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International Responsibility

The Rwandans who organized and executed the genocide must bear full responsibility for it. But genocide anywhere implicates everyone. To the extent that governments and peoples elsewhere failed to prevent and halt this killing campaign, they all share in the shame of the crime. In addition, the U.N. staff aswell as the three foreign governments principally involved in Rwanda bear added responsibility: the U.N. staff for having failed to provide adequate information and guidance to members of the Security Council; Belgium, for having withdrawn its troops precipitately and for having championed total withdrawal of the U.N. force; the U.S. for having put saving money ahead of saving lives and for slowing the sending of a relief force; and France, for having continued its support of a government engaged in genocide. In contrast to the inaction of the major actors, some non-permanent members of the Security Council with no traditional ties with Rwanda undertook to push for a U.N. force to protect Tutsi from extermination. But all members of the Security Council brought discredit on the U.N. by permitting the representative of a genocidal government to continue sitting in the Security Council, a council supposedly committed to peace.

Tolerating Discrimination and Violence

From 1990 on, influential donors of international aid pressed Habyarimana for political and economic reforms. But, generally satisfied with the stability of his government, they overlooked the systematic discrimination against Tutsi which violated the very principles that they were urging him to respect. They discussed but did not insist on eliminating identity cards that showed ethnic affiliation, cards that served as death warrants for many Tutsi in 1994.

When the Rwandan government began massacring Tutsi in 1990, crimes that were solidly documented by local and international human rights groups and by a special rapporteur for the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, some donors protested. At one point, the Belgian government went so far as to recall its ambassador briefly. But none openly challenged Rwandan explanations that the killings were spontaneous and uncontrollable and none used its influence to see that the guilty were brought to justice.

In addition, the lack of international response to the 1993 massacres in Burundi permitted Rwandan extremists to expect that they too could slaughter people in large numbers without consequence.

Economies and Peacekeeping

In September 1993, U.N. staff and member states wanted a successful peacekeeping operation to offset the failure in Somalia. They believed that Rwanda promised such success because both parties to the conflict had requested the U.N. presence and because the agreement between them, hammered out in a year of negotiation, seemed to have resolved all major issues.

Faced with escalating costs for peacekeeping operations, the U.N. staff and members wanted not just success, but success at low cost. Demands for economy,loudly voiced by the U.S. and others, led to the establishment of a force only one third the size of that originally recommended and with a mandate that was also scaled down from that specified by the peace accords. Peacekeeping staff had proposed a small human rights division, which might have tracked growing hostility against Tutsi, but no money was available for this service and the idea was dropped.

Belgium, too, wanted to save money. Although it felt concerned enough about Rwanda to contribute troops to the force, it felt too poor to contribute the full battalion of 800 requested and agreed to send only half that number. Troops from other countries that were less well trained and less well armed filled the remaining places, producing a force that was weaker than it would have been with a full Belgian batallion.

As preparations for further conflict grew in February 1994, the Belgians were sufficiently worried by the deteriorating situation to ask for a stronger mandate, but they were rebuffed by the U.S. and the United Kingdom, which refused to support any measure that might add to the cost of the operation.

The concern for economy prevailed even after massive slaughter had taken place. When a second peacekeeping operation was being mounted in May and June, U.N. member states were slow to contribute equipment needed for the troops. The U.S. government was rightly ridiculed for requiring seven weeks to negotiate the lease for armored personnel carriers, but other members did not do much better. The U.K., for example, provided only fifty trucks.

Warnings, Information and the U.N. Staff

A January 11, 1994 telegram from General Roméo Dallaire, commander of the U.N. peacekeeping force, to his superiors was only one, if now the most famous, warning of massive slaughter being prepared in Rwanda. From November 1993 to April 1994, there were dozens of other signals, including an early December letter to Dallaire from high-ranking military officers warning of planned massacres; a press release by a bishop declaring that guns were being distributed to civilians; reports by intelligence agents of secret meetings to coordinate attacks on Tutsi, opponents of Hutu Power and U.N. peacekeepers; and public incitations to murder in the press and on the radio. Foreign observers did not track every indicator, but representatives of Belgium, France, and the U.S. were well-informed about most of them. In January, an analyst of U.S. Central Intelligence Agency knew enough to predict that as many as half a million persons might die in case of renewed conflict and, in February, Belgian authorities already feared a genocide. France, the power most closely linked to Habyarimana, presumably knew at least as much as the other two.

In the early months of 1994, Dallaire repeatedly requested a stronger mandate, more troops and more materiel. The secretariat staff, perhaps anxious to avoid displeasing such major powers as the U.S., failed to convey to the council the gravity of warnings of crisis and the urgency of Dallaire’s requests. The paucity of information meant little to the U.S. and France, which were well-informed in any case, but it led other council members with no sources of information in Rwanda to misjudge the gravity of the crisis. Instead of strengthening the mandate and sending reinforcements, the Security Council made only small changes in the rate of troop deployment, measures too limited to affect the development of the situation.

When the violence began, the secretary-general’s special representative, Roger Booh-Booh minimized both the extent and the organized nature of the slayings. Meanwhile Dallaire was fairly shouting the need for immediate and decisive action. Given the two points of view, the staff generally presented the more reassuring assessment to council members.

By late April, representatives of the Czech Republic, Spain, New Zealand and Argentina sought information beyond that provided by the secretariat and became convinced that the slaughter was a genocide that must be stopped. They pushed the Security Council to support a new peacekeeping operation with a stronger mandate to protect civilians. Had these non-permanent members been fully informed earlier—such as on January 11—they might have found their voices in time to have called for firm measures to avert the violence.

Obfuscation and Misunderstanding

From the first hours after the killings began, U.S., Belgian, and French policymakers knew that Tutsi were being slain because they were Tutsi. Dallaire delivered that same information in a telegram to U.N. headquarters on April 8. Early accounts by journalists on the spot also depicted systematic, widespread killings on an ethnic basis. The simultaneous selective slaughter of Hutu opposed to Hutu Power complicated the situation but did not change the genocidal nature of attacks on Tutsi and, in any case, killings of Hutu diminished markedly after the first days. Given the pattern of killings, given previous massacres of Tutsi, given the propaganda demanding their extermination, given the known political positions of the persons heading the interim government, informed observers must have seen that they were facing a genocide.

They knew, but they did not say. The U.S. may have been the only government to caution its officials in writing to avoid the word “genocide,” but diplomats and politicians of other countries as well as staff of the U.N. also shunned the term.Some may have done so as part of their effort at neutrality, but others surely avoided the word because of the moral and legal imperatives attached to it.

Instead of denouncing the evil and explaining to the public what had to be done to end it, national and international leaders stressed the “confusing” nature of the situation, the “chaos” and the “anarchy.” After a first resolution that spoke fairly clearly about the conflict, the Security Council issued statements for several weeks that left both the nature of the violence and the identity of its perpetrators unclear. Secretary-General Bhoutros Bhoutros-Ghali spoke of the genocide as if it were a natural disaster and depicted Rwandans as a people “fallen into calamitous circumstances.”

Some policymakers could not get byeond the old cliches, like one official of the U.S. National Security Council who described the genocide as “tribal killings,” an explanation echoed by President Bill Clinton in June 1998 when he talked of “tribal resentments” as the source of troubles in Rwanda. In a similar vein, an adviser to French President François Mitterrand suggested that brutal slaughter was a usual practice among Africans and could not be easily eradicated. Other diplomats, more up to date, promoted the idea of a “failed state,” ignoring all indications that the Rwandan state was all too successful in doing what its leaders intended. They seemed unable to dissociate Rwanda from Somalia, although the two cases had few points of comparison beyond their common location on the African continent. Most journalists simply exploited the horror and made no effort to go beyond the easy explanations. A leading columnist for the New York Times even managed on April 15, 1994 to put the new and the old cliches in the same sentence, referring to a “failed state” and to a “centuries-old history of tribal warfare.”

Genocide and War

From the start, the genocide was intertwined with the war and the war complicated efforts to halt the extermination campaign. The organizers used the slaughter of Tutsi to draw the RPF into renewed combat. Later, in the face of RPF advances, they demanded a cease-fire as a prerequisite for ending the genocide. The RPF resumed the war in part to stop the massacres and insisted on an end to the genocide as a condition for a cease-fire. An early initiative by the RPF to halt the genocide failed at least in part because combat had resumed. RPF representatives proposed a joint operation against the killers with Rwandan army troops not involved in the slaughter and with U.N. peacekeepers, but even Rwandan soldiers previously opposed to Habyarimana would not switch sides during a war and U.N. troops could not move because there was no longer a peace to keep. At about this time, France and Belgium, and perhaps the United States,briefly discussed using troops of the evacuation force to halt the killings, but they dropped the idea. The RPF, suspicious of French intentions, warned that it would attack soldiers who stayed longer than was necessary to evacuate foreigners and Rwandan government soldiers, who had already proved that they would kill Belgian troops, were presumed ready to kill more. Whether these risks provided the real reason or merely a pretext for their rapid departure, the French and Belgian troops boarded their planes and flew away. According to Dallaire, the evacuation force left him and the peacekeepers “on the tarmac, with the bullets flying and the bodies piling up” around them.

Foreign policymakers treated the genocide as a tragic byproduct of the war rather than as an evil to be attacked directly. Accustomed to dealing with wars, not with genocides, diplomats addressed the familiar part of the problem in the usual way, by promoting a dialogue between the belligerents and seeking a cease-fire. To increase the chance of success, they sought to maintain a posture of neutrality between the parties, which meant not condemning the genocide. This was true for the staff of the U.N. as well. Dallaire was instructed to concentrate on getting a cease-fire even though he believed that objective was unattainable and clearly secondary to ending the killings. But diplomatic hopes of halting the genocide by ending the war could not produce results so long as the organizers of the slaughter saw the genocide as a way of winning the war.

Some policymakers, particularly in France and in Belgium, were wedded to the notion that an ethnic majority was necessessarily the same as a democratic majority. They could not bring themselves to condemn the genocide because they feared increasing the likelihood of an RPF victory and the subsequent establishment of a government dominated by the minority.

Military Action and Inaction

Of approximately 7,000 Rwandan army forces in the vicinity of the capital on the day that the slaughter was launched, some 1,500 to 2,000 elite troops—the Presidential Guard plus soldiers of the paracommando and reconnaissance units—backed by some 2,000 militia carried out most of the killings of civilians. When the RPF renewed hostilities with the Rwandan army late that day, their 1,000 or so soldiers drew some of the Rwandan troops away from attacks on civilians, but not enough to halt the slaughter. Three days later, when the RPF proposed assembling a force with Rwandan army soldiers opposed to the attacks and U.N. peacekeepers, they believed 900 soldiers would suffice to end the killing of civilians. The commander of the Belgian contingent of the peacekeepers concluded that the U.N. troops together with the evacuation troops present from April 9 to April 15 would have been strong enough to halt the violence. Dallaire too agreedthat a joint force could have stopped the killers and he was ready to lead the peacekeeping soldiers themselves into action, if he received additional troops and materiel.

The number of troops needed to restore order grew as participants from more areas were drawn into the killing campaign, but, according to Dallaire and other military experts, 5,000 experienced soldiers could have ended the genocide even in the later weeks.

Because the operation of the genocide was highly centralized, stopping the killing in Kigali would have quickly quelled violence elsewhere in the country. Any serious challenge from foreign troops would have signaled that the interim government was illegitimate in the eyes of the international community and unlikely to receive the support it would need to survive, far less prosper. This would have discouraged Rwandans from joining the killing campaign and might even have stimulated some opponents of the genocide to come together to oppose it.

But instead of using the peacekeeping troops to stop the genocide, the U.N. sought primarily to protect its soldiers from harm. Dallaire was ordered to make avoiding risk to soldiers the priority, not saving the lives of Rwandans. To do so, he regrouped his troops, leaving exposed the Rwandans who had sought shelter in certain outposts under U.N. protection. In the most dramatic case—for which responsibility may belong to commanding officers in Belgium as much as to Dallaire—nearly one hundred Belgian peacekeepers abandoned some two thousand unarmed civilians, leaving them defenseless against attacks by militia and military. As the Belgians went out one gate, the assailants came in the other. More than a thousand Rwandans died there or in flight, trying to reach another U.N. post.

The next day and for several days after that, the Security Council debated the complete withdrawal of the peacekeeping operation, a decision which would have abandoned some 30,000 unarmed civilians then in U.N. posts, just as the others had been deserted the day before. The Belgians promoted this idea aggressively outside the council while the U.S. led the forces in its favor at the council table. A member of the secretariat even suggested that protection of civilians might not be an appropriate activity for a peacekeeping operation. But Nigeria, other council members, and finally the secretary-general insisted that the lives of “innocent civilians of Rwanda” must be taken into account. They delayed the decision long enough for U.S. policymakers and others to reconsider their position.

On April 21, the Security Council withdrew most of the U.N. troops and left only a few hundred peacekeepers to protect civilians already directly under the U.N. flag. Eight days later, after refugees began pouring out of Rwanda in numbers massive enough to threaten stability in the entire region, the secretary-general andSecurity Council acknowledged that the war and the genocide could be addressed separately and that they should try to halt the killings.

When the U.N. began discussing sending a new force with a stronger mandate to protect Tutsi civilians, the RPF categorically opposed the move, fearing that such a force might intervene in the war and rob them of a victory that they now were confident of achieving. In an April 29 press release, they declared that a new military force would serve no purpose because “the genocide is almost completed” and most Tutsi were already dead or had fled. At the time some 100,000 Tutsi were alive and awaiting rescue. The RPF certainly knew of the 60,000 in Kigali, Kabgayi and Cyangugu and of untold thousands of others clustered at Bisesero or in Bugesera and scattered throughout Butare, where large scale killing had begun only nine days before. RPF opposition to a new U.N. force complicated and slowed the effort to mount a rescue operation for Tutsi civilians. RPF troops had proved their effectiveness and peacekeeping staff and member states preferred not to risk direct combat with them. Whether the RPF would in fact have fired on a U.N.force seems unlikely: it would later make similar threats against the French but in the end reached an accomodation with them.

Discussion about the size, mandate, and strategy for a new peacekeeping force continued until May 17, in part because of U.S. rigidity in applying its new standards for approval of peacekeeping operations, in part because of hesitations sparked by RPF opposition to any intervention. Manoeuvering by nations supplying troops and those supplying equipment consumed another two months, so that the second peacekeeping force landed only after the RPF had defeated the genocidal government. The slowness and ineptness of national and international bureaucracies in mounting the operation was not unusual, nor was the attempt by participating nations to get the most or give the least possible. What was extraordinary was that such behavior continued to be acceptable in the context of genocide, by then openly acknowledged by national and international leaders.

In early April some French authorities considered using the soldiers of their evacuation force to back the Rwandan army against the RPF but decided not to do so. In mid-June they undertook Operation Turquoise purportedly to save lives but also to preserve “territory and legitimacy” for the interim government. French soldiers went to rescue Tutsi in southwestern Rwanda, to the general acclaim of press and public. Others who went to the northwest, ready to impede the RPF advance and to protect the interim government, were hailed by RTLM but drew little foreign notice. Some French soldiers were slow to act to save Tutsi, as at Bisesero, apparently because they accepted the official Rwandan explanation that the Tutsi were RPF infiltrators. In the humanitarian zone which they established, French troops took some measures against the militia but they permitted genocidalofficials to continue exercising their functions. Even after conceding a RPF victory, the French took no action against the genocidal authorities, permitting—and apparently in some cases assisting—them to flee the country.

Some 2,500 well-equipped elite French forces saved 15,000 to 17,000 lives. The barely 500 U.N. peacekeepers, poorly equipped and minimally supplied, protected about twice that number during the course of the genocide.

Tolerating Genocide

During the first weeks, when firm opposition to the genocide would have saved hundreds of thousands of lives, international leaders refused even simple actions which would have required no military force and no expense. Complicit in the refusal to speak the word “genocide,” they failed to denounce the evil, either jointly—which would have been most effective—or even singly, in outraged voices. Condemning evil, warning of its consequences, and naming the authorities apparently responsible for it would have made clear to Rwandans that these leaders were branded outlaws by the world community. Representatives of various governments and branches of the U.N. were in touch with Rwandan authorities and may have criticized the genocide, but they did so discreetly. Anthony Lake, national security adviser to the president, did issue a single appeal to Rwandans leading the genocide, calling on them by name to stop the killings. This innovative step, excellent in itself, was not followed by the others needed to give it real force.

In 1994, as for the preceding several years, Rwanda depended heavily on foreign financial support. Donor nations and the World Bank had withheld aid or threatened to do so to pressure the Rwandan government at several critical moments, including when it balked at signing the peace accords. All Rwandans in positions of responsibility understood the importance of foreign financial support: even burgomasters and communal councils were responsible for raising funds for local development projects by direct appeals to foreign governments. Any public condemnation of the genocide by the combined donors and the World Bank, particularly if accompanied by an explicit warning that they would never fund a genocidal government, would have shown Rwandans that the interim government was unlikely to succeed and made them less likely to implement its orders.

Radio RTLM, which had incited to genocide before April 6, communicated the orders for implementing the killings after that date. It instructed people to erect barriers and carry out searches; it named persons to be targeted and pointed out areas which should be attacked. Even the more restrained national radio, Radio Rwanda, broadcast directives important to the execution of the genocide. So important was this means of communication that officials admonished citizens to keep listening to the radio for instructions from the interim government. Broadcastsfrom these stations could have been interrupted without military action on the ground. The U.S., and perhaps other nations, considered jamming the radio broadcasts, but in the end rejected the measure.

After more than two weeks of massacres, most governments refused to admit Rwandan representatives sent to try to justify the genocide. Egypt and France, however, did receive them. The French action had great importance—because France was the strongest past supporter of the Rwandan government, because the delegation was received at the highest levels, and because one of the Rwandans was the effective head of the most virulently anti-Tutsi party in the country and clearly identified with the genocide. Two weeks later, when a Rwandan army officer came to Paris to request aid, a high-ranking official told him that France had just sent some communications equipment to Rwanda and that further aid could be forthcoming if Rwanda managed to end bad publicity about the slaughter.

Members of the Security Council gave more importance to maintaining diplomatic procedures than to condemning perpetrators of genocide. Rather than demand that the Rwandan representative resign from the council, they continued collaborating with him, thus treating his government as an honorable member of the world community. They did not insist that he absent himself from discussions about Rwanda or even that he observe the usual custom of abstaining from such discussions. They thus afforded him the chance to know and communicate to his government all proposals for U.N. action in Rwanda.

The Security Council also received the delegation meant to repair the Rwandan image abroad and heard it out with the customary courtesy. Faced with representatives just arrived from the capital of a genocidal government, most members of the council failed to denounce the slaughter clearly and forcefully. On an occasion of great symbolic importance, they once more put decorum before the obligation to speak as the conscience of the international community.

Although many genocidal killings were done with machetes, clubs, or other such weapons, military and militia used firearms to begin major massacres, to execute some persons, and to threaten opponents of the genocide into compliance. Rwandan soldiers also needed ammunition for the war against the RPF. Imposing an embargo on arms to Rwanda would have been another effective, cost-free way of indicating international condemnation of the interim government, but this measure, first raised in the Security Council at the end of April, was implemented only on May 17.

During the genocide, the frequently ignored nonpermanent members of the Security Council in the end showed the strongest committment to action. Nigeria made an effort in the first week to have the U.N. force strengthened and reminded others to think not just about the foreigners, relatively little at risk, but also aboutthe Rwandans who were targeted by the violence. Later, the Czech Republic, Spain, Argentina, and New Zealand demanded that a second and stronger force be sent to Rwanda. As the Czech representative declared at one point, “Rwanda is not a priority for the Czech government, but as a human being I cannot sit here and do nothing.”

Rwandans Listened

When foreign governments, the pope, and the secretary-general began to find their voices, Rwandans listened. The major business and financial leaders feared loss of international funds and high-ranking military officers feared interruption of the supply of arms and ammunition. Leading intellectuals debated strategies to counter international criticism and diplomats were sent on mission to persuade the world of a series of lies: that the killings were less serious than depicted abroad, that they were a spontaneous outburst of rage by a grief-stricken people, that they were justified by the need of “self-defense,” and that—in any case—they had been halted.

After France insisted that Rwanda avoid further international criticism, Radio RTLM immediately broadcast the news that the French were ready with further aid, but on condition that there be “no more cadavers visible on the roads” and that people “no longer kill...while others stand around and laugh.” After the U.S. communicated its disapproval, Rwandan authorities cared enough to send orders down to the hills that killings should be brought under control and removed out of sight. At a communal council meeting in remote Bwakira commune in the western prefecture of Kibuye, the burgomaster warned local leaders that satellites passing over head could track continued violence and that such displays would make re-establishment of good relations with the U.S. impossible.

International censure, timid and tardy though it was, prompted Rwandan authorities to restrict and hide killings. If instead of delaying and temporising, international leaders had immediately and unambiguously called the genocide by its awful name, they would have shattered the masquerade of legitimacy created by the interim government and forced Rwandans to confront the evil they were doing. Once Rwandans were faced with the consequences for themselves as individuals and for their nation of being declared international outlaws, they would have made choices in a different context. Perhaps those completely committed to exterminating Tutsi would have continued that course. But they had been few at the start and they would have found it more difficult to recruit others—or to retain their loyalty—once it was clear that the interim government could not succeed in the international arena.

For international condemnation to achieve maximum effect would have required complete and public support by all major international actors in Rwanda. These policymakers sadly lacked the breadth of vision to see that genocide in Rwanda was detrimental to the interests of their own nations and the world community as well as to the people of Rwanda. They placed lesser diverse interests of their governments before the need to avert or end a genocide and so violated the pledge of “Never again” made nearly fifty years before.

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