Now Is the Time to Tell the Truth about Rwanda


National Journal, April 21, 2001

Seven years ago this month, more than three-fourths of the Tutsi population of Rwanda was murdered in one of the bloodiest barbarisms of humanity's bloodiest century. Hutu extremists' campaign of genocide began on April 7, 1994; by April 21, just two weeks into the massacre, something like 250,000 Tutsi were dead. "That rate of killing would make it the fastest genocide in recorded history," notes Alan J. Kuperman, a fellow in the international security program at Harvard University's John F. Kennedy School of Government. By the time the Hutu Power regime was overthrown and the killing stopped, half a million or more Tutsi had been slaughtered, plus many thousands of Hutu moderates.

Three years ago last month, President Clinton, traveling through Africa, made a brief stop in Kigali, Rwanda. To an audience that included survivors of the genocide, he made this statement:

"The international community, together with nations in Africa, must bear its share of responsibility for this tragedy as well. We did not act quickly enough after the killing began…. We did not immediately call these crimes by their rightful name: genocide." He added: "All over the world, there were people like me sitting in offices, day after day after day, who did not fully appreciate the depth and the speed with which you were being engulfed by this unimaginable horror."

It was the sort of carefully modulated wordcraft that was a hallmark of the Clinton style. On the one hand, it was better than nothing at all, which is what earlier Presidents (Carter, perhaps, excepted) would probably have said. On the other hand, the statement was misleading. It implied, without quite saying, that the United States did not know what was going on in Rwanda early enough to act, and then did act once it did know.

"If that goes down as the last word on U.S. introspection about Rwanda," Kuperman recently told me in a telephone interview, "I think it would be a tragedy."

What with mayhem in the Middle East and another run-in with China, now may seem an odd time to bring up Rwanda. But now is the moment. The four major outside powers that played important roles in the Rwanda cataclysm were Belgium, France, the United Nations, and the United States. Of the four, three have held extensive hearings or official inquiries about their role. One, the United States, has not. "We've never reckoned with it," says Alison Des Forges, a senior adviser to Human Rights Watch Africa and a leading authority on the Rwanda genocide.

While Clinton was in office, an honest inquiry probably couldn't have happened and shouldn't have been attempted. The Administration would have regarded an inquiry as a political threat and would have tried to impede it. (When a House subcommittee held a hearing on Rwanda in 1998, no one in the Clinton State Department or Pentagon could find time to testify. Only an official with the U.S. Agency for International Development showed up.) Clinton's opponents would have used the inquiry as a partisan cudgel. Republicans and Democrats would have rushed to battle stations in the usual tiresome way. The result might have been a fiasco. Besides, as we know from the Holocaust, it takes time before people can approach the subject of genocide without turning defensive or hysterical.

But a decent interval has now passed, and Clinton is gone. Now it might be possible for a nonpartisan, nonrecriminatory inquiry to begin honestly probing the Clinton years' ugliest wound.

What would an autopsy show? In a grimly fascinating book called "The Limits of Humanitarian Intervention: Genocide in Rwanda" (to be published in May by the Brookings Institution Press), Kuperman sorts through the record. He challenges conventional wisdom by concluding that, once the genocide was under way, outside intervention could not have prevented more than a fraction of the killings.

The genocide happened fast, and ground forces take weeks to deploy. The killers, seeing the cavalry on the way, might have rushed even faster to finish the job and kill all witnesses. Kuperman figures that about 125,000 Tutsi, or roughly a quarter of the total killed, might have been saved if outsiders had sent in a full division and effectively occupied the country. A much smaller rapid-deployment brigade could have been on the scene faster and might have saved 75,000 lives.

Kuperman's calculations are controversial. Des Forges believes they're nonsense. "Unrelated to reality," she says. Rwanda, she argues, was a highly centralized country, and the killers were both sensitive and vulnerable to foreign pressure. A fairly small number of troops could have stopped the genocide in the capital and deterred the genocidaires in the countryside.

Another disputed issue: How long was it before policy-makers in the West realized that what was going on was flat-out genocide, rather than a brutal but conventional civil war? The question matters, because a civil war was going on in Rwanda at the time, and civil war and genocide present quite different moral and strategic profiles to would-be interveners.

Kuperman finds that senior Clinton Administration officials did not fully understand the situation until sometime between April 20 and 25. "Everyone I interviewed—at the National Security Council, the State Department, the Pentagon—agreed that's when they first realized what was happening." By late April, however, the genocide was already more than half complete.

Nonsense again, says Des Forges. Even in the first few days, "people did understand how devastating the slaughter was going to be. They certainly understood that it was going to be a massive slaughter of civilians on an ethnic basis." That, she says, should have been more than enough.

Who is right? One reason for a full-dress investigation is to find out. Another is to investigate two American failings that Kuperman and Des Forges and many other observers agree are very difficult to excuse.

In January and February of 1994, weeks before the genocide began, Belgian officials saw trouble coming and pleaded that a toothless contingent of about 2,500 U.N. peacekeepers, already in Rwanda, be given the muscle and mandate to seize arms and arrest violent extremists. Kuperman believes, and Des Forges agrees, that bolstering the peacekeeping mission would probably have prevented the genocide by intimidating the genocidaires and strengthening their moderate opponents.

Significantly, Kuperman notes, the Belgian plan did not call for U.S. forces. Yet the United States, seconded by Britain, quashed the Belgians' efforts. Why? Theories abound. But, says Kuperman, "we're not going to know until we have hearings."

America's second unambiguous failing was its refusal to acknowledge that genocide was taking place for weeks after denial had become ridiculous. As late as June 10, The New York Times reported: "Trying to avoid the rise of moral pressure to stop the mass killing in Rwanda, the Clinton Administration has instructed its spokesmen not to describe the deaths there as genocide, even though some senior officials believe that is exactly what they represent." Kuperman reflects: "By the time we realized it was genocide, it was too late to prevent the genocide, but we still denied for many, many more weeks that it was genocide, and we didn't actually intervene until the genocide was over, and as a result maybe 100,000 or more Tutsi died who would have been saved."

George W. Bush, as a candidate, said that he would not have sent American troops to prevent a Rwandan genocide, and he may have been right. Kuperman believes that, even if a muscular peacekeeping force had succeeded, it would have had to stay in Rwanda for years. "It's very similar to the situation in Bosnia or Kosovo right now. You're talking about transforming the political culture and establishing trust where there isn't any."

The Clinton Administration's decisions in Rwanda may have been defensible. What they should not be is deniable. Clinton's misleading apologia was double-edged, because it was as self-exculpatory as apologetic. That is why it should not satisfy Americans who aspire to do right by their consciences and learn from their mistakes.

Today the trail is cold, the Rwandan genocide is history, and a new procession of African savageries grinds forward in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, and Sierra Leone. All of that might seem reason to forget the Rwanda holocaust and move on. But the opposite is more nearly the case. With the benefit of a fresh Administration and some years of distance, it may now be possible to hold a nonpartisan, nonprosecutorial investigation, one designed to probe and learn, rather than to point fingers or gin up partisan scandal.

No one should be forced to testify; no one should fear being keelhauled for telling the truth or owning up to mistakes. The point is not to fix blame, but to put everything on the table—all the documents, all the decisions. The point, post-Clinton, is to come clean. That much we owe Rwanda and the world and, most of all, ourselves.