The United States and the Rwandan Genocide

(Originally published 7 April, 2014)

“We are doing our calculations back here, and one American casualty is worth about 85,000 Rwandan dead.”

U.S officer at the Pentagon (1994)

The Rwandan genocide (1994) could have been stopped. This is no exaggeration. The U.S.A, the U.N, the French, and Belgium in-particular had the power with which to halt it even when it was inevitable by late 1993.

The Holocaust and the Armenian genocide are ones that in their day and age were difficult to gauge because the word ‘genocide’ did not exist and was therefore more difficult to define. In the 1900s it was merely known by Lemkin (the man who invented the term ‘genocide’) as ‘race murder’. The mass-slaughter of 800,000 – 1,000,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus in the 1990s should have, in the hailed age of modernity and the relative globalisation of the world in the post-Cold War era, been prevented. Instead the U.S.A continued its unnerving trend of having not intervened in genocide even though they knew it was occurring. Clinton did not have one emergency meeting concerning Rwanda in his foreign policy agenda.

Five years later the White House, without contest, let one million people die during the ‘Pax Americana’. Though ultimately the responsibility of the genocide lies with those who perpetrated it, the current United States Ambassador to the United Nations Samantha Powers argues this with a stack of unmistakable evidence as does Romeo Dallaire(the Canadian U.N Commander of United Nations Assistance Mission For Rwanda or UNAMIR).

The United States’ ability to collect, retrieve, and analyse evidence through the provision of intelligence is second to none.  For example as Samantha Power points out ‘no other atrocity campaign in the 20th century was better monitored…’ than the Serbs ethnic cleansing. Jon Western was apparently ‘sifting through some 1000 documents’ a day on reports from the front in Bosnia. 

They would certainly have had enough evidence during and even before the ‘Network Zero’ campaign that mass-killings were inevitable. Disorganisation and lack of cohesion between various nations, departments and institutions and not to mention ignoring facts proved to be a thorn in U.S defence that they couldn’t do anything about the genocide.

U.S Intelligence

  • 1992: Hutu Power had stockpiled eighty-five tons of weaponry

  • 1993: CIA study found that forty million tons of small arms had been transferred to Rwanda.

  • Several massacres of Tutsis had already occurred. Practice runs for impending genocide.

  • Extremist propaganda was rapidly increasing.

  • A U.N official had warned of an impending genocide (much like in the current crisis in the Central African Republic which increased intervention forces).

  • There was a U.S embassy in Rwanda so it was not like they would be misinformed of events occurring within the country nor would they be naive to the fact that France had close connections to the genocidal regime who they were supplying, training, and supporting politically. They had plenty of Rwandans within the embassy as well (who they kindly left to die when war broke out).

  • A government analyst in Washington predicted that the reigniting of conflict would result in the deaths of 1.5 million people.

International Commission of Investigation

The commission was created to investigate the increase of violence in Rwanda between 1992-1993 and they presented ominous evidence in March 1993.

  • Detailed the fact that 10,000 Tutsis had already been detained by Habyarinama’s regime and 2,000 murdered.

  • Detailed horrific crimes against humanity similar to the build up of violence in the former Yugoslavia.

  • Detailed the increase in racist and violent propaganda evoked by Hutu Power Radio and the Kangura (news letter) led by Hassan Ngeze, an entrepreneur recruited by the government including the Hutu Ten Commandments (pictured below)

  • Detailed the clear likelihood of genocide.

Romeo Dallaire, the commander of UNAMIR (the U.N’s mission to Rwanda had the odds stacked against him from the start. Despite the failure of his mission (largely due to United Nations headquarters and the Western powers stance) he adapted to and performed in circumstances of appalling moral pressure. He was given no preparation plans or details on the ground regarding the utmost seriousness of Rwanda’s predicament. The U.N, the U.S.A, the Commission, NGOs, no one provided him the key details of what he was really up against.

Despite a lack of manpower, institutional support, data, and logistical support he managed to come to conclusions fairly rapidly as to the intentions of several officials in Rwandan government. The ‘Dallaire fax’ (in the link below), sent to none other than Kofi Annan, detailed the information provided by the informant dubbed ‘Jean-Pierre’ (a former security member of the president) of the plans of Hutu Power in exchange for asylum for himself and his family. This included:

  • Death squad lists targeted at Tutsi politicians and Hutu moderates.

  • The location of weapon caches all over Kigali (Rwanda’s capital)

  • The training of Interahamwe militia to conduct killing of Tutsis at a rapid pace.

  • The existence of rogue factions in Habyarinama’s circle who opposed the Arusha Peace Accords.

  • The explicit intention of the Hutu extremists to target Belgian soldiers, kill them and force a U.N withdrawal.

  • Dallaire intended to take the initiative. Three things happened.

  1. Dallaire was told to not take action against the Hutu extremists in the face of overwhelming evidence of planned slaughter.

  2. He was instructed to tell Habyarinama and his inner circle the details of these discoveries (the men planning the genocide!)

  3. He was not to provide asylum to ‘Jean-Pierre’ and his family who had risked his life to provide the classified information.

The result was the loss of Dallaire’s initiative and ability to destabilise the plans of the Hutu extremists. The U.N did not want to risk the death of peacekeepers on the ground on the concerns of a cowboy commander. The U.N was on its knees in the wake of the campaign failure in Somalia and their were genuine fears that such actions and consequences of Dallaire taking action could result in the closure of the U.N. The U.N was a scapegoat of the U.S.A in the wake of their military disaster in Mogadishu (see film ‘Black Hawk Down’)

The combination of evidence that Dallaire lacked before with that of  his new found information in February 1994 pointed to clear  preparations for forthcoming mass-killings, ethnic cleansing and civil war, even if people including Dallaire weren’t clear that it would be genocide.

According to Samantha Power, a reconnaissance team comprised of several members of the United States Marine Corps were secretly dispatched to Rwanda during the early stages of the genocide. They witnessed first hand the rapid pace at which people were dying on the ground and the gruesome way in which people were dying which according to the people they reported back to left them visibly shaken and horrified.

Direct first-hand evidence from the U.S military of slaughter on an unimaginable scale on top of hard-found evidence provided by different sources including the U.N ground commander, an International Commission, and various insiders including journalists which detailed, before and during the genocide evidence of methodical and planned killings.  No wonder people hold the U.S.A culpable in the Rwandan genocide for their inaction.

Somalia was a disaster for the U.S.A and the United Nations. The timing of ‘Black Hawk Down’ could not have been more poorly timed for Rwanda in terms of U.N and U.S conduct in humanitarian affairs. The deaths of eighteen U.S servicemen and more U.N peacekeepers in Somalia meant that commitment to humanitarian missions was received coldly by U.S foreign policy makers. Effectively the U.N were made scapegoats by U.S policy failures. The shadow of Somalia severely strained relations between the U.N and the U.S and the latter decided that through the newly introduced ‘PPD-5’ document (created by Richard Clark pictured below) that humanitarian missions should involve zero risk and should only be of interest if the particularly country in question concerned U.S interests.

UNOSOM II and UNITAF were lessons that can be learned by states, global organizations and the United Nations in how not to conduct/enforce a peacekeeping population in a country ripped apart by civil strife. This is not simply eluding to the logistical difficulties facing the peacekeeping forces, nor the failure of the U.N to operate as a coercive unit (allowing the U.S to operate almost unilaterally in the stages before ‘Operation Gothic Serpent’), but also to the moral and humanitarian failure to the Somali people. I say moral failures under the illusion that the nation states and politicians contributing to the  peacekeeping forces entered Somalia considering the lives of their soldiers more valuable than the lives of the Somali people, an inexcusable idea to carry into a humanitarian operation.

This attitude pervaded operations in the Balkans and escalated in Rwanda where Romeo Dallaire, the commander of UNAMIR (United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda) was told by a U.S official at the White House at the end of the Rwandan genocide that ‘it would take the deaths of 85,000 Rwandans’ to justify the risking of the life of one American soldier and to have intervened in the butchery of eight-hundred thousand to a million Tutsi and Hutu moderates. That is roughly ten soldiers, whilst the Belgians insisted that, after losing ten soldiers in the early stages of the genocide conducted by Hutu Power, MRND and the Interahamwe that the lives of Rwandans were not worth risking one more Belgian soldier.

Yugoslavia: the war in the Balkans though mishandled by the United States, NATO and the EU was considered more important than Rwanda’s plight. Europeans mattered more than Africans, that was just the way it was to the majority of European and American policy-makers. This was similar of the international community and the media in general who were either preoccupied by Mandela’s triumphant election or the ethnic cleansing in the former Yugoslavia. Rwanda held no economic, strategic or political importance to the Western powers, a thing directly exploited by the genocidal regime in Rwanda.

The Americans deliberately, even against all the evidence on the ground of mass slaughter, refused to the use the term ‘genocide’. The use of the term would have meant they would have had to intervene under the U.N Charter, under moral obligation, and public pressure and indignity. This was a similar tactic used in the Balkans when the Serbs were methodically cleansing Muslims under the Bush administration. The rule of thumb was not to use the word ‘genocide’; it removed accountability to act. It paralleled  the killers tactics who used the word ‘work’ or ‘by-product of war’ knowing these words would not prompt moral outcry as they didn’t quite have the same ring as genocide.

They United States also played a key role with the rest of the U.N Council in reducing Dallaire’s ground-forces from 2,500 to 250 men.  Rwanda will be a stain on Madeline Albright’s career. At this precise point they opened the flood gates for increased killing and reduced even the capability of Dallaire’s forces to protect civilians, even though they could not engage the militia in armed combat. Dallaire and his brave 250 men saved thousands of lives simply because they bore the U.N insignia and wore the blue helmets and berets. Imagine what they could have accomplished with 2,500. The creation of UNAMIR II illustrated that the U.S.A and its allies had made a crucial error that affected events on the ground.

As the genocide got underway it was already clear the deployment of U.S ground forces was out of the question and that the U.S government already knew that hundreds of thousands would die. 

Yet they did nothing. They didn’t even consider indirect engagement in halting genocide via jamming Hutu Power Radio via aircraft. These broadcasts spread fear amongst the Rwandan populace, urged participation in the killing, shamed those who sought not to participate, and in many cases, specifically named and provided the whereabouts of those to be killed.  As such, the radio broadcasts were essential to the fulfillment of the program of extermination.

The answer was no. The Pentagon simply wanted the case of Rwanda to vanish, disappear amdist paperwork. Why did they rule out the option? The fueling costs were tallied at $8500 dollars. Essentially to the Pentagon, the some 8000 Tutsis (though not always killed as a result of the Hutu Power Radio tactics) who died each day were not worth $1.06. The latter sum was the amount required to save even one life. This was rejected on the May 5th so if you add the sum up of the remaining days of the genocide (which ended July 10th)  it would have cost them between $600,000 – $650,000, which is hardly a dent in the war machine of the United States when you consider the extent to which they invest in their military (trillions).

The excuse was that they had no secure area of operations, that mountainous terrain would reduce effectiveness, and that it was too expensive. They said the same thing of Bosnia, that it was a Vietnam waiting to happen because of its mountainous terrain, that air-support would not be effective in the Bosnian conflict. Yet when they changed their minds that turned out to completely break the back of Serb forces and alleviate pressure on civilians suffering in the siege of Sarajevo. Talk about double-standards and the fact that the RGF and militia were defeated by a small guerrilla army in the form of the RPF. Below is the Memorandum detailing inaction on Rwanda. The provision of supply by air would only benefit the men they were condemning.

Simply put, the U.S.A made grave miscalculations on the ability of the ‘Zero Networks’ to conduct an efficient genocide. They also embarrassed themselves both in the eyes of the extremists and their own abilities to gather and understand intelligence.

Firstly they did not seem to consider that the Hutu extremists knew more about the White House, the United Nations and their foreign policy than they did about them. The U.S, Belgium and in-particular U.N ground forces were impotent in the face of the RGF’s and Hutu Power’s gambit; that the death of U.N soldiers, particularly the strongest military units, would precipitate a withdrawal as it had done in Somalia in 1993. They targeted the Belgians, like the Somalians targeted Americans during their misguided raid on Mogadishu. They failed to assume that the sight of U.S soldiers being dragged across Mogadishu or the inactivity of U.N soldiers in Bosnia would not reach Third World T.V screens/ radios or that key Rwandan officials did not see the inherent weakness in peacekeeping operations during the 1990s.

Secondly the United States, like the French and a large sector of the international community, though stunned in the wake of the horrors of genocide were fooled again.  Rather than focusing on assisting the recovery of Rwanda itself they filled the coffers of the thousands of killers who had fled to the Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo) who re-built the refugee camps into military bases. International aid workers on the ground, journalists and witnesses within camp (effectively hostages) saw the continued slaughter of Banyamulenge (ethnic Tutsis who lived in eastern Zaire) and citizens of Zaire. In effect they funded the continuation of genocide and helped kick-start a war which led to the deaths of over five million people in the 1st and 2nd Congolese civil wars instead of disarming the camps and capturing key perpetrators of genocide. Twenty years on the Democratic Republic of Congo is still as Joseph Conrad would label it our ‘Heart of Darkness’.

Even when the damage was done in Rwanda and their was clearly enough intelligence on the ground before and after the genocide of who the murderers were they were still out-witted and rendered incompetent by the killers. This reached such a level that Kagame and the RPA (Rwandan Patriotic Army) had to once again do the job themselves. They way in which they did it garnered much controversy especially with the killings at Kibeho.

Sheer underestimation based on underlying racist stereotypes and failing to notice the patterns on the ground were highly embarrassing for U.S foreign policy. Their conduct was particularly surprising given the topical nature of genocide in the United States. In 1993 the United States Government dedicated the ‘United States Holocaust Memorial Museum’ to the prevention of genocide and that Schindler’s List (released in November 1993), regarded as one of the greatest films ever made, received worldwide critical acclaim for its depiction of the Nazi’s genocide. There has never been a decent explanation for the indifference over Rwanda. After all they were all drowning in evidence that genocide was looming and of mass-atrocities occurring on the ground. Western governments – the US, UK, Belgium, France – continue to withhold plenty of information about events and it seems as if they have, albeit unsuccessfully, tried to sweep the issue under the carpet. 

Matthew Williams