SPECIAL REPORT: Ten Years Since Rwanda

Links to Carnegie Council resources

April 20, 2004

Ten Years Since Rwanda

This year marks the tenth year since the genocide in Rwanda, in which an estimated 800,000 lives were taken in the course of 100 days. To commemorate these tragic events, the Carnegie Council offers this special report consisting of excerpts from Council resources (with links to full texts):


The tenth anniversary of the Rwandan tragedy inevitably provokes a debate about who was to blame and whether it could happen again. There are, of course, many failures one can point to: from the Rwandan government itself, to other African nations who failed to intervene, to the international community. Some might even point the finger of blame at local church leaders, who failed to denounce ethnic hatred. Many blame the Belgians, whose relentlessly racist policies of discrimination against the Hutus during the colonial period led to deep ethnic insecurities.

In the Carnegie Council's materials on Rwanda, the international community's failure to respond to the warnings of UN commander Roméo Dallaire about the horrors taking place is the most frequently cited issue. In an era of mass communications, there is no way that the United Nations, the United States, and other leading powers could have pleaded ignorance. Then why did they stand by and do nothing?

Unless the international community owns up to this moral failure, and takes on board the concomitant notion of moral responsibility, it is easy to imagine another genocide, many Merrill House speakers have argued. Political will remains weak; timely responses remain unlikely.

Almost exactly 30 years ago, the Carnegie Council's Worldview magazine published an article [PDF: 4 pages] by a former U.S. ambassador to Burundi, one of Rwanda's neighbors in the Great Lakes region, on the bloodbath between Hutu and Tutsi tribesmen that had taken place in 1972. The piece began: "There was so much suffering and so many people were killed in Burundi that all of us must ask the question who, if anyone, was to blame? What were the causes? Perhaps somehow we can find a way to prevent recurrences in Burundi and elsewhere." The author went on to lament the failure of the local leadership to prevent the violence, the failure of the Organization of African Unity to take action, and the failure of the United Nations to stop the Burundi genocide. (He credited the American government for doing what it could.)

Have things changed so very much in 2004? At a recent Council talk, Singaporean UN Representative Kishore Mahbubani told a story about the "Permanent Five" Security Council ambassadors being asked about their countries' expected response to another possible unfolding "Rwanda" in Burundi. According to Mahbubani, one after the other privately admitted that since their countries had no vital interests there, they would not react.

Failure of the UN

ROMEO DALLAIRE, former UN Commander in Rwanda: The bulk of the book I [have written] about the Rwandan tragedy [covers] all the peregrinations, all the interactions between the different UN players: the Department of Peacekeeping Operations, the Department of Political Affairs, the Department of Humanitarian Affairs, the Secretariat, the Secretary General. I will focus on the opportunities that were lost by process, by mandated complexity, by inflexibility of decision-making and interpretation -- but, worst of all, by the apathy of the international community that makes up the UN. (Read more...)

MICHAEL WALZER, political philosopher and co-author of The New Killing Fields: The intervention that was recommended by the UN commander on the spot [Roméo Dallaire] in the very first days of the killings would surely have been justified, even though the full extent of these killings was not yet known. You do not have to wait until the hundreds of thousands of deaths have happened. . . . The UN won’t survive repeated instances of inaction or of inadequate action in places like Bosnia and Rwanda. (Read more...)

DAVID RIEFF, author of A Bed for the Night: Humanitarianism in Crisis: People saw blue flags over a town in Rwanda during the genocide. People went to these towns because they thought, "Oh, there's a UN battalion there." By having this peacekeeping deployment, people who might have fled to Burundi stayed put because they imagined that under that flag they would be protected. Now, the humanitarians themselves were aware of this, but they were, and still are, unable to quite figure out what to do. (Read more...)

BERNARD KOUCHNER, humanitarian leader and former head UN administrator in Kosovo: For the most part, I do not favor unilateral intervention. I favor United Nations and Security Council decisions. But when it is impossible to get a resolution, as in Rwanda, then we are powerless to intervene to stop the killing. The French and the Belgians sent 200 paratroopers just to protect the whites in Kigali, and then they all escaped. (Read more...)

Failure of the U.S. Government

ANTHONY LANG, in an essay reviewing three books on the Rwandan genocide: Read together, [these books] make a fairly convincing case that the UN was indeed responsible for failing to stop the genocide in Rwanda. At the same time, however, the three books deliver a devastating indictment of the political leaders and citizens of the most powerful states in the world––especially the United States––for failing to create the conditions that would have enabled the United Nations to fulfill its mandate and prevent the slaughter. (Read more...)

PETER MAASS, journalist and co-author of The New Killing Fields: If you look at Rwanda in the early 1990s, you had a genocide, which was much more ferocious and much quicker than the one in Bosnia, and in which the United States government played a particularly heinous role because it withdrew and encouraged the withdrawal of the UN troops. (Read more...)

SAMANTHA POWER, author of "A Problem from Hell": America and the Age of Genocide: The problem with the perpetrators of genocide is that 1) they think they are doing the world a favor by purging the undesirables; and 2) that the American leadership, sadly, is binary, in that we think when we’re not leading, we’re simply not leading. But the problem is that when the United States isn't leading, others around the world perceive it as a decision not to act. It’s a hefty burden, and not one that any of us especially enjoy carrying, but it is an important part of understanding how perpetrators view Washington. In Rwanda, when they looked to Washington, there was nothing. There was silence: no high-level denunciation, no radio addresses, no radio jamming -- nothing. (Read more...)

PETER RONAYNE, in a review of Samantha Power's "A Problem from Hell": America and the Age of Genocide: In her Pulitzer Prize-winning book, Samantha Power reminds us that the United States has consistently failed to exert its considerable leadership on the world stage to halt genocide. With forceful, regretful, and even angry prose, Power reveals the stark record: the United States has rarely missed an opportunity to miss an opportunity to stand against genocide. A Problem from Hell forces us to come to terms with the difficult recognition that in many important ways, we have all been bystanders to genocide. Thus, Power urges us to carefully re-evaluate a set of "national interests" that allow us to play such a role as millions perish. (Read more...)

"Never Again"?

THOMAS PATRICK MELADY, former U.S. ambassador to Burundi and author of a Worldview article, published nearly 30 years ago, on the Burundi "bloodbath" of 1972: The burden of ignoring the Burundi bloodbath must be shared more widely. Perhaps there are lessons to be retrieved from the Burundi experience. It would be a real tragedy if all the sadness in the Burundi foothills were in vain. (Read more...)

KISHORE MAHBUBANI, Singaporean Ambassador to the UN: We all assume that after the mistake of Rwanda, the Security Council will not fail again. Unfortunately, I learned one big lesson after visiting Burundi in the Great Lakes region. When we returned to New York, the 15 Security Council members met with Gareth Evans, who asked us a simple question: “You’ve been to Burundi, you’ve seen how fragile the situation is. This time around, if a genocide breaks out in Burundi, what will the Council do?” There was an awkward silence before one Permanent Five member said, “My country has no vital national interest in Burundi, and we will not react.” A second P5 member said, “My country has no vital national interest in Burundi, so we will not react.” And this went around. Decisions [at the UN Security Council] are made not on the basis of the collective security interests mentioned in the Charter, but on the basis of narrow national interests. To retain its legitimacy and acceptance by the 6 billion people of the world, the Council must demonstrate that it will be accountable for its actions and that it is in the interest of the P5 to accept this accountability. (Read more...)

JOHN SHATTUCK, former Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor: [The Rwandan tragedy] had a very catalytic effect on the thinking of the U.S. government toward issues of humanitarian intervention. Inside the State Department, we began discussing how to change the peacekeeping policy that had restricted us from participating in stopping the Rwanda genocide; and we began reassessing the whole Cold War military strategy, which had been used in the Gulf War: overwhelming force, massive numbers of troops, in situations where you have a guaranteed military outcome in a short period of time. Why not deploy limited force in support of diplomacy; that is to say, a policy of diplomacy backed by force? (Read more...)

JOELLE TANGUY, in an essay reviewing the ICISS's The Responsibility to Protect: The effort [by the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty] to ensure that the failures of the 1990s are not repeated may go unfulfilled. Indeed, the issues of political will and authority to intervene have not been resolved, and the ambient discourse on the war on terrorism is likely to further divide rather than rally the international community on matters of intervention versus sovereignty. (Read more...)

ROMEO DALLAIRE, former UN Commander in Rwanda: Right now [January 2003] I see a whole bunch of cold warriors around who are dreaming of a third world war. They want to be in Iraq, not the Congo [where there are reports of large-scale ethnic killings]. (Read more...)

BILL BERKELEY, journalist and author of "The Graves Are Not Yet Full": Race, Tribe, and Power in the Heart of Africa: What the well-meaning West could do is to help the many Africans who have been trying for years to build institutions of accountability for their political leadership. Until very recently, the West and the rest of the world has attached too little importance to Africans' craving for justice. The concluding chapter of my book [covers] the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. I focus on the trial of Rwandan mayor Jean-Paul Akayesu, who was the first man convicted of genocide in an international trial in Arusha, Tanzania. (Read more...)

ALYOSIUS HABIMANA, project coordinator for the Rwandese League for the Promotion and Defense of Human Rights and author of an article on justice in post-genocide Rwanda for Human Rights Dialogue: The International Criminal Tribunal of Rwanda can make a difference for the future of human rights in Rwanda by exposing the truth of the genocide: It was not a result of ancient, tribal hatred, but rather a carefully planned exploitation of ethnic differences by rulers seeking to hold onto their power. With this truth, we may lay the groundwork for reconciliation, and through reconciliation, we can build understanding of each other’s human rights. Still, public opinion of the Tribunal is overwhelmingly negative. Some Rwandan political activists and survivors’ organizations adopt a hard line against the Tribunal, even rejecting its right to prosecute. They cynically declare that “foreigners” have created the Tribunal “to make business out of the genocide . . . out of the blood of ours who passed away.” (Read more...)

--prepared by Mary-Lea Cox, Communications