greatly enhanced understanding of what actually happened. She documents her work in the careful tradition of a credible scholar, yet interlaces her narrative with compelling anecdotes so that the reader never loses sight of the terrible human dimension of the horrific killing spree.

Critics have described this book as brave, compelling, powerful, overwhelming, exceptional, and important. It has all of these attributes. It should be absolutely required reading for anyone who has anything to do with foreign policy or international institutions. If taken seriously, this book should generate a ripple effect for reform. It could also provide an instant jolt of fortitude for decision makers worldwide. Perhaps the next time the killing starts, and there will undoubtedly be a next time, we will be able to live up to the humanitarian ideals we so easily espouse, but so rarely employ.