The Design of Absent Crisis: The Clinton Administration on the 1994 Rwandan Genocide

Posted: December 22, 2010 in Evidence Material
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By Lauren Young[1]

1993 was not a very good year for Bill Clinton. An exception, perhaps, being the morning of January 20th when he stood at the west front of the United States Capitol building and took the Oath of Office to become the forty- second President of the United States, the first Democrat in over a decade to do so. It would seem luck had utterly abandoned Clinton somewhere between his pledge to “preserve, protect and defend the Constitution of the United States” and the removal of his left hand from the Bible. “So help me, God” Clinton said at his oath’s conclusion before a crowd of hundreds of thousands. “So help me, God.” There is only speculation of what truly goes through the mind of any individual upon the assumption of such awesome power and responsibility as contained within the Presidency of the United States, but perhaps were Clinton at all able to anticipate the year that lay ahead, he would have paused over those words for a spare few seconds more.

“I found myself walking through villages where the only sign of life was a goat, or a chicken, or a songbird, as all the people were dead, their bodies being eaten by voracious packs of wild dogs.”
-General Romeo Dallaire, UNAMIR Force Commander, 1994

As the bubble of the Presidency began to set in, it is unlikely the skilled American policy expert from Arkansas gave much thought to the audience around the world who tuned in to his Inauguration that Day. Even more unlikely is it he gave his attention to those assembled in the hills of a country halfway around the world, who likely had no television sets in their homes that day, nor radios broadcasting his booming, raspy, Southern drawl. Had Clinton been able to see what lay ahead for him within the coming year, it is doubtful history would have been different. Surely he would have concluded, in the wake of the international relations crises caused by Somalia and Haiti that he could not afford to bungle more foreign policy than he already had. No, Clinton and his administration would have surmised that 1994 would have to be a different year. Thus, eight hundred thousand would still be condemned to die.

Rwanda is a relatively small country situated in Central Africa, occupying an area slightly smaller than the state of Maryland (Encyclopedia of the Nations). It is bordered to the north by Uganda, to the south, its largest border, by Burundi, to the west by Tanzania, and to the east by the Democratic Republic of Congo. Similarly to the United States, Rwanda has a series of “great” or main lakes, the largest, Lake Kivu, stretches along the Congolese border, covering a total area of 1,040 square miles (2,700 km2). The “Land of a Thousand Hills,” Rwanda is well known for its rolling grassy terrain, and with ten million inhabitants, is the most densely populated country on the African continent. Originally inhabited by the Twa, a hunting and gathering pygmy populace, (Sebarenzi, 2009, 11) which currently accounts for about one percent of the Rwandan population (Fisher, 1999) it remains unclear when the nation’s two dominant ethnic groups, Hutu and Tutsi, emerged. The Hutus and the Tutsi have a complex pattern of coexistence and violence intertwined with their people’s and Rwanda’s history. The Tutsi, the far less populous, but firmly entrenched aristocracy of Rwanda’s two primary ethnic groups1, enjoyed the majority of the share of power in Rwanda until the arrival of the Germans in 1894, who had acquired Rwanda through the Berlin Conference of 1885. The Germans arrival would also bring that of Catholic priests, whose conversion efforts found an abundance of success among the larger population of the Hutu, and who rewarded their followers with food, property, land and livestock taken from less powerful Tutsis. The new religious conflict added to the tension between the groups that had existed since the centuries old monarchy itself.

Upon Germany’s defeat in World War I Rwanda was taken over by Belgium in 1918. For many years the European continent had been fascinated by “race science” and upon their arrival in the country, Belgians brought with them “scientific proof” of the differences between the two that transcended the barriers of class. The Belgians instituted a stringent system of classification for the Hutus and Tutsis, conducting a nationwide census in 1933-1934. Belgian scientists were dispatched to Rwanda to test the hypothesis that the Tutsi people were superior in their make up to the “coarse and bestial” Hutus (Gourevitch, 1998, 57). The Belgian’s hypothesis was confirmed. The Tutsi’s bearing was “more aristocratic;” unsurprisingly, the source for this noble bearing found much of its merit in the fact that Tutsis were generally more similar to Europeans, their skin tended to be lighter, their build more slender and their overall features more similar to the European ideal.2

In accordance with their findings, the Belgian colonizers issued identification cards and papers, much like those Adolf Hitler’s government would issue to Germans during the same period. This identity class system would far outlast the Belgians’ rule, infiltrating almost every facet of Rwandan life, from which marketplaces one could shop at, to what prefectures Hutus or Tutsis could reside in. Until the genocide in 1994, the far -reaching impact of the Belgian system of identity cards rendered Rwanda the most controlled state in the word among non- communist countries (Melvern, 2000, 3). Belgian Rule would cease in Rwanda in 1962 following a resistance movement started by the Hutu in 1957 upon the publication of the “Hutu Manifesto.” The fuel of the Hutus revolution lay in their discontent for the class system that had existed for centuries and in 1960 the Hutus were able to stage a coup and oust the Tutsi monarchy. Following the first democratic municipal elections ever held in Rwanda, the Hutus, comprising eighty five percent of the Rwandan population, were finally able to state their majority and elect an exclusively Hutu government.

In 1993 Rwanda saw the signing of the Arusha Accords, which put an end to the latest “official” civil war that had plagued the country since 1990. The war had been fought between the government of Rwanda and the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), composed primarily of Tutsi refugees who had abandoned their posts in the Ugandan army3 to invade their homeland three years earlier. The United States along with France, Rwanda’s Chief diplomatic and military patron) (Power, 2001, 8) and the Organization for African Unity served as the chief organizers of the talks beginning in Arusha, Tanzania, during the year it took for both sides to reach an agreement. Under the terms of the Arusha Accords the Rwandan government agreed to share power with Hutu opposition parties and the Tutsi minority. United Nations peacekeepers would be deployed to patrol a ceasefire and assist in demilitarization and demobilization as well as to help provide a secure environment so that exiled Tutsis could return to the country (Power, 2001, 4).

Rwanda’s history of conflict was known to the two international powers that aided its cease-fire agreement. However, other than this piece of information, the international community as a whole had limited understanding of Rwanda and the propensity for conflict between the Hutu and the Tutsis. This limited knowledge substantially influence the way in the United States, France and the international community viewed the massive violence that broke out in Rwanda following April 6, 1994 when the private plane carrying Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana, a Hutu, was shot down killing the president and the others onboard, including Cyprien Nitaryamira, President of Burundi. Today, it is widely accepted that the perpetrators of the attack were Hutu extremists, who saw the assassination of the most prominent member of their ethnic group as a means to ensure all Hutus would rally for the cause of exterminating the Tutsi “cockroaches.” The plan of the extremists worked and Tutsi were blamed for the death of the president. In his autobiography, Joseph Sebarenzi, a former member of Rwandan parliament, and a Tutsi, writes, “Checkpoints blocked every road. Radio Mille Collines, the radio station of Hutu extremists, began calling for the death of all Tutsis [and sympathetic Hutus]. Killings began immediately” (Sebarenzi, 2009, 69).

“The administration cannot afford to begin with either an international disaster or a quagmire” were the words of future United States Ambassador Dick Holbrooke in a memo to National Security Advisor Anthony Lake and Secretary of State Warren Christopher. The memo detailed the actions the Clinton administration would take in the wake of the 1993 crisis that erupted in Somalia—–a point of contention within his administration for the next two years. Despite Holbrooke’s warning, Clinton’s involvement in Somalia would prove to be only the beginning of the international crises from abroad that would plague him during his first year in office. Upon assuming the Presidency, Clinton had decided to, temporarily, keep the policy the George H.W. Bush administration had enforced with regard to refugees attempting to cross into the United States from Haiti, in the midst of an extremely violent government coup. The policy allowed the United States Coast Guard saw to send back the refugees they spotted in the water, most of whom sailed on metal vessels that had once served as the roofs of their homes. Upon returning to Haiti many faced certain death. While the notion of intervention in Haiti was wildly unpopular with the American people, Clinton felt a moral obligation to intervene.

Later that year, after a series of bloody attacks on United Nations peacekeepers, Clinton launched a new mission: in August of 1993 he sent a force of Rangers and Special Forces units to Somalia to capture the brutal warlord Mahmmod Farrah Adidd (Bee, The Wall Street Journal, 2002). The result of this was another loose end left untended by the previous Bush administration. Weeks before leaving office, Bush has sent American soldiers to Somalia, to guard much needed food and aid supplies in the war torn nation. When the battle of Mogadishu ensued in October 1993, resulting in the tragic events of “Black Hawk Down” during Operation Gothic Serpent. After having seen footage of the body of an American solider, a victim of the militia fire that had shot down the helicopter, splashed across television screens as he was dragged through the streets of Mogadishu, the American people, and Congress, were in no mood to send more of their troops overseas.

Within these three events of international relations that occupied a substantial part of the beginning of Clinton’s first term, there is a stark trend that emerges; in none of these conflicts did the United States have an interest4 at stake. Rather, American involvement in these disputes resulted from the moral imperative of America as the world’s wealthiest superpower to use its high position to do good within the international community. However, following the humiliating crisis in Somalia, Clinton, who had already harbored doubts about the effectiveness of the United Nations, launched a major policy review on peacekeeping that would lead to “more nos and fewer yeses when it came to American intervention” (Harris, 2005, 126). The result of this endeavor by Clinton and his staff was Presidential Decision Directive Twenty Five (PDD 25). The policy contained several “tests” on future peacekeeping operations, reflecting the United States desire to “[make] disciplined and coherent choices about which peace operations to support [.]” (The White House, Office of the Press Secretary, 1994). The United Nations Peacekeepers needed to have consent of the warring parties, a ceasefire had to already be in place, as well a definitive exit date for the peacekeeping troops (Harris, 2005, 126). Most prominently though, the conflict had to involve American interests. “If we were going to turn to UN peacekeeping more often, we needed to make it work better” (Albright, 2003, 184) said Madeline Albright, United States Ambassador to the United Nations at the time of the announcement of Presidential Decision Directive 25. While this policy did not officially take effect in the administration until its signing by Clinton on May 3, 1994, it bore itself into the psychology of the administration long before (Harris, 2005, 126), when amidst the chaos of Haiti and Somalia, details of the reaction to the death of Rwanda’s president began to emerge before the administration.

A single warning emerged in Washington in the first hours after the plane crash killing Rwanda’s president. Prudence Bushnell, Deputy Assistant Secretary of State, had been notified by the Rwandan desk officer, Kevin Aiston of what had happened in Rwanda hours before. Following a confirmation of the events from Romeo Dallaire, the Canadian General serving as the commander of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Rwanda, Bushnell sent Secretary of State Warren Christopher a memo reading,

“Both presidents have been killed, there is a strong likelihood that widespread violence could break out…particularly if it is confirmed the plane was shot down. Our strategy is to appeal for calm in both [Rwanda and Burundi]…through public statements and in other ways” (Power, 2001, 6).

When this calm never came and the widespread violence Bushnell had predicted began to occur, the Clinton administration was still in the midst of coping with the after affects of the crises in Somalia and Haiti. No, they couldn’t see about Rwanda, and the Presidential Decision Direction only served to enforce this, even as a number of government officials were killed in the hours after the Rwandan president’s plane went down.

Amidst the healthcare debate raging in Washington, and Clinton’s struggle to achieve credibility over earlier international relations conflicts, Clinton’s issuance of the directive had been his way to save face. In the absence of being able to look effective in the face of earlier diplomatic crises, the President would at least be able to appear as if he was taking a step toward responsible action on the part of the United States. Such a decision, as many critics of Clinton would point out, had much to do with the attitude of the America people at the time, whose strong reaction, in particular to the events in Somalia that occurred surrounding “Black Hawk Down,” Clinton had to take into account, given that the 1994 midterm Congressional elections were nearly a mere six months away. “We were so preoccupied with Bosnia, with the memory of Somalia just six months old and with opposition in Congress the military deployment in faraway places not vital to our national interests [it was not possible to adequately focus on putting a stop to the slaughter]”(Clinton, 2004, 592).

On April 7, shortly after the plane crash killing President Habyarimana, the greatest involvement President Clinton would take in the Rwandan conflict for much of its duration was implemented and the evacuation of all American citizens on the ground in the country was ordered. (“I ordered the evacuation of all Americans and sent troops to guarantee [their] safety”) (Clinton 2004, 593). The United States had to be careful to protect its own people and could not afford the risk, or the appearance of, risking more American lives. This incident, famously immortalized in such films as director Terry George’s 2004, Hotel Rwanda has, in the wake of the genocide’s impact, become a policy used to illustrate the west’s indifference toward both conflict toward the Rwandan people. Those whom without foreign citizenship, were left to die as hundreds of mostly American and European citizens boarded United Nations planes to take them to safety.

However, the justification for such criticism must be examined. There can be no argument the United States possessed a worthy interest in the well being of those Americans stationed there, or in the safety of its ambassador to Rwanda, David Rowson. As the genocide progressed it became clear to those who stayed behind, by force or by choice, that the presence of foreigners—even as few as a dozen United Nations peacekeepers— could protect dozens, even hundreds of more lives; the Hutu militias and police officials participating in the killings were hesitant to participate in the slaughter of men, women, and children, often entire families, in front of foreigners (Wilkins, Filmed Interview, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, 2009). Yet, there is absolutely no way the United States could have known or assumed those who made up the mobs, intoxicated, and often high on a variety of stimulants, would have been deterred by the mere presence of a westerner, particularly one who was Caucasian. The evacuations also drastically decreased the personnel on the ground, leaving only Commander Dallaire with his two thousand- six hundred UNAMIR peacekeeping forces.

The evacuation of Americans from Rwanda, while perhaps prudent of Clinton from a domestic political perspective in the wake of the coming midterm elections, did not help to give the United States any more sense of its foreign policy goals than their choice to apply an old framework of circumstances in international relations ultimately would. Before the genocide had occurred, the United States had been threatening to “yank” the United Nations Peacekeepers for their failure to implement the Arusha Accords. For some of those in the administration actually following the genocide withdrawal of the Peacekeepers seemed a favorable idea, so great was the fear of incurring any more casualties that could be attributed to the American side. However, as one Senior American official characterized the policy, “…that is like believing that when children are misbehaving, the proper response is ‘Let’s send the babysitter home’” (Power, 2001, 9). Nevertheless, the United States pushed for a decline in the presence of UNAMIR forces. The UNAMIR forces had already endured substantial shortages in their funding and supplies yet saw no hope in any renewal of funds from the United States. Although the Clinton administration had entered office better disposed toward peacekeeping than any other Administration in United States history, “it felt the Department of Peacekeeping Operations needed fixing and demanded that the United Nations “learn to say no” to chancy or costly missions” (Weiner, 1998, 1). Undoubtedly such attitude was partly due to the economic situation faced by the United States as Clinton entered his first term of office. During his first term as President, Clinton spent much of his time attempting to shift the attention of the public away from his foreign policy failures in Bosnia and Haiti, as well as from the Whitewater scandal and the healthcare debate that would engulf the first years of his administration. In doing this, Clinton attempted to shift more focus on the economy, his goal to reduce America’s large deficit, lower the debt, and once again “make [the United States’] economy thrive again” (Clinton’s State of the Union Address, 1993). Such plans did not leave room for distractions in the form of the United States assuming its obligatory cost of one-third of a United Nations mission, which once again had no demonstrable American interest (Power, 2001, 5).

American patience with peacekeeping was weaning, and had begun to slowly evaporate over time. This was particularly true in regions such as Africa, where repeated attempts at intervention s had proved fruitless. No matter what the efforts put forth by the United States and the international community it seemed various populations in different nations were intent upon killing one another, sometimes for thousand -year old tribal conflicts. A certain “blindness manifested by familiarity” (Power, 2001, 10) had begun to manifest itself among the Unites States and other Western Powers. Africa as a whole was an unsolvable issue, and unlike the Middle East did not garner nearly enough press coverage to warrant it sufficient attention in the minds of the Clinton administration, or those looking toward its legacy. Upon his appointment as Deputy Secretary for African Affairs at the Department of Defense, James Woods was asked to provide of potential serious crises the new Clinton administration might face. While Rwanda was on his initial list, according to Woods, it was promptly taken off. Woods, receiving guidance from “higher authorities” was told,

“Look, if something happens in Rwanda…we don’t care…U.S. national interest is not involved and we can’t put all these silly humanitarian issues on lists, like important problems like the Middle East, North Korea and so on. Just make it go away” (Glanville, 2006, 190).

In addition to Rwanda’s location in a region marked by instability throughout much of the latter part of the twentieth century; in the aftermath of the Arusha Accords, many in the international community assumed the unrest taking place in the early days of April 1994 to be a reaction to sanctions imposed under the accords. President Habyarimana’s death was not seen so much as a catalyst in this outlook as it was simply the event which has allowed for what was initially perceived to be a civil war to occur. Despite warnings coming from the few, like Bushnell, who understood something of Rwandan history and conflict trends, it took many in the international community far too long to realize just what was occurring in Rwanda. It was not until the last week of April, as Madeline Albright, the United States’ representative to the United Nations at the time, recounts she “…Realized along with most of the world that what was occurring [in Rwanda] was not just terrible violence but genocide” (Albright, 2003, 190).

As details of the attacks emerged, with greater circulation of events unfolding in the media, the Clinton administration still neglected to address the crisis in any way. Logic would suggest this could be attributed to the administration’s desire to take a firm stance on Presidential Decision Directive Twenty Five, its newest foreign policy edict. However, Regardless of the directive Clinton issued, Rwanda was not on the administration’s agenda. “I was obsessed with Haiti and Bosnia during that period…Rwanda was…a ‘sideshow’…not even a sideshow—a no-show… Our sin…was an error of omission—of never considering that issue” (Harris, 2005, 127). Said Tony Lake, Clinton’s National Security Advisor from 1993-1997, whom surely would have been one of the key figures to bring the crisis to Clinton’s attention had higher authorities felt it merited his full attention.

While the Clinton administration preferred to “omit” Rwanda from its agenda, the media was pushing it toward the public eye more than ever. As early as April 10, The New York Times had “quoted the Red Cross claim that ‘tens of thousands’ were dead, eight thousand in Rwanda’s capital city of Kigali alone” (Power, 2001, 13). As descriptions of “piles of corpses six feet high” (The Washington Post, 1994) and accounts emerged detailing scenes such as did one reporter for The Washington Post in a 1994 article, “the heads and limbs of victims were sorted and piled neatly, a bone chilling order in the midst of the chaos that harked back to the Holocaust” (Power, 2001, 13) the term genocide became more and more difficult to suppress. On April 19, the Human Rights Watch organization officially estimated the dead in Rwanda to be at least one hundred thousand, and called for official use of the term “genocide.”

As such reports emerged, the administration’s main directive became trying to deny that the situation in Rwanda was in fact genocide. As early as April 17, Commander Romeo Dallaire, still on the ground with his peacekeeping forces, continuously sent cables to the United Nation’s New York headquarters, “…The militia…groups controlling important arteries and areas of the city…are a very large, dangerous and totally irrational group of people [.]” Dallaire would continue his description in another, more detailed message,

“Behind RGF [Rwandan Government Forces] lines, the massacre of Tutsis and moderate Hutus… is taking place. Bodies litter the streets and pose a significant health hazard. RTLM radiobroadcasts inflammatory speeches and songs exhorting the population to destroy all Tutsis… In Kigali frequent roadblocks are established, ID cards checked and Tutsis executed on thee spot…The militia have displayed drunkenness, drug abuse, and sadistic brutality. They do not respect the UN flag, the Red Cross or any other human symbol…” (Melvern, 2004, 164)

Despite such reports of such nightmarish conditions as the information made its way to the White House from the United Nations, those like Commander Dallaire in Rwanda were continually met with indifference from sources of power. On May 3, 1994, the White House released the United States’ new policy toward U.N. peace operations, based on PDD-25 (Albright, 2003,191). During a news conference on that same day a Ugandan journalist asked Clinton if the United States and the United Nations “might save lives in Rwanda.” Clinton replied, “Well perhaps” noting that the conscience of the world had grieved over events, but adding that the American experience in Somalia showed, “there is a political and military element to this’ that cannot be easily addressed by outsiders” (Harris, 2005, 128).

For the sake of American interests, or rather lack of interest, intervening in a conflict where no visible national interests were present depended upon the United States policy of non-recognition of the genocide in Rwanda.

Rwanda’s status as one of Africa’s poorest nations rendered supplying Dallaire’s UNAMIR troops very expensive. The United States had grown weary of the financial contribution it was required to assume for such missions. More importantly to Clinton and his administration, such a venture could be spun by Republicans as more needless missions into international conflicts in which the United States had not real interest, and detract from Clinton’s overarching focus on the economy. The Presidential Decision Directive provided Clinton with a clear means by which he could avoid discussion about Rwanda, as he now had legal reason against intervening in a conflict in which it did not solicit any obvious American involvement. Prior to the resolution expanding the United Nations mission, the United States had firmly vetoed a proposal by United Nations Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, essentially eliminating all possibility of the United Nations’ leader’s plan coming to fruition. While perhaps this may have been due to the hostility between Clinton and Boutros-Ghali whom Clinton blamed for his initial entry into Somalia, and who as Egyptian Foreign Minister had negotiated millions of dollars of arms sales with Rwanda between 1990 and 1992 (Melvern, 2004, 65-66). Frequently, the United States has found itself in an awkward position where the powers of the United Nations are concerned. As the world’s sole superpower, the United States carries a certain degree of implied knowledge and a level of influence the United Nation at times struggles to achieve. Where other countries look to the United Nations as a source by which they may enforce their authority abroad, or collaborate with foreign powers, the United States is often sought as a co-equal ally to the massive body of nations. Where the United States, as the most powerful army in the world may wield its military influence, to the point where the entirety of the international community looks to it for guidance; the United Nations Peacekeepers may not even fire their guns unless as a measure of self defense.

Earlier, in the wake of the May announcement of the United States’ new United Nations intervention program following Presidential Decision Directive Twenty Five, experts for the United Nations and the Pentagon experts had begun research on whether or not it was wise to deploy a peacekeeping troop to Rwanda. Both sides were unable to reach a decision. United Nations officials wanted a force based in Kigali that would somehow “ensure safe conditions,” while using force only in self-defense but without waiting for a cease-fire. The Pentagon did not think the United Nations could get countries to participate in such a plan, in the midst of a still raging civil war (Albright, 2003, 192). Rather, the United States proposed the creation of a secure “safe zone” just inside the Rwandan border with Uganda in an attempt to protect endangered civilian populations, and provide a more secure setting for the delivery of food supplies and medical aid. Rwandan experts did not greet such a proposition warmly; it would prove nearly impossible for the majority of civilians to reach the secured area, many may not even attempt it for fear of being killed along the way. Finally, on May 17, the United Nations and the United States adopted a resolution providing for an expanded United Nations mission “with a mandate to create secure humanitarian areas ‘where feasible” (Albright, 2003,192). The great majority of these areas, where the safety of aid workers could be completely secured, were by and large, far removed from the killings, centered far from many populated areas, and situated along the borders of neighboring countries.

Throughout American intervention negotiations, the case of Rwanda was inarguably straightforward, with confidential assessments by the State Department, each pointing toward a more direct situation of genocide everyday. One of the most frightening aspects of the Rwandan genocide, and certainly one that contributed to the staggering speed of deaths (between six and seven people were killed every minute amounting to a total between eight thousand and ten thousand seven hundred and ten people massacred each day) (Jared, 2007, 14), was the broadcast of the names, neighborhoods, and oftentimes home or office addresses of the Hutus’ Tutsi targets by Radio des Mille Collines (RTLM).5 Additionally, the addresses of common neighborhood community centers that were known to be hiding places were broadcast as radio announcers encouraged the Hutu militias to “exterminate all of the cockroaches.”

From his post on the ground in Kigali, Dallaire emphasized the need to cut off this communication. Most of the killers traveled in bands, and nearly all had access to a radio, if not one belonging to them, although many did. Without the propaganda spewed by RTLM radio, some, if not all, of the killers’ access to their victims would be curtailed. Such an operation, however, required the full cooperation of the United States. Tony Marley, the United States Military Liaison who had been overseeing the implementation process of the Arusha Accords, proposed three strategies. The United States could destroy the antenna at RTLM headquarters in Kigali, transmit “counter broadcasts” to urge attackers to stop the genocide, or, the most compelling option, “block” the RTLM broadcasts through the use of the United States’ Air Force Commando Solo Airplane (Power, 2001, 20). The options, while promising, presented the American armed forced with a clear conflict between the measures potentially taken to aid a foreign populace, and its own Constitutional values of free speech. However, such values could logically be suspended in the interest of the United States interfering in the face of such widespread human suffering. Pentagon officials concluded such measures, particularly “jamming the airwaves” were costly and ineffective, chiefly since they could be seen as unwarranted intervention in a foreign “conflict”—and one in which the United States possessed absolutely no tangible interest. The President was never consulted through the duration of these meetings; nor is it entirely clear that he was made aware of their having taken place.

Clinton and his administration’s hesitancy to label the conflict in Rwanda as “genocide,” while perhaps morally difficult to understand, and in its aftermath a seemingly politically inept move for its inane portrayal of the administration’s foreign policy strategy that resulted, does not in fact originate from a point of great political quandary. In the latter part of April, and the early days of May 1994, the use of what many in the administration dubbed “the g word” was expressly forbidden. The politics of the situation were relatively simple. Were the administration to recognize the conflict in Rwanda as, in fact, no conflict at all, but rather that the victims whose bodies flashed across the evening news were members of a particular “ national [or] ethnical group;” and that the killings had been committed with an “intent to destroy [the group] in whole or in part” this would be admitting to the occurrence of the precise legal definition of genocide playing out before them. For the sake of American interests, or rather lack of interest, intervening in a conflict where no visible national interests were present depended upon the United States policy of non-recognition of the genocide in Rwanda. The Clinton administration felt that formally admitting genocide was taking place would require them to act under the 1948 Genocide Convention. Although the convention “condemns” genocide, it does not specifically require action upon the recognition of genocide by a country. Yet, with the United States’ poor attempts at intervention in Haiti and Somalia in the recent memory of the public—–and key decision makers in Washington—–it would be difficult, not to mention a potential public relations mess, for the world’s sole superpower to justify a refusal to intervene in a conflict in which it recognized a gross violation of human rights out of selfish interest.

However, as the May 21st meeting of the United Nations Human Rights Commission loomed forward, Secretary of State Warren Christopher was under increasing pressure to outline the terms of the United States’ stance on exactly what was occurring in Rwanda. The American diplomats involved in the commission report, particularly representative Geraldine Ferraro, needed guidance on whether to join a resolution by the United Nations stating that genocide had, in fact, occurred (Power, 2001, 14). Christopher instructed the delegation to,

“Agree to a resolution that states that ‘acts of genocide’ have occurred in Rwanda or that ‘genocide has occurred in Rwanda…formulation that suggests…some, but not all of the killings in Rwanda are genocide…are authorized. Delegation is not authorized to agree the characterization of any specific incident as genocide or…agree to any formulation that indicates that all killings in Rwanda are genocide” (Power, 2001, 14-15).

This memo, denying the United States Human Rights Commission the authority to “characterize “any specific incident as genocide in Rwanda” would constitute the United States first, and for a time only, recognition that any activities qualifying as genocide were taking place in Rwanda. Such confused instructions by higher authorities could no doubt be the result of a lacking sense of direction from the highest source of influence in the administration; the President himself. Through the first month of the Rwanda conflict, Clinton had maintained an almost crafted distance from the situation, rarely taking meetings with Christopher, or National Security Advisor Lake. However, as the situation continued to intensify, and the media’s coverage of Rwanda became increasingly informed, supplied with photographs and eyewitness testimonies of those, or family members of, Rwandans desperate to escape, pressure increased upon the White House to do something about the atrocities taking place.

In lieu of crafting a policy, other than that of avoidance, as the true dimensions the crisis playing out in Rwanda came to light, the United States continued to avoid overuse of “genocide rhetoric” for worry of being pulled into an intervention situation it perceived there would be no way to reasonably escape. Indeed, the members of the United Nations Human Rights Commission were not authorized to publicly use the term “genocide,” even in the terms outlined by the Christopher memo until three weeks after the Committee had met. So worried was the Clinton administration over the potential use of the word genocide, that for the first four weeks of the slaughter, the systematic nature of the killings as broadcast over radio, and the mentality of the killers, was never once brought up in the Security Council for discussion of any great length. “As a result, there was an implied assumption that only a large and dramatic intervention would be of any use and such an intervention, in light of Somalia, [it] was simply out of the question” (Glanville, 2006, 196). With this in mind, the administration avoided the use of the language of genocide, should any official recognition by the United States warrant action by itself or the United Nations, and thus force Clinton and his foreign policy team to deploy American troops, spend American dollars, and potentially lose more American lives in a conflict in which it could neither demonstrate, nor see, any interest for the United States. On March 25, 1998, nearly four years after the killings erupted in Rwanda, President Clinton told a group of survivors, “It may seem strange to you…but all over the world there were people like me sitting in offices who did not fully appreciate the depth and speed with which you were being engulfed by this unimaginable terror” (Sebarenzi, 2009, 130). Whether Clinton’s personal lack of appreciation stemmed from convenience or truly resulted from the shuffling of information within the various levels of his administration can be decided only as further history of American intelligence on the genocide continues to emerge.

Despite the attempts that would later be made by the United States, and President Clinton during his remaining tenure to rectify the situation in Rwanda, by the time Tutsi Rebel forces, the RPF (Rwandan Patriotic Front) would capture Kigali on July 4, 1994, the damage was already done. Estimates for those killed in the Rwandan genocide span from eight hundred thousand to one million lives lost. In the West, the figure is generally accepted to be approximately eight hundred thousand; either scope is staggering for the mere one hundred days the conflict lasted, and in a nation of just ten million people. As the slaughter carried on through the summer, the Clinton administration refused to budge from its predetermined position as an outlier to assist a country with little hope of saving itself before it was too late for hundreds of thousands of it citizens. As a result of earlier foreign policy struggles in Somalia, and Haiti, the Clinton administration’s policy toward Rwanda was rendered non-existent out of fear these prior mistakes would haunt them. Instead, however, the Clinton administration’s failure to stop the tragedies in Rwanda became the third, and arguably most lasting, foreign policy failure during his first term of office, and according to Clinton himself, “one of the greatest regrets” of his entire Presidency (Clinton, 2004,593).


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1.) There is strong debate among scholars as to whether the Hutu and the Tutsi actually constitute two distinct “ethnic groups” versus separate castes within the Rwandan class system. However, for the sake of simplicity and the limited focus within this piece on Rwanda’s history, the Hutu and the Tutsi will be referred to as separate “ethnic groups” throughout with the presumption that their identities as respective members of groups sharing a unique heritage and experience within Rwandan history is a sufficient qualifier.

2.) European scientists of the day put an exceptional emphasis on the size of noses. The measurement of a Rwandan’s “nasal index” was though to be one of the most accurate ways of determining whether one was Hutu or Tutsi. “The median Tutsi nose was found to be about two and a half millimeters loner and nearly five millimeters narrower than the median Hutu nose” (Gourevitch, 1998, 56).

3.) During the Rwandan Civil War, Uganda became a common destination for Tutsi refugees seeking political asylum, as well as the chance to organize with the National Resistance Movement in opposition to the “Hutu Power” ideology.

4.) For these purposes, interests may be understood to include economic stake in the success of a nation, or loyalty that stemmed from the ties of an official diplomatic alliance.

5.) The high illiteracy rate among Rwanda’s population makes radio a favored form of media to this day.


[1] Written on April 20, 2010


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