Samantha Power

Rwanda's Genocide: Looking Back - April 22, 2004

Samantha Power
April 22, 2004— Washington, DC
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Statement before the Committee on International Relations, U.S. House of Representatives.

Good afternoon, thank you for holding a hearing on a subject that could not be more intrinsically important and one that—in light of the atrocities currently being carried out in Darfur, Sudan—could not be more timely. I only hope that, ten years from now, we do not have to gather again for a subcommittee hearing entitled: ''Sudan's Genocide: Looking Back.''

I will offer a brief overview of the genocide, will discuss the lessons learned by a multi-year study of the U.S. response to the Rwandan genocide, and will apply these lessons to the contemporary horrors in Sudan.


In three short, cruel months, between April and July 1994, Rwanda experienced a genocide more efficient than that carried out by the Nazis in the Second World War. The killers were a varied bunch: drunk extremists chanting ''Hutu power, Hutu power;'' uniformed soldiers and militia men intent on wiping out the Tutsi inyenzi, or ''cockroaches;'' and ordinary villagers who had never themselves contemplated killing before, but who decided to join the frenzy.

The murderers, and their ebullient abettors, were turned into ghastly marionettes, consumed by a manic wrath. Men and women, young and old, religious and agnostic, became killers. They killed with radios in one hand and machetes in the other. They killed in churches, at traffic lights, in supermarkets, and in homes. They killed after taunting, after savage beating, and, often, after raping.

The Clinton administration's response was best captured by a State Department press conference two days into the slaughter. Prudence Bushnell, the mid-level official who had been put in charge of managing the evacuation of (only) Americans from Rwanda, spoke with journalists about the Rwandan horrors. After she left the podium, State Department spokesman Michael McCurry took her place and seamlessly turned to the next item on the day's agenda: U.S. criticism of foreign governments that were preventing the screening of the Steven Spielberg film Schindler's List.

"This film movingly portrays the twentieth century's most horrible catastrophe,'' McCurry said. ''And it shows that even in the midst of genocide, one individual can make a difference.'' McCurry urged that the film be shown worldwide. ''The most effective way to avoid the recurrence of genocidal tragedy,'' he declared, ''is to ensure that past acts of genocide are never forgotten.'' No one made any connection between Bushnell's remarks and McCurry's, between Rwanda and the Holocaust. Neither journalists nor officials in the United States were focused then—or in the ensuing three months—on the fate of Rwanda's Tutsi.

By July 1994, when Tutsi rebels took control of the country, the killers had accomplished much of what they set out to achieve. Eight hundred thousand people—half of the Tutsis who had lived in Rwanda three months earlier—had been eliminated.

The United States and its allies on the UN Security Council did not simply watch. They voted to withdraw the UN peacekeepers who were in Rwanda, abandoning Rwandans who had relied upon the blue helmets for their protection.


1) The U.S. response to a particular genocide is shaped by U.S. decisions made prior to the outbreak of killing, which have profound bearing on how future perpetrators, America's allies, international institutions, and U.S. officials will act.

In October 1993, two events occurred that helped dictate future interpretations and reactions. Some 50,000 Burundians were murdered in ethnically-motivated massacres, generating no foreign intervention, scant press coverage, and no retrospective introspection or outrage. In addition, 18 U.S. soldiers sent into Somalia to rescue an ailing UN peacekeeping mission were killed in a Mogadishu fire-fight, prompting President Clinton to announce the withdrawal of U.S. forces in Somalia. Both events emboldened the would-be perpetrators, and demoralized those U.S. and UN officials who were concerned about Rwanda. These individuals concluded: 1) the United States and its allies would allow systematic slaughter that did not implicate national interests [a view reinforced by the Western powers' refusal to take meaningful military action in Bosnia], and 2) the United States would henceforth be extremely wary of non-military involvement in humanitarian crises and of peacekeeping missions undertaken by other countries—because these could lead to eventual U.S. entanglement. In order to avoid mission creep, it would often be better to avoid U.S. or UN involvement.

Quite apart from these two events, the President had made plain more generally—in his words and his deeds—that U.S. foreign policy would advance U.S. national interests—defined in economic and security terms. This had always been the default presumption regarding foreign policy, and it signaled U.S. and UN officials that ''mere'' humanitarian suffering would not suffice to override the default and spur risky action. The Congress had also communicated its reluctance to fund UN peacekeeping missions, and its skepticism that such missions could succeed in quelling violence. Officials in the Clinton Administration and the UN Secretariat internalized this skepticism.

2) The United States and other states ignore the warning signs that would enable them to act early. Although small, stern steps taken in the preventive phase can have a profound effect, the early warnings rarely rise within the bureaucracy and command high-level attention. They remain relegated to—and are often internalized by—regional- or country specialists who do not have the instinct or the clout to force the information up the chain.

In the months preceding the slaughter, the Rwandan killers staged a number of mini-massacres in order to gauge international reaction. Indeed, by January 1994, Rwanda had become so militarized—and imported machetes had becomes so omnipresent—that the UN commander in Rwanda, Major General Romeo Dallaire, urgently cabled Kofi Annan, the UN peacekeeping, in New York. Dallaire warned that militia could exterminate ''up to 1,000'' Tutsi ''in 20 minutes.''

Annan, believing the United States and its allies were unwilling to confront the militants so soon after the Somalia fire-fight, opted not to cross what became known as ''the Mogadishu line.'' He buried what has become known as the ''genocide fax,'' and the militia-members took their cue. Kofi Annan was wrong not to blast an alarm, but he accurately predicted the U.S. attitude: stopping Rwanda's massacres was not in the U.S. national interest. CIA and U.S. embassy warnings of large-scale arms imports, periodic ethnic massacres, and radical propaganda likewise went unheeded.

3) Regimes intent on wiping out an inconvenient minority often pursue bad-faith negotiations, but Western diplomats typically invest their authority and time into these negotiations or cease-fire pursuits, mustering only conventional [and inappropriate] responses to an unconventional crisis. Western powers cling to their neutrality rather than ''take sides.''

Once the genocide started, the Clinton Administration urged an immediate cease fire and a ''return to the Arusha peace process.'' Those U.S. officials who reached out to the Rwandan militants [they were reachable by telephone for much of the genocide] stressed the importance of negotiations and re-establishment of the terms of the Arusha accord. Yet perpetrators of genocide intent on exterminating the entire Tutsi populace only maintained the fiction of a peace process in order to buy time for their slaughter. In New York, too, UN officials maintained diplomatic courtesy, politely allowing the Rwandan ambassador to the UN to speak, never considering urging the closing of a mission comprised of representatives of a genocidal regime.

4) Once the massacres have begun [in countries that do not implicate traditional economic or security interests] ''mere genocide'' does not command high-level attention or resources.

More shocking than the U.S. avoidance of military intervention in Rwanda was the fact that President Clinton never even convened his Cabinet to discuss what might be done about the murder of nearly a million human beings. The response was low-level, and the Africa specialists [mostly career bureaucrats] who were most aghast by the killings did not have—or did not imagine they could have—the clout needed to move the machinery of a risk-averse system in time to save lives.

5) The United States takes an all-or-nothing approach: if it does not send troops, it tends to foreclose other policy options.

In Rwanda, the United States not only failed to intervene: with two mild exceptions, the President failed even to publicly mention the massacres. The United States also failed to denounce the ''genocide,'' use its technology to jam the ''hate radio,'' freeze the financial assets of the killers, expel the Rwandan ambassador from Washington, or rally additional UN troops from other countries. The Rwandan killers went utterly unchallenged.

6) U.S. officials and non-governmental actors alike spend precious time and energy debating whether to apply the label of ''genocide'' to ethnic slaughter.

Unwilling to be seen to allow ''genocide,'' Clinton administration officials spent nearly as much time maneuvering to avoid using the term than it did using its resources to save lives. In May 1994, an internal Pentagon memo warned against using the term ''genocide'' because it could commit the United States ''to actually do something.'' After considerable internal debate, instructions on semantics were finalized, and sent out to U.S. diplomatic posts, authorizing U.S. officials to acknowledge ''acts of genocide,'' but not genocide.

7) Even when the United States decides not to respond militarily, American leadership is indispensable. This is especially true because Europe continues to avoid intervening in violent humanitarian crises. And it remains true irrespective of American unpopularity abroad.

The Clinton Administration, tied up with crises in Haiti and Bosnia, and grappling with whether to grant most favored nation trading status to China, believed that Belgium and France were best suited to take the lead on Rwanda. But Belgium withdrew its peacekeepers, and France often sided with the Francophone Hutu authorities responsible for the genocide. Other African countries did not step forward themselves to volunteer for service. The United States did not exert leadership during the Rwanda genocide; the rest of the world, conveniently, saw leadership not to act.

8) The Executive branch's passivity in the face of genocide is affirmed by a society-wide silence.

President Clinton's administration was one that responded to ''noise,'' and the rest of us failed to generate the political pressure that would have commanded the President's attention. Editorial writers at the major papers who pushed for intervention in Bosnia made no such appeals on behalf of the Rwandans. The Congressional Black Caucus was consumed with the refugee crisis in Haiti. And we voters never picked up our telephones, so the Congressional and White House switchboards did not ring. Representative Patricia Schroeder (D–Colo.) described the relative silence in her district. ''There are some groups terribly concerned about the gorillas,'' she said, noting that Colorado was home to a research organization that studied Rwanda's imperiled gorilla population. ''But—it sounds terrible—people just don't know what can be done about the people.'' The Clinton administration did not help inform Americans—indeed it distorted the facts, deliberately avoiding use of the word ''genocide''—and then it invoked the public and Congressional indifference as yet one more alibi for its inaction.

9) And domestically, U.S. leaders do not fear they will pay a political price for being bystanders to genocide.

Voters do not judge a President on the basis of how he responds to a distant genocide. Yet they often do penalize a President for foreign interventions that go badly or cost U.S. lives. Other forms of accountability have also been absent. No Congressional investigation has ever been held inquiring into Washington's response to the genocide in Rwanda. Thus, our institutional capacities and political predispositions remain similar to those that yielded a non-response in 1994.

10) Genocide stains an era and a presidency.

President Clinton has said that Rwanda is his greatest regret.


All over the world, hearings like this one are being held, appropriately, to reflect upon the ''lessons of Rwanda.'' But as we meet and remember, the Sudanese government is teaming up with Arab Muslim militias in a campaign of ethnic slaughter and deportation that has already left nearly a million Africans displaced and more than 30,000 dead.

The Arab-dominated government in Khartoum has armed nomadic Arab herdsmen, or Janjaweed, against rival African tribes. The government is using aerial bombardment to strafe villages and terrorize civilians into flight. And it is denying humanitarian access to more than 700,000 people who are trapped in Darfur.

The Arab Muslim marauders and their government sponsors do not yet seem intent on exterminating every last African Muslim in their midst. But they do seem determined to wipe out black life in the region. The only difference between Rwanda and Darfur, said Mukesh Kapila, the former United Nations' humanitarian coordinator for Sudan, ''is the numbers of dead, murdered, tortured, raped.''

The United States has no intention to send its over-stretched troops to Sudan. Yet it if it waits for European countries or Sudan's African neighbors to take a stand, it will be waiting a long time. Just because the United States will not send its troops, does not mean its leadership will not be required to rally troops from other countries or to take bilateral steps in order to influence Khartoum's behavior.

In Sudan, the all-or-nothing approach has been compounded by the administration's reluctance to risk undermining the peace process it has spearheaded between Sudan's government and the rebels in the south. While President Bush should be applauded for his leadership in attempting to broker peace in Sudan's civil war, he must stand up to Khartoum during these difficult negotiations.

What would standing up to Sudan entail? The administration has several options:

On the economic and diplomatic front, the United States has already demonstrated its clout in Sudan, which is desperate to see American sanctions lifted. So far, Secretary of State Colin Powell has rightly described the humanitarian crisis as a ''catastrophe.'' But the White House and the Pentagon have been mostly mute. President Bush must use American leverage to demand that the government in Khartoum cease its aerial attacks, terminate its arms supplies to the Janjaweed and punish those militia accused of looting, rape and murder. The president made a phone call to Sudan's president, Omar Hassan Ahmed al-Bashir, and issued a strong public denunciation of the Darfur killings on April 7, 2004, and this pressure yielded the immediate announcement of a cease-fire. But as soon as U.S. attention waned, the killings resumed. Mr. Bush should keep calling until humanitarian workers and investigators are permitted free movement in the region, a no-fly zone is declared and the killings are stopped, and he should dispatch Mr. Powell to the Chad-Sudan border to signal America's resolve.

The Bush administration cannot do this alone. Ten thousand international peacekeepers are needed in Darfur. President Bush will have to press Sudan to agree to a United Nations mission—and he will also need United Nations member states to sign on. The Europeans can help by urging the Security Council to refer the killings to the newly created International Criminal Court. Though the United States has been hostile to the court, this is one move it should not veto, as an investigation by the court could deter future massacres.


On this historic ten-year anniversary, we must try not to allow 800,000 to become a faceless statistic. Each Rwandan lived a precious life and died a horrible death. And if we are serious about learning the ''lessons of Rwanda,'' we must do more than remember and regret; we must press our leaders to make genocide prevention and suppression the foreign policy priority it has never been. Otherwise, when we pledge ''never again Rwanda,'' what we will really be saying is ''never again will Rwandan Hutu kill 800,000 Tutsi between April and July 1994.''

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