Why did the world abysmally fail to prevent and stop the Rwandan Tutsi Genocide?


The Rwandan genocide materialised as one of the most severe cases of mass murder in the post-World War II period and represented a violation of the 1948 Convention on the Prevention of Genocide in full view of the United Nations (UN) (Magnarella 2002: 25; Prunier 2009: 29). The genocide began following a fatal attack on President Habyarimana’s plane at Kigali airport on April 6 1994 and continued until the Tutsi dominated Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) defeated the genocidal regime (government and militia forces) in mid-July 1994. Extremist Hutus killed at least 800,000 Tutsi and moderate Hutu (Bellamy and Williams 2010: 202-205; Findlay 2002:282). The dynamic interplay of a range of factors explains the international community’s failure, such as the meticulous planning of the genocide, the negative/missing media coverage and the misunderstanding of African societies. It will be argued that the international community failed to prevent the genocide because of the prevailing “shadow of Somalia” 1 the lack of political interest, and the systematic ignorance of early warnings prior to the genocide. This essay will examine the role of four key actors in the genocide, namely the United States (US), Belgium, France, and the UN, and address the motivation that underpinned their actions. A critical evaluation of key relevant factors will be presented in answer to the above research question. Before addressing the role of the stated actors, the prevailing attitude of the international community must be appreciated. For many of the states Rwanda was a small and strategically unimportant country that contained no economic interests. Furthermore, a common perception prevailed that Africans were savages capable of only violence and anarchy (Prunier 2009: 29).

The US – failed leadership

The “shadow of Somalia” led to growing domestic pressure and directly influenced US decision-making. President Clinton was facing the loss of public support and growing political pressure against peacekeeping mission, which contributed to the hesitation of the US to materially commit to another UN mission (African Union 2000 : 84-85). Two days after Somalia, the US voted reluctantly for the deployment of UNAMIR absent any troop or monetary contributions (Grünfeld and Huijboom 2007: 142; Power 2003: 341).

With the failure of Somalia in such recent memory, and to counteract (his) loss of public support, President Clinton invoked a new conservative peace operation policy: Presidential Directive 25 (PDD25) (Tatum 2010: 44; Heinze 2007: 363). The PDD25 outlined 16 factors that had to be considered prior to deployment on peacekeeping missions, such as the US national interest. Although PDD25 was not officially implemented until 4 May 1994, it had a great influence in shaping US policy toward Rwanda (Power 2003: 342; Heinze 2007: 363-364). Prominent administrative officials described the US attitude towards Rwanda as the following: “if something happens in Rwanda-Burundi, we don’t care […] US national interest is not involved […] Just make it go away” (Power 2003: 342). The U.S. military and the Pentagon viewed Rwanda as another Somalia and were concerned with becoming involved in another failed military mission (Tatum 2010: 46). Apparently, Rwanda did no fulfil the new requirements for a US peacekeeping operation and so the US did not intervene in Rwanda (Grünfeld and Huijboom 2007: 142). Three months before the genocide, CIA studies warned of imminent massacres in Rwanda with up to half a million victims (Power 2003: 338, Des Forges 1999: 20). US officials and US diplomats were aware of the situation as early as April 7 and directly relayed their views to the State Department in Washington (Des Forges 2000: 141; Stanton 2009 : 15). However, the US failed to inform other members of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) and avoided using the word “genocide”, arguing that it was just another bi-lateral civil war (Tatum 2010: 57; Stanton 2009: 16). The reason behind the avoidance of the “gword” was the legal obligation for the US to act under the 1948 Convention on the Prevention of Genocide. The US prioritised avoiding a position of acknowledging genocide but failing to intervene because of the potential harm it could cause to their credibility (Stanton 2009: 17; Power 2003: 359). This evidence highlights the culpability of the US in their failure to prevent the Rwandan genocide. The inaction resulting from the US despite their comprehension of the unstable situation, developed from the “shadow of Somalia”, and the influence of public and political pressure. As Tatum states, “the United States provided no leadership when its leadership was needed the most” (2010: 57).

Belgium – leading actor without confidence

The former Belgium colonial administration of Rwanda instituted a policy of identity cards based on physical appearance, which created the basis for the genocide. These cards played an essential role in the manifestation of an ethnic split, fuelled by ethnic (-racial) hatred between Tutsi and “inferior” Hutu and Twa (Grünfeld and Huijboom 2007: 28-29; African Union 2000: 130). When UNAMIR was established in October 1993, Belgium was the largest western troop contributing country (African Union 2000: 130). Although, Belgium could not been seen as an impartial actor, it was the only western power to be accepted by both belligerents and the only one willing to provide troops (Belgian Senate 1997: 4.2). Further, “Belgium ha provided the best-trained and best-equipped troops for the force, which would be difficult to replace. […] Belgium was assumed to be — and, in fact, claimed to be — the government best informed and most qualified to speak on Rwanda” (Des Forges: 1999: 476). Only a few months after the deployment of UNAMIR, Belgium was aware of ethnic and political killings and explicitly warned the UN Secretary General of an impending atrocity, arguing for a broader and stronger mandate (African Union 2000 130; Stanton 2009: 10).
Belgium’s demand was rejected by the UNSC, since no other state was interested in strengthening the mission (African Union: 130; Stanton 2009: 10). The killing of ten Belgium soldiers one day after the beginning of the Rwandan genocide “prompted a public outcry in Belgium by a public poorly informed about the situation in Rwanda. A strong push quickly grew for Belgian withdrawal” (Adelman 2009: 5). Still suffering from the failure in Somalia and confronted with the absence of real political will, Belgium withdrew their troops in mid-April 1993. UN Security General Boutros Boutros-Ghali recommended, with the support of the US administration, to entirely withdraw the remaining peacekeeping force (Leitenberg 1994: 7). Belgium policymakers at the UN and in the national government prioritised concern for their soldier’s welfare over the safety of defenceless civilians. Boutros-Ghali stated, that “Belgium had been afflicted with ‘the American syndrome’: pull out at the first encounter with trouble” (Boutros-Ghali in African Union 2000: 132; Des Forges 1999: 476). Belgium played a vital part in deploying UNAMIR. Speculation exists that Belgium’s engagement and lobbying efforts for a stronger mandate of UNAMIR were motivated by its guilty conscience regarding the mistakes of the past. What is concrete is that Belgian casualties undermined their confidence and sentenced UNAMIR to fail. Belgium knew at an early stage about the systematic killings in Rwanda and warned the international community about the imminent genocide but all their warnings were ignored. The final withdrawal of Belgian peacekeepers left UNAMIR unable to execute its mandate and simultaneously imbued the genocide with a semblance of international legitimacy (Des Forges 1999: 476; Leitenberg 1994: 7).

France – the friend

The conduct of France establishes it as the only country whose actions directly contributed to the genocide. French political and military support for the Rwandan government, even during “smaller” massacres in the 1990’s, strengthened the government’s conviction that it was doing the “right thing” and sent them a message of western (French) support (Prunier 2001: 115). Rwanda, as a Francophone ally, was important for France, not only because of its language but because it was located on a political fault-line between Francophone and Anglophone East Africa (Melven 2000: 24). As soon as the RPF attacked Rwanda from Uganda, France backed the Rwandan government as they feared an Anglophone invasion and wanted to secure their international status and position in Africa (Prunier 2001: 114; Wheeler 2000: 233). The maintenance of France’s African sphere of influence was at that time a key pillar of their foreign policy and precipitated military support, including the training of the police, army and presidential guards, the supply of weapons, and the formation of ‘anti-terrorism’ units (Eide 2010: 170; McNulty 2000: 109). French military support continued for the government until late May 1994 in violation of the international arms embargo that was established on 17 May 1994, with the delivery of at least five more shipments of French arms (Adebajo and Sriram 2001: 69; McNulty 2000: 115). French support endured until RPF supremacy over the genocidal regime became apparent, and domestic pressure on the French government from media and NGO’s became overwhelming (Wheeler 2000: 234-235; Adelman 2009: 9). On June 1994, the UNSC authorised France to mount a twomonth unilateral humanitarian intervention under Chapter VII of the UN-Charter into Rwanda, called “Operation Turquoise” (Adelman 2009: 12). French interests extended beyond humanitarian concerns to include the retention of Rwanda as Francophone and to execute a “rearguard action in support of their beleaguered Rwanda allies, to allow them to retreat in good order [and to support and preserve] the same political leaders who had presided over the genocide” (Adebajao and Sriram 2001: 69). France had a national interest in Rwanda and was aware of the unstable situation but did not warn the international community or try to prevent it. In contrast, France actively supported the genocidal regime, assisting their escape to support its own national interests. So far the roles of the US, Belgium and France have been discussed and it has been presented, that the aforementioned stated reason can be used on their parts. Excluding France, it has been proved that they had no real political interest to advance in Rwanda through the commitment to prevent genocide; moreover, the US and Belgium suffered from the shadow of Somalia. In addition to their unwillingness to intervene, it has been shown that all three knew of the situation on the ground and the imminent genocide, but failed to take the necessary measures. Only Belgium tried, to some degree, to warn the international community and to lobby for a stronger mandate of UNAMIR, but failed in doing so and lost its commitment once casualties occurred. The role of the UN will be discussed and analysed to reveal why it failed so comprehensively.

The UN – failure in listening

The UN, and particularly the UN Secretariat are at the greatest fault for the inaction (Berdal 2005: 122). The internal organisation of the Secretariat dividing information collection and policy analysis between the Department of Political Affairs (DPA), Department of Humanitarian Affairs (DHA), and the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO), failed to interpret the political and military warning signs indicating civil disorder in Rwanda. The three departments were privy to significant information but failed to conduct an inter-structural analysis of the conflict (Adelman and Surhke 1996: 300-301; Berdal 2005: 123). Besides the failure to analyse its own intelligence work, the UN Secretariat failed to pay the necessary attention to the cables of UNAMIR Force Commander Romeo Dallaire. The veracity of warnings about the imminent genocide that were circulated as early as 11 January 1994 by Dallaire, was questioned by UN Secretariat officials who made no strategic plans for the worst case scenario (Findlay 2002: 279, Des Forges 1999: 20). This led to non-permanent members of the UNSC being reassured that they are dealing with civil war instead of genocide (Des Forges 1999: 99). Quoting the Czech ambassador at that time: “The Secretariat was not giving us the full story. It knew much more than it was letting on, so members like us did not appreciate the distinction between civil war and genocide” (Kovanda in African Union 2000: 128). Also UNAMIR was established in the “shadow of Somalia”, which caused a restrictive effect on the UN-Secretariat with regards to taking risks during peacekeeping operations and on the interpretation of mandates. Mindful of President Clinton’s criticism for the tragedy in Somalia, the UN decided to refrain from undertaking further peace enforcement actions to avoid further failures (Independent Inquiry 1999: 41). The largely understaffed and overstretched DPKO made a restricted commitment under the direct influence of this prevailing climate. This resulted in the DPKO effecting the deployment of UNAMIR in a strict adherence to a Chapter VI mandate, and left Dallaire no “room for [operational] manoeuvre” (Adelman and Suhrke 1996: 300; Dallaire 2005: 27). This reveals that information was available to the UN that would have indicated the imminent threat of mass atrocity if it was combined and analysed effectively. Early warnings received by the Secretariat were not forwarded to members of the UNSC, leaving them unaware (Grünfeld and Vermeulen 2009: 224; Des Forges 1999: 7). The member states of the UNSC, might have responded better had the early warning system functioned well and provided a clear picture of the situation on the ground (Adelman and Suhrke 1996: 299-300). Also, the UNSC states displayed a reluctance to use the word genocide, given its inherent obligations under the Genocide Convention (Piiparinen 2006: 339). Shaped by the “shadow of Somalia”, the absent political will among the member states and the poor information flow from the Secretariat to the UNSC, the decisions within the UN had terrible consequences for Rwanda. UNAMIR was deployed with an underfunded, ill-equipped and ill-suited mandate (Wheeler 2000: 215). Mandated by UNSC Resolution 872, on 5 October 1993, to “monitor”, “assist” and “investigate” the Arusha Peace Agreement under Chapter VI, UNAMIR was not able to stop the outbreak of violence (UNSCR 872: 2). Further developments and decision-making within the UNSC deteriorated the situation for UNAMIR on the ground. After the withdrawal of the Belgian troops, the UNSC executed Resolution 912 with the significantly reduced troop strength from 2,548 to 270 troops (UN-UNAMIR; Wheeler 2000: 241). On 17 May 1994, UNAMIR II was authorised in Resolution 918 under Chapter VII by the UNSC with a capacity of 5,500 troops (UNSCR 918: 3). This represented the first official recognition of the action required from peacekeeping forces to defend the Rwandan people. Despite this the Resolution failed in practice because western countries remained unwilling to contribute finance or troops to the deployment of UMANIR II. Melven states that “no troops were available for Rwanda, and even if there had been, there was no airlift” (2000: 197). UNAMIR II could only been deployed after the genocide was over, and after France deployed its own mission (Melven 2000: 198). In light of these events and the remarks highlighted above, it is apparent that the three stated reasons for inaction are applicable to the UN, as they are visible in the decision making of the UN during the crisis. In addition, the argument can be made that the UN is only partly responsible as the final decisions are dependent upon the five permanent members of the UNSC. It is rightfully concluded by the Independent Inquiry that “the delay in decision-making by the Security Council was a […] lack of unity in a situation where rapid action was necessary”, “the delay in identifying the events in Rwanda as a genocide was a failure by the Security Council” and finally “the Security Council bears a responsibility for its lack of political will to do more to stop the killing” (Independent Inquiry 1999: 37-38).

This essay has analysed the major actors and revealed that their failure to prevent the genocide, was due to the “shadow of Somalia”, the varying political interests and due to the systematic ignorance of early warnings prior to the genocide. As it was demonstrated, the UN, Belgium, France and the US had unmistakable evidence on the reality in Rwanda but failed to fulfil their moral and legal obligation to take the necessary measures. The burden of moral and legal obligations extend beyond an adherence to the Genocide Convention to include the obligation to inform the international community about the imminent atrocity and to take joint action to prevent the disaster in Rwanda. But as Stanton states: “Rwandan lives were not worth saving” (2009: 30). The international community were willing to commit billions to intervene in Bosnia, where European cultural and strategic interests were prominent; but were unwilling to intervene in Rwanda, where European cultural, strategic and economic interests were absent. “Our circle of moral concern excluded people of a different race in a continent far away. We ignored our common humanity” (Stanton 2009:30). Inadequate decision-making in the UNSC relegated the UNAMIR deployment to become a bystander to genocide.
Nobody in New York was interested to prevent and stop the genocide. Tragically for Rwanda, nobody who counted ever was (African Union 2000: 122).


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In 1993, US forces were committed to the UN operation in Somalia and attempted to capture General Aidid, a local Somalian warlord (Tatum 2010: 58). During the mission, US forces came under attack and two American black hawks got shot down in October 1993. Following, 18 American soldiers were killed and 78 wounded in a firefight on the streets of Mogadishu. Somalia was seen as a military disaster and subsequently restricted the international communities attitude towards peacekeeping missions and the use of force (Adebajo and Sriram 2001: 61)

Source: http://www.shabka.org/2013/07/20/genocide-in-rwanda-retrospective-considerations/

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