The U.S. Response to the Rwandan Genocide

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In the spring of 1994, a plane crash killed the Rwandan president Juvenal Habyarimana and a 100-day genocide ensued. In the genocide, at least 800,000 Rwandans, most of whom were Tutsis – the minority tribe – and moderate Hutus died . The United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR) had been overseeing the implementation of the Arusha Peace Agreement between the Rwandan government and the rebel Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) militia but it lacked the capacity to stop the genocide. Subsequent resolutions by the United Nations Security Council prevented the UNAMIR from mounting an effective response to the genocide, reducing it to a bystander. The United States did not intervene and instead, it led the concerted effort to cripple UNAMIR and hinder it from stopping the genocide. As the world’s superpower, the United States should have intervened in the Rwandan genocide.

Morally, the U.S. had the obligation to stop the Rwandan genocide. All humans have an inherent right to security from physical harm. According to Sen , human rights imply a set of three interrelated duties. The first duty that every individual bears is to avoid the violation of a human right. The second duty is collective, and it requires people to protect human rights from potential violation. The third duty is also collective, and it requires people to ensure that a right yields a substantial benefit to its holder. The implication of the interrelated duties that a human right creates is that all people have the obligation to provide adequate social safeguards against conventional threats. The Rwandans who died during the genocide had the right to physical security, and this right gave the U.S. the duty to safeguard it against various threats. Although fundamental human rights create collective duties, it is not feasible for individuals to meet the demands that arise in the instances of the massive violation of these rights. Moreover, even if individuals were to take uncoordinated action intended to safeguard the rights of the potential victims of a massive human rights violation, they would not be effective.

Sovereign states are the mediators of the international interactions among people, and as such, their capabilities in fulfilling the moral demands arising from the violation of human rights are better than the capabilities of individuals are. Therefore, sovereign states bear the collective human duty to offer social safeguards against the threats to human rights. The sovereign states’ duty to secure human rights implies that the U.S. should have intervened in Rwanda in order to secure the genocide victims’ right to security. However, even if there seems a threat to a human right, a state may lack a sufficient moral basis to intervene in a situation in which there is a massive violation of human rights. Some moral considerations are likely to make it undesirable for a state to fulfill the duties that arise from the violation of human rights.

In the case of Rwanda, there were no compelling moral considerations that made it inappropriate for the U.S. to intervene and stop the genocide. In addition, in some cases, an intervention in a situation of a massive human rights violation is likely to increase the scale of the human rights abuses that prompted the intervention in the first place, and this implies that humanity would be better off without the intervention. However, in the case of the Rwandan genocide, there was no evidence suggesting that an intervention would have worsened the scale of the human rights abuses and, therefore, the U.S. had no reason to refuse to intervene. A timely intervention by the U.S. would have saved people’s lives, and this is especially true considering that even an indirect intervention would have been enough. Some countries were willing to provide troops but they lacked the capacity to provide these troops with the logistical support that they needed in order to stop the Rwandan atrocities, and all the U.S. had to do was provide this support.

According to Silver , the U.S.’s failure to intervene in the Rwandan genocide resulted from political considerations in the wake of the failure of the humanitarian intervention measures that the U.S. had adopted in the previous year. In 1994, the U.S. had to reconfigure the aspects of her foreign policy that related to humanitarian intervention, and this prevented her from responding to the Rwandan crisis. The Clinton administration’s poor response to the Rwandan genocide arose not only from the fact it thought the U.S. did not have strategic interests in Rwanda, but also from how Congress was critical of the way President Clinton had handled the Somalia peacekeeping operation in 1993. Thus, the Clinton Administration faced political exposure and vulnerability, and President Clinton knew he would have had to pay the price in the 1996 presidential election.

In early 1993, the U.S. was keen on policing the world in the Post-Cold War Era, but after the loss of American lives in Somalia, the U.S. became uninterested in playing this role. Silver additionally notes that the Clinton administration was aware of the political cost of referring to the unraveling Rwandan conflict as genocide. In one conference call, Susan Rice, a National Security Council officer in 1994, wondered if the U.S. government officials’ reference to “genocide” and the American public’s perception that these officials were not doing anything about it would have had an impact on the 1994 Congressional election . President Clinton’s concern about the political implications of his handling of the genocide at the expense of the lives of the Rwandans indicates that the U.S. used false excuses to evade her responsibility to intervene.

The official position of the U.S. government was that an intervention in Rwanda was inappropriate because no U.S. interests were at stake, but it turned out that the issue at stake was the outcome of the upcoming Congressional and presidential elections. Even if the Clinton administration’s position that an intervention in Rwanda was a costly political mistake were prudent, two factors suggest that, on the contrary, the intervention would have been politically expedient. First, early in 1993, the Clinton administration’s foreign policy indicated that the U.S. was keen to play the role of the global policeperson in a Post-Cold War era and it took the steps to realize this goal. The Clinton administration would not have taken the measures to align its foreign policy with its intention of policing the world if it had not campaigned on that platform.

An intervention in Rwanda would have given the Clinton administration an opportunity to fulfill its campaign pledge of reconfiguring the U.S.’s global role in the Post-Cold War era. Second, the U.S. could have intervened in Rwanda without sending her troops to fight the perpetrators of the genocide because all she needed to do was support the countries that were willing to provide additional troops. By providing logistical support without risking the lives of American soldiers, the Clinton administration would have demonstrated that it had learned from the Somalia debacle and enhanced how it managed humanitarian missions, and as such, it could competently give the U.S. her desired global role in the Post-Cold War era.

Graybill notes that the idea that U.S. intervention in conflicts is only desirable when vital interests are at stake is morally problematic. While it is understandable that the Clinton administration needed to make the case for the Rwandan intervention to the American public, it is inexcusable that the administration chose to appeal to the public’s reservations about sending armed American troops to Rwanda when it had other options. Specifically, the Clinton administration had the option of appealing to the need to stop the Rwandan violence in order to keep it from spilling to the neighboring countries and undermining the stability of Central Africa. In addition, the Clinton administration’s position was that the U.S. lacked commercial interests in Rwanda that would have made it attractive to intervene was not entirely true because Rwanda neighbored the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), a country rich in the mineral resources that serve as key production inputs in various industries in the U.S. economy. Thus, an intervention in the genocide would have ensured the stability of the DRC, and in turn, it would have protected the U.S.’s commercial interests.

The Rwandan genocide occasioned a serious refugee problem in the DRC, and this problem prompted the U.S. to undertake massive expenditures on humanitarian aid. Some estimates suggest that the cost of the humanitarian aid that the U.S. sent to DRC was greater than the cost that the U.S. would have incurred if she intervened in the Rwandan conflict early at the beginning in order to halt the mass killings . Thus, considering the financial implications of the U.S.’s non-intervention in Rwanda, there was a rationale for intervention. According to Graybill, part of the goals of a great power’s foreign policy is to enhance its reputation, and as such, it is not helpful for a great power to evaluate its international obligations using a strict dichotomy that separates interests from values. In the Cold War era, a great power’s reputation was an essential element in considering its interests, but in the Post-Cold War era, reputation lost its significance in shaping a power’s interests. The U.S.’s intervention to deal with a threat to human rights may not be in her interests, but it is consistent with the values that define her as a nation. In addition, the

U.S. citizens do not have an excessive focus on interests as the elites do and when there is a compelling moral rationale for intervention in a conflict, they are willing to support the intervention. In one survey, most of the respondents indicated that they would support an intervention that seeks to stop human suffering and the loss of lives even if a threat to a national interest was not apparent . In addition, the findings of the same survey showed that, even when there is the possibility that an intervention would result in the loss of American lives, the American public sees no problem with the intervention as long as it has a high likelihood of succeeding.

Hooker Jr. notes that one of the official explanations of the U.S.’s failure to intervene in Rwanda was that it was not feasible to undertake a military intervention, but the success of the U.S. military operations in Africa before the genocide shows that this explanation is misleading. In early 1991, there was a civil war in Mogadishu and U.S. troops successfully evacuated the U.S. embassy. In late 1992, the U.S. deployed at least 20,000 troops in Somalia within a month and these troops succeeded in stopping mass starvation. At the end of the Rwandan genocide and civil war in July 1994, the U.S. deployed troops to DRC in order to address the refugee problem. In early 1996, the U.S. deployed numerous troops to Liberia to protect the U.S. citizens and property in the wake of a civil war. Thus, it was easy for the U.S. forces to undertake rapid intervention and attain decisive outcomes within a short time. Another explanation for U.S.’s inaction was that she prioritized other foreign policy issues, especially Bosnia. In Bosnia, the scale of the violence was lower than that of Rwanda, and this partially explains why the Clinton administration preferred Bosnia to Rwanda.

The failure in Somalia was another reason the Clinton administration did not want any consideration of intervention in Rwanda, and it seems most plausible in explaining the U.S.’s non-intervention. The Somalia problem resulted from strategic and tactical lapses, and if the Clinton administration wanted to avoid a similar problem in the Rwandan intervention, it should have sought ways of fixing the lapses that contributed to the deaths of American soldiers in Somalia. Using the lessons from the failed Somalia mission to ensure a successful Rwandan intervention would have helped the Clinton administration’s political cause more than its inaction did. According to Yannagizawa-Drott , allowing the Rwandan hate radio (RTLM) to broadcast during the genocide had a tremendous human cost that exceeded the cost that the U.S. Department of Defense had estimated.

At the height of the Rwandan genocide, Romeo Dallaire, the commander of the United Nations peacekeeping force, requested the jamming of RTLM’s signals, but the U.S. rejected this request. The U.S. contended that jamming RTLM’s signals was a violation of Rwanda’s sovereignty, a disregard for the right to free speech, and the cost of jamming was higher than its potential benefit. The contention that stopping RTLM’s signals violated Rwanda’s sovereignty was ridiculous considering that the Rwandan government had sponsored violence against a section of the population, and as such, it did not deserve the protections that sovereign states enjoyed. In addition, it made no sense for the U.S. to purport to have a concern for the right to free speech in Rwanda when the exercise of this right was facilitating a serious violation of human rights. The argument that that the cost of jamming RTLM’s signals – the Defense Department estimated it to be $4 million – exceeded its benefit was false because the U.S.’s subsequent expenditure on the humanitarian effort to avert the refugee crisis was greater than this cost .

A report from an eminent panel of military leaders indicated that the deployment of 5,000 troops in Rwanda in the first weeks of the start of the genocide would have stopped the mass murders and provided humanitarian relief . Wertheim questions whether the immediate deployment of 5,000 troops after the start of the genocide would have put a stop to the killings, and he assesses the effectiveness of this intervention in three aspects. Wertheim’s first contention is that a 5000-strong force would have faced more difficulties halting the killings than the eminent panel of military leaders acknowledged. The eminent panel’s conclusion assumes that the intervention would have commenced within the first two weeks when the genocide had not spread beyond Kigali. According to Wertheim, the two-week window of opportunity was non-existent because the killings started spontaneously across the country. However, Wertheim does not consider the fact that the Hutu tribal militia initiated most of the killing in the countryside and it was under the command of the central figures of Rwanda’s ruling party. The presence of an intervention force at the start of the genocide would have given the ruling party’s leaders the incentive to instruct the Hutu tribal militia the stop the killings because it would have made them think that the international community would hold them accountable for derailing the implementation of the Arusha Peace Accords.

Second, Wertheim argues that even if the immediate intervention force succeeded in halting the genocide, the combatants in the civil war would have continued the hostilities, and this means that the genocide would probably have resumed after the end of the foreign force’s mandate. Romeo Dallaire noted that the organizers of the genocide were keen on scuttling the implementation of the Arusha Peace Accords that the Rwandan government signed with the rebel Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) force. An early halt of the genocide would have derailed the plans of the organizers of the genocide and the ensuing international pressure would probably have forced them to abandon their plan to resume the conflict and made them cooperate in the implementation of the peace agreement. Third, Wertheim argues that it is not clear if the Clinton administration would have received the public support it needed for the initial troop deployment, and even if it succeeded in getting it, it would have been difficult for it to sustain this support if the conflict became protracted. As this paper has already argued, the notion that the American public disliked the idea of an intervention in another conflict after the Somalia debacle is elitist and it does not reflect the wishes of the public.

To sum up, the United States had a moral obligation to intervene in the Rwandan genocide. The genocide threatened the rights of a section of the Rwandan population, and the U.S. had a duty to protect the Rwandans from this threat and ensure they enjoyed the substantial benefits that accrued from their rights. The reasons that the Clinton administration gave for failing to intervene in the genocide were not plausible, and the administration took a politically expedient action. Even if it were appropriate for political expediency to be the overarching concern in the consideration of the decision to intervene in Rwanda, there was a rationale for the U.S. to intervene. An intervention would have secured some U.S. commercial interests and saved the country the enormous expenditure on the humanitarian effort that she undertook after the end of the genocide in order to address the resultant refugee crisis.


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