Saturday, August 25, 2007

Americans and the Rwanda Genocide

Americans and the Rwanda Genocide

In retrospect, the Rwandan genocide of 1994 exposed the multi-faceted failure of both the United States government as well as the expanded human rights community at dealing with and responding to international humanitarian catastrophes. The following pages will assess some of the reasons for these failures and suggest some action that the Clinton administration and various American-based N.G.O.'s should have taken in response to the Genocide.

Reading the accounts of General Romeo Dallaire, the Canadian head of the United Nations mission in Rwanda, one takes note of the impending disaster that was unraveling in Rwanda after its main impetus - the downing of President Habyarimana's plane - took place. General Dallaire sought very early on to take control of the situation by seizing the known caches of weapons in Kigali. This request was refused by the U.N. bureaucracy. Despite Dallaire's valiant effort at coordinating his team's limited capacities (little water, few military supplies, and even fewer troops) to save as many Rwandans as possible, he could only do so much. Similarly, as Fiona Terry has outlined, the post-Genocide policies of Western governments and human-rights based non-governmental organizations towards the refugee camps in Zaire and elsewhere contained significant failures in that they ultimately served as gathering points for a resurgent Hutu force that subsequently attacked the Kagame regime in Rwanda.

The failures in response to the Genocide and the camps are of a pluralistic nature. Chalk suggests that the Somalia debacle, where an initial humanitarian intervention led to American casualties and a subsequent hasty retreat, did more to inform Clinton regarding his decision-making calculations towards Rwanda than any other. Power, for her part, outlines the many institutional factors that made it that much more difficult for Clinton to engage the Rwanda genocide issue in a more proactive way. Power points to the lack of interest of the Defense Department (p.342) and general lack of involvement of the higher echelons of the government in Rwanda - or Africa, for that matter. And when the U.S. administration did show some vigor in their involvement in the Rwandan Genocide, it was only to look after their own citizens.1
Likewise, the aftermath of the Genocide exhibited failures in response. The refugee camps of Zaire became teeming with ex-Hutu government and militia who had participated in the Genocide and who now were planning their attacks on Rwanda.

The N.G.O. community cannot fully be blamed for this, as Terry makes clear, given that the logistical difficulties, if not impossibilities, of distinguishing between those perpetrators of genocide and the innocent refugees of war. And even if this could be done in an expedient fashion, one can question the appropriateness of starving to death any person. Similarly, the Clinton administration considered it to be politically expedient to have the camps evacuated and the refugees return to Rwanda.

To suggest an alternative course of action to deal with genocide, be it historical ones like Rwanda or those that have yet to happen, is not an exercise in futility as some government officials seem to insist, nor is it an admission of the necessity of a hegemonic imperialism of a country like the United States, as writers like David Rieff would like us to believe. One can only look to the many actions that could (and should) have been taken in order to effect change. Samantha Power points to the military options available to the world's greatest military power at the time of Rwanda but also the many simpler actions available to Clinton. These included denouncing Genocide when it was obviously taking place, calling for the expulsion of the Rwandan government from the Security Council when they had the opportunity to do so and reinforcing the Dallaire mission in a meaningful fashion after the Belgians withdrew.

Similarly, the N.G.O. community could have put aside their (at-times) overzealous commitment to neutrality to better discriminate between the perpetrators of genocide and the innocent at the refugee camps of Zaire and Rwanda. Or alternatively, they could have ended the competition between themselves and cooperated with a single voice and a single vision, one that could have insisted on absolute neutrality in their operations within the camps; a neutrality that would not be sacrificed by their financial dependence on donor countries like the United States. Finally, one can suggest - maybe with a foolish naivety - that western governments take more seriously the crime of Genocide and recognize that it is an immediate national security concern for them.

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