Shame: Rationalizing Western Apathy on Rwanda

ALAS, WE KNEW

Alan J. Kuperman plays word games when he asserts that President Clinton could not have known of the "attempted genocide" of Tutsi in Rwanda until April 20, 1994 -- two weeks into the slaughter -- because the press, nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), and the U.N. did not call it a genocide ("Rwanda in Retrospect," January/February 2000).

Two days, not two weeks, after the slaughter began on April 6, U.S. officials knew that extremists with an avowedly genocidal agenda had murdered legitimate Rwandan authorities and were claiming control of the government. U.S. officials knew that these extremists had used the radio to spew anti-Tutsi propaganda for months and that they had recruited, trained, and armed militias. U.S. officials knew that Rwandans had previously used the highly centralized administrative system to organize massacres of Tutsi. And at least some of these officials knew that an eerily prescient CIA study three months before had foreseen a death toll of half a million if violence began again.

As an April 8 State Department briefing made clear, U.S. officials also knew that Hutu soldiers had been killing Tutsi for two days and that the violence was not limited to the capital. They learned this from U.S. embassy personnel and from the French and the Belgians, who had extensive contacts in Rwanda and with whom Washington was planning a joint evacuation of their citizens. U.S. officials had similar reports from the commander of the U.N. peacekeeping force in Rwanda, as well as from Human Rights Watch and other NGOs, which had been calling the State Department since the preceding day.

During the crucial first weeks, the U.N., at the behest of the United States, ordered the more than 2,000 peacekeepers in Rwanda to do nothing to halt the killing and then withdrew all but a rump force of 400 soldiers. Some 1,000 elite French and Belgian troops (backed by 250 U.S. Marines just across the border) swooped in to rescue foreign nationals (most of them not at risk) and then left, ignoring the slaughter of Rwandan civilians. Clinton and other international leaders said nothing of substance. Seeing the international indifference, Rwandans became convinced that the genocidal government would succeed. Those who hesitated at first now yielded to fear or opportunism and carried the slaughter throughout Rwanda.

Register Now
Non-Subscriber
Register now to get three articles each month. Join us as a paid subscriber and get unrestricted access to all of Foreign Affairs, including on our iPad app.
Please note that we will never share your email address with a third party. Read our privacy policy.
Register for free to continue reading.
Registered users get access to three free articles every month.

Or subscribe now and save 55 percent.

Subscription benefits include:
  • Full access to ForeignAffairs.com
  • Six issues of the magazine
  • Foreign Affairs iPad app privileges
  • Special editorial collections

Latest Commentary & News analysis