The Failure of the International Community to
Prevent Genocide in Rwanda
by Peter Uvin
Associate Professor (Research) at Brown University
Excerpt from Professor Uvin's forthcoming book, Aiding Violence: The Development Enterprise in Rwanda (West Hartford, Kumarian Press, August 1998).
The article by Bhaskar Menon, and by Philip Gourevitch in the New Yorker, poses many important questions. It will never be possible to definitively "prove" that anyone could predict a genocide, or see it coming. However, that does not absolve the international community from preventive action. My point is that, even if we agree that it was not possible to predict the genocide, and thus to undertake action to prevent it, there still was a very high level of human rights violations taking place in Rwanda for years, and the countries working there, as well as the UN, were very aware of that, and should have acted -- but failed to do so.
Did the international community - mainly, say, the governments of Belgium, France, the US, and the UN political headquarters - know preparations were underway for a full-scale genocide in Rwanda? If so, when was this known? If not, could the international community have known it?
Most authors who have studied the matter answer the first question affirmatively. Most prominent are Adelman and Suhrke, who argue that, from late 1993 onwards, foreign embassies and the UNAMIR troops - and, through them, the governments of Western countries and the highest levels of the UN - possessed clear information about an upcoming genocide and could thus have stopped it if they wanted to (Adelman and Suhrke 1996, 38; Des Forges 1995a, 456).
Analysts have documented how anyone living in Kigali, both diplomats and aid officials, was aware of the increasing potential for genocide in Rwanda. The rise in tension and violence; the wide distribution of arms to civilians and militia; and the increasingly vehement anti-Tutsi propaganda broadcast by Radio Libre des Milles Collines, all indicated the growing potency of ethnic hatred. These facts, combined with explicit warnings to Western and African diplomats by important people at the heart of the Habyarimana government, further clarified the nature of the violence that would follow.
Adelman and Suhrke argue also that the UN secretariat was well informed of the extensive preparations and intention of extremists to commit genocide. From January 1994 onwards, General Dallaire, head of the UNAMIR mission, made repeated requests for more troops and equipment as well as for permission to confiscate known illegal arms imports to protect civilians. All these requests were denied. On January 11, 1994, General Dallaire sent a cable to the UN secretariat that detailed credible evidence from a Rwandan government informer of a plan to kill Belgian UNAMIR troops and then murder all Tutsi living in Kigali; the informer also detailed the location of secret arms caches for this purpose.
Finally, two major human rights reports published in 1993 detailed massive arms distributions to the population, increasing extremist anti-Tutsi rhetoric, the existence of militia groups, and massacres of over 2,000 Tutsi with the consent of the government. The first report was written by four human rights NGOs who in response to the severity of the escalating human rights crisis in Rwanda created a joint commission of inquiry (Africa Watch and others, March 1993). In August, a UN Special Rapporteur's (UN 1993) report confirmed the findings of the joint commission report and stated further that "the cases of intercommunal violence brought to the Special Rapporteur's attention indicate very clearly that the victims of the attacks, Tutsi in the overwhelming majority of cases, have been targeted solely because of their membership of a certain ethnic group, and for no other objective reason. Article II, paragraphs (a) and (b) [definitions of genocide in the Geneva Convention on the Crime and Punishment of Genocide], might therefore be considered to apply to these cases." These reports along with the experience of diplomats and UNAMIR forces in Kigali, seriously challenge the assertions by the international community that they were utterly surprised by the outbreak of civil violence in April 1994.
On the other hand, the degree to which this information was widely known and, especially, conclusively interpretable, is subject to dispute. It is quite likely that few people in the international community could have seen the genocide coming, for a variety of reasons. The most fundamental explanation is that it is very hard to imagine or expect a genocide. There is a fundamental, hard to grasp, qualitative difference between "ordinary" killings and a genocide. The Swiss Development Cooperation agency reflects this sentiment in the introduction to its 1994 Annual Report: "we cannot say we were badly informed; those running our Coordination Office in Kigali did remarkable work in providing information, making contacts, and issuing warnings. They probably knew as much about the situation as the best informed Rwandans. But how many amongst those foresaw a catastrophe of such enormity?" Adelman and Suhrke (1996, 9), in their otherwise very critical analysis, as well as Kagabo and Vidal (1994), Prunier (1995, 211), Willame (1995b, 443), and des Forges (1995a, 457) all argue the same point. Moreover, the usually mentioned warning signs of the events that would begin April 6, 1994 occurred only in late 1993 and early 1994, that is, within a few months before the actual genocide - too late for ordinary processes of policy-making to move into action in time to stop the genocide. A second reason why it may well have been hard to predict the genocide, even if one was aware of the human rights violations, lies in the potential for confusion with "ordinary" political violence. The last years were characterized by broad and widespread political violence: the assassination of opposition leaders, the creation of militia by all political parties, random acts of terrorism, etc. It may have made sense for many observers - most of whom, it must be added, were not specialists of Rwandese society - to lump all occurrences of violence in the broader category of political violence and to believe that the latter would be solved by bringing the peace cum democracy negotiations in Arusha to a good end. This can also explain the inaction of the UN secretariat toward General Dallaire's information about impending genocide: the UN Secretary-General has argued that such plots are often exposed in conflict regions and communicated to the secretariat only to later be uncovered as false alarms (Boutros-Ghali 1996, 31).
The debate will always remain inconclusive. However, even if we accept that the international community could not have reasonably foreseen the genocide that began on April 6, 1994, and could thus not be expected to have acted to explicitly prevent its occurrence, the debate on its role and responsibility is not closed. For, before April 6, 1994, there were 40 months of widespread violence and massive human rights abuses in Rwanda, directed against innocent Tutsi solely based on their ethnicity. These instances of violence were instigated by the highest levels of government and accompanied by widespread racist and genocidal discourses.
These instances of violence were well known throughout the world. There were no less than six internationally published major reports on the human rights situation in Rwanda, presented at press conferences, distributed to government officials and embassies, etc. The two of these we discussed above - one by a consortium of NGOs and one by the UN - explicitly discussed the killings against the background of the genocide convention. Human rights agencies inside Rwanda published still more reports and documents (des Forges 1996). Even the US Department of State annual human rights reports contain a wealth of information on the matter. At the same time, prestigious newspapers in the European press (but hardly in the US) regularly reported on the same processes in the same terms. Finally, the climate of hatred and fear was very visible to all the foreigners living in the country, such as diplomats and, especially, technical assistants who were usually much more in touch with what happens "in the field." Most US citizens living in Rwanda met weekly with the US embassy staff, and amply discussed these facts. People of Tutsi origin, many of whom worked for aid agencies, UN funded projects, and embassies, were without exception deeply afraid for their lives, and often told their foreign employers and colleagues about their fears. Many of those who could fled the country.
Thus we can establish with certainty that the regular occurrence of murderous violence against innocent people, and the aggravating facts that this violence was both racially motivated and organized from the highest level of the state, was widely known, even to the casual observer, and even more so to those living in the country. These facts, in and by themselves - regardless of whether they would eventually lead to genocide or not - were serious enough to require action. Most development aid agencies have explicit policies that oblige them to act in the case of massive human rights violations in recipient countries. When these processes involve the government at the highest levels harassing and killing innocent people - very often employees of aid agencies or partner NGOs - under a highly racist ideology, there would be even more reason to speak out forcefully and clearly, and act in accordance. Finally, when a society is falling apart in racism, violence, hatred, and lawlessness, this should at least be a reason to profoundly rethink the development assistance mandate and the current portfolio of projects, and to seek innovative manners of dealing with these processes. No such thing happened, however: as we will see below, the aid community -- whether bilateral, multilateral, or even NGO -- largely continued business as usual, as if oblivious to the challenges facing Rwandese society. The broader international foreign policy community, meanwhile, sent conflicting and confused signals.