Word games in Washington as blood flowed in Rwanda

Posted: December 28, 2010 in Evidence Material
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Reuters April 14, 2004

Reuters correspondent Alan Elsner recalls how the U.S. State Department chose semantics over action as slaughter engulfed Rwanda in 1994.

I covered the U.S. State Department for five years from 1989 to 1994 and during that time I must have attended hundreds of briefings and asked many thousands of questions. But none were more important than the questions I asked about the Rwandan genocide.

I should explain that as the son of a Holocaust survivor, I am very sensitive to issues of mass slaughter. I have often asked myself what I would have done if I had been living during those terrible years. In 1993, I had my answer. It was, not much, but perhaps just a little.

As the Rwandan slaughter unfolded, the United States took the position that what was happening may have been “acts of genocide” but it was not actual genocide.

The difference was legally significant because the United States was and remains a signatory to the international convention on the prevention and punishment of the crime of genocide, which obligated all participating nations to prevent genocide wherever it took place. Article 8 reads:

Any Contracting Party may call upon the competent organs of the United Nations to take such action under the Charter of the United Nations as they consider appropriate for the prevention and suppression of acts of genocide or any of the other acts enumerated in article III.

The Clinton administration had had its fingers badly burned the previous October in Somalia and the last thing it wanted was another military involvement in Africa. So it took cover behind this legal fig leaf.

But to me, the distinction between “acts of genocide” and “genocide” was meaningless, especially to the hundreds of thousands of victims. I could not understand why the United States was standing by, especially since no other country in the world seemed ready to act without Washington’s lead.

It seemed like the 1930s all over again. The world knew what was happening and was doing nothing to stop it.


On June 10, 1994, my impatience boiled over. The following excerpt from an article by Samantha Power that appeared in the Atlantic Monthly in September 2001 described what happened at that day’s State Department briefing.

Christine Shelly, a State Department spokesperson, had long been charged with publicly articulating the U.S. position on whether events in Rwanda counted as genocide. For two months she had avoided the term, and as her June 10 exchange with the Reuters correspondent Alan Elsner reveals, her semantic dance continued.

Elsner: How would you describe the events taking place in Rwanda?

Shelly: Based on the evidence we have seen from observations on the ground, we have every reason to believe that acts of genocide have occurred in Rwanda.

Elsner: What’s the difference between “acts of genocide” and “genocide”?

Shelly: Well, I think…as you know, there’s a legal definition of this…clearly not all of the killings that have taken place in Rwanda are killings to which you might apply that label… But as to the distinctions between the words, we’re trying to call what we have seen so far as best as we can; and based, again, on the evidence, we have every reason to believe that acts of genocide have occurred.

Elsner: How many acts of genocide does it take to make genocide?

Shelly: Alan, that’s just not a question that I’m in a position to answer.

The same day, in Istanbul, Warren Christopher, by then under severe internal and external pressure, relented: “If there is any particular magic in calling it genocide, I have no hesitancy in saying that.

My questions have had enormous resonance in the 10 years since I asked them. A TV filmmaker shooting a documentary on the genocide tracked me down and interviewed me. I became a footnote in a number of books and articles. The questions even showed up in the TV drama, The West Wing.

Of course, a few questions could not help the hundreds of thousands of victims. But they did show that reporters ready to ask tough questions could make a small difference. I’m only sorry I could not have done more.


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