Turning away from GENOCIDE

NATO's Balkan campaign raises a troubling question: Where was the West when nearly a million Rwandans were being slaughtered?

April 18, 1999|By William Ferroggiaro

IN APRIL 1994, a genocide several times more swift than the Nazis' slaughter of the Jews swept through the African nation of Rwanda, claiming nearly 1 million victims -- and the United States and the rest of the world turned a blind eye. Today, the world is witnessing "ethnic cleansing" in Kosovo, where Serbian forces have forcibly ejected an estimated 500,000 mostly Muslim, ethnic Albanians from the nation. Nowhere near 1 million Kosovar Albanians have been killed by the Serbs. Yet the United States and its NATO allies have unleashed missiles and planes on Serbia in the most intensive bombing campaign in Europe since World War II.

As we ponder the fifth anniversary of Rwandan genocide, our bombing-for-peace campaign in the Balkans raises troubling questions: How do we pick our fights? Do we care about Africa? Why did the international community fail Rwanda?

Whatever the answers to these questions, one thing is clear: International condemnation and action, perhaps even military force, should be applied to all leaders engaged in mass killing -- even if their actions do not immediately threaten conventional U.S. interests.

It's a sad commentary to consider that we failed to act in Rwanda because our strategic and economic interests were not threatened and our humanitarian concern was not activated by the atrocities there. This seems to be what happened in 1994, after Hutu extremists began the systematic slaughter of ethnic Rwandan Tutsis and moderate Rwandan Hutus. This premeditated killing -- of more than a tenth of the country's population -- took a mere 100 days.

The killing machine was extraordinarily efficient. Hutu party and government officials had prepared lists of people to be killed and openly trained militias for weeks ahead of the campaign. Newspapers, journals and radio propaganda called on Hutus to heed their "Hutu-ness," kill the Tutsis and pitch their bodies into the river to float east to their supposed origins.

The Hutu extremists also imported weaponry including guns, grenades and Chinese-made machetes (many victims were hacked to death). The extremists also assigned thousands of men to guard roadblocks in villages and municipalities, and search, detain and kill (on the spot, if possible) those who could be identified as Tutsis. This action was abetted by the racial identity card first introduced by Belgian authorities in 1959.

No U.S.-led international force mobilized to stop the horrors in Rwanda, though international law -- specifically, the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide -- obligated the international community to intervene.

Quite the contrary. U.S. government officials, slow to acknowledge the carnage, strenuously avoided use of the term "genocide," preferring "acts of genocide," which suggested that this type of murder was sporadic and random. This enabled the United States to condemn the killing while avoiding any responsibility for stopping it.

In fact, the United States opposed the United Nations' decision to send troops to Rwanda in 1993, and persuaded the U.N. not to reinforce the small contingent, ensuring that its mission would fail. This also sent a signal to the Hutu extremists that the international community would not intervene.

Three months before the start of the killing, the United States and the U.N. ignored evidence provided by Gen. Romeo Dallaire, the U.N. force commander in Rwanda. Dallaire revealed the presence of arms caches and the Hutu extremists' hit lists.

On April 21, Dallaire stated that if his force was allowed to engage the Hutu extremists, he could stop the genocide with 5,000 well-equipped troops. That same day, the U.N. voted to cut the force by 90 percent -- from roughly 2,500 to 270 monitors.

Inaction was the unstated U.S. policy. Early on, the Clinton administration began a lengthy review of its commitment to peacekeeping, culminating in Presidential Decision Directive 25 in May 1994. This document argues that "the U.S. cannot be the world's policeman," and that the United States should pick and choose its crises, cut its U.N. costs and ensure control of its troops under U.N. command. The policy of disengagement was born.

Further setting the stage for inaction, Congress passed a bill in late 1993 slashing contributions to U.N. operations -- including, and with great consequence, funding for peacekeeping. Congress also required President Clinton to report 15 days in advance if peacekeeping operations were being contemplated. The White House, ever mindful of the public mood, wasn't about to initiate major interventions.

Intervention in Rwanda was left to France -- the Rwandan Hutu government's supplier of weapons and aid.

In 1990, 1992 and 1993, France had sent troops to Rwanda to fight off the Tutsi-dominated Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) rebels attacking the Hutu government. France, in its June 1994 intervention, helped to shield Hutu extremists who escaped to Zaire.

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