Years After, a long-forgotten 1960s rock band that featured the dynamic
guitar work of Alvin Lee, was perhaps best known for its live rendition of
Ten years after genocide in Rwanda was purposely ignored by a Democratic president who was perceived as a step forward from a man named George Bush...well, it kinda feels like we're “goin' home” again.
(How’s that for a segue?)
“The term ‘genocide’ has been used with varying degrees of precision, but even under the most demanding definition there is no doubt that the events in Rwanda between April and July 1994 qualified as genocide,” says historian Stephen R. Shalom.
Unfortunately for members of Rwanda's Tutsi ethnic group, the U.S. had already decided that the G Word could not be spoken.
Columnist Nat Hentoff has written extensively about the calculated U.S. indifference to the Rwandan crisis in the Village Voice. “Before 1993, the Hutu majority in Rwanda had long nurtured a deep resentment against the Tutsi minority who had been, under Belgian rule, the country's aristocracy, subjugating the Hutu underclass,” Hentoff says. “After independence in the late 1950s, the Hutus seized power and oppressed the Tutsis. Following a civil war, the Hutus agreed to share power with the Tutsis, but the pact was doomed because Hutu hatred of their former overlords was too deep.”
When the presidents of Rwanda and neighboring Burundi -- both Hutus -- died in a suspicious plane crash on April 6, 1994, the Tutsis became the target of what author Philip Gourevitch calls, “the most unambiguous case of genocide since Hitler's war against the Jews.”
“Nearly a million Tutsis were massacred in Rwanda in 1994,” reports Hentoff. “The holocaust took only one month before one-seventh of the population became corpses. As with the Jews under Hitler, the orgy of killing was not interrupted by any intervention from anywhere, until it was much too late.”
So much for “never again.”
James Woods, deputy assistant secretary at the Defense Department from 1986 to 1994, has candidly explained U.S. inaction: “In the spring of '93, when the Clinton administration came in, we were asked to develop lists of what we thought would be serious crises this administration might face,” says Woods. “I put Rwanda on the list, but I received guidance from higher authorities: ‘If something happens in Rwanda-Burundi, we don't care. Take it off the list. United States national interest is not involved, and you know, we can't put all these silly humanitarian interests on lists.’”
The Organization for African Unity (OAU) later convened a panel to review both the 1994 genocide and the world's response. “The (panels') report recalls that after the genocide began the Clinton Administration refused 'to accept publicly that a full-fledged...genocide was in fact taking place,’” says journalist David Corn. “Under the 1948 UN Genocide Convention, once a genocide is recognized, the nations of the world are obligated to prevent the killings and to punish the murderers.”
“Clinton ordered that America do nothing to stop the killing, even though at the end of April 1994, a State Department secret intelligence report unequivocally called what was happening 'genocide.’” Hentoff adds. “The word from the Clinton administration was that congressional elections were coming soon, and the Democrats could lose votes if the president admitted genocide was underway in Rwanda and he wasn't going to do anything about it.”
The OAU report found: “There was no issue of insufficient information in the U.S. Human Rights Watch and the U.S. Committee for Refugees, both of whom had first-hand knowledge from within Rwanda, persistently held public briefings and issued regular updates on the course of events. That it was genocide was beyond question. Within two weeks, the International Committee of the Red Cross estimated that perhaps hundreds of thousands were already dead.” The report also charged Clinton by name: “President Clinton insists that his failure was a function of ignorance. The facts show, however, that the American government knew precisely what was happening... But domestic politics took priority over the lives of helpless Africans.”
“Stopping the genocide would not have required a major military operation,” explains Stephen Morris of Johns Hopkins University's Advanced International Studies. “The killers were militarily incompetent mobs armed mostly with clubs, spears and machetes. The then commander of the UN Assistance Mission claimed that 5000 men and a mandate to act would have been sufficient to stop the killing.”
“In reality the United States did much more than fail to send troops,” says Samantha Power, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide. “It led a successful effort to remove most of the UN peacekeepers who were already in Rwanda. It aggressively worked to block the subsequent authorization of UN reinforcements. It refused to use its technology to jam radio broadcasts that were a crucial instrument in the coordination and perpetuation of the genocide. And even as, on average, 8,000 Rwandans were being butchered each day, U.S. officials shunned the term ‘genocide,’ for fear of being obliged to act. The United States in fact did virtually nothing 'to try to limit what occurred.' Indeed, staying out of Rwanda was an explicit U.S. policy objective.”
President Clinton visited Rwanda in March 1998 to put some spin on the genocide.
“All over the world,” he told the Rwandans, “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.”
“He knew exactly what was going on,” says Hentoff.
Samantha Power sums up succinctly: “The United States had never in its history intervened to stop genocide and had in fact rarely even made a point of condemning it as it occurred.”
The fate of Rwandans ten years ago (or Iraqis today) did not depend on which branch of the corporate party raised enough money to send their war criminal to occupy the White House for four years. It's what the people who live in the world's richest, most powerful nation choose to do (or not do) that can make a difference in preventing genocide (and pre-emptive wars) in the future.
“The obligation is not to be personally pure,” says Ward Churchill. “The obligation is to effect a measurable change.”
Mickey Z. is the author of two upcoming books: A Gigantic Mistake: Articles and Essays for Your Intellectual Self-Defense (Prime Books) and Seven Deadly Spins: Exposing the Lies Behind War Propaganda (Common Courage Press), from which this essay is adapted from. His most recent book is The Murdering of My Years: Artists and Activists Making Ends Meet. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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