rwa013 "The US let the Rwandan genocide happen"

Rwanda genocide
"The US let the Rwandan genocide happen"

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afrol News, 23 August - This week, 16 official documents, showing the United States government knew the 1994 Rwandan genocide was about to start, were downgraded and made public. A new report calls the US "bystanders to genocide" and asks why they "let the Rwandan tragedy happen." 

The US government was aware of a possible forthcoming genocide in Rwanda, where at least 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus were to be slaughtered by the radical government. Still, it did not act and even insisted that United Nations peacekeepers should be withdrawn. Only when the incredible scale of the genocide became obvious, US officials carefully started to react. 

This new evidence is facilitated by the National Security Archive, a non-governmental organisation interested in US foreign policy. William Ferroggiaro of that organisation published the declassified documents on the Internet under the title "Evidence of Inaction", detailing "how US policymakers chose to be 'bystanders' during the genocide that decimated Rwanda in 1994."

The documents became known through a new investigative account, "Bystanders to Genocide: Why the United States Let the Rwandan Tragedy Happen", by Samantha Power, published in the September 2001 issue of The Atlantic Monthly. Power's account is the result of a three-year investigation involving more than 60 interviews of US policymakers and scores of interviews with Rwandan, European and United Nations officials. 

It also draws on hundreds of pages of recently declassified US government documentation. The documents demonstrate what US officials knew about the genocide, what options were considered, and how and why they chose to avoid intervening in the slaughter. 

According to a résumé by Ferroggiaro, the released documents show that:

  • Contrary to later public statements, the US lobbied the UN for a total withdrawal of UN forces in Rwanda in April 1994; 
  • Secretary of State Warren Christopher did not authorize officials to use the term "genocide" until 21 May, and even then, US officials waited another three weeks before using the term in public; 
  • Bureaucratic infighting slowed the US response to the genocide; 
  • The US refused to "jam" extremist radio broadcasts inciting the killing because of costs and concern with international law; 
  • US officials knew exactly who was leading the genocide, and actually spoke with those leaders to urge an end to the violence. 

Contact between the US government and the Rwandan genocide government was regular. Some 20 days after the genocide had begun, for example, a senior US official initiated a telephone call to one of the men believed to be among the principal organisers of the genocide, Colonel Theoneste Bagosora. 

According to the declassified documents, the US official urged Bagosora, who at that time was the Permanent Secretary in Rwanda's Defence Ministry, to halt the killings and return to the "peace process" at a time when much of Rwanda is littered with corpses. Colonel Bagosora did not. He is now awaiting trial at the UN International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda. 

The US government was fully aware of the risks of not intervening. On 11 April 1994, only five days after the killings began, a Pentagon official prepared a memorandum for Undersecretary of Defence, Frank Wisner, warning that, "unless both sides can be convinced to return to the peace process, a massive (hundreds of thousands of deaths) bloodbath will ensue that would likely spill over into Burundi." 

This memorandum also outlined the passivity of the US government. Though expecting a Rwandan bloodbath, it foresees that the "UN will likely withdraw all forces"; and that the US will not get involved "until peace is restored." Pentagon analysts accepted the following massacre as inevitable. 

Only three days after this warning memorandum, on 14 April, the State Department urges the UN to withdraw its peacekeepers. The US mission to the UN is instructed "that we will oppose any effort at this time to preserve a UNAMIR presence in Rwanda." Therefore, "the international community must give highest priority to full, orderly withdrawal of all UNAMIR personnel as soon as possible." 

Towards the UN, the US officials were arguing that that "there is insufficient justification to retain a UN peacekeeping presence in Rwanda". A week later, the UN Security Council voted to withdraw its troops from Rwanda, thereby destroying the last hope for an international intervention, or at least observation of the genocide. 

The US government, still paralysed by its humiliating Somalia experience, also saw to that the word "genocide" was avoided as long as possible. According to the Geneva Convention, genocide obliges the UN, and thus the US, to intervene. "Be careful. ... Genocide finding could commit [the US Government] to actually 'do something'," a May 1994 Pentagon memo warned. By May, it was already evident that hundreds of thousands of Rwandans had been slaughtered. 

In May, the US government however was fully aware of what was going on in Rwanda, and understood the scale of the disaster. In a 9 May 'Defence Intelligence Report' refers to "the systematic execution of prominent Tutsi and moderate Hutu," which had begun and that the violence is "directed by high-level officials within the interim government." It identifies the army as pursuing"genocide ... to destroy the leadership of the Tutsi community." 

Other options to counteract the ongoing genocide were also ruled out. On 5 May 1994, the Pentagon, following pressure from the US Congress, discussed the possibility of 'jamming' the so-called "hate radios" in Rwanda, which urged participation in the killing and, in many cases, specifically named and provided the whereabouts of those to be killed. Pentagon's Frank Wisner in a memorandum acknowledges internal discussions about the feasibility of countering the hate radio. He however concludes that undertaking the initiative to 'jam' the radio would be "ineffective and expensive"; a "wiser" activity would be to assist the "relief effort".

The cold, bureaucratic language of the memorandums, telegrams and reports casts little light on the problematic question why US officials chose to turn the blind eye on greatest human disaster in the 1990s. Analysts see the root causes in a paralysing US fear of getting involved in peacekeeping on African soil after the disastrous experience in Somalia. Any US soldier's life lost in Africa at that time would cause political earthquakes in the US. 

Source:  Based on National Security Archive and afrol archives 

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