frontline online: the triumph of evil

navigation, see below for text
philip gourevitch

Characterize the speed, the brutality and the scope of what was happening.

You can't overstate how rapidly this unfolded. It didn't happen in Rwanda that all at once, everywhere in Rwanda, there was a vast uprising or spontaneous outburst of killing. It was plotted. It was planned. It moved. You can actually see how it radiated out from Kigali through careful manipulation and planning.

And at the same time, it did so very rapidly. We're talking about 800,000 people murdered in the course of 100 days. That's 8,000 murders a day. I find that on average that's five murders a minute. The speed and the graphic brutality, the fact that this was conducted largely with machetes ... people were battered to death, were hacked to death, were stabbed to death, hand to hand, across the country, on this kind of industrial scale. I think that the extraordinary horror of that, and the immensity and speed of this violence, did to some extent short-circuit responses. On the other hand, one might have said that the immense speed and graphic horror would have created a sense of urgency. Instead, it seems to have created a sense of shutdown.

The expatriate rescue: What happened?

When this started, of course, there were embassies in Rwanda. There were some aid missions still there. In early 1994, Peace Corps was beginning to get started again in Rwanda. You had French, Belgian and European nuns and missionaries and so forth, spread out throughout the land. There were a number of white Westerners, American or European people living in Rwanda in various professional and private capacities. The immediate response of the world was, "We will, of course, intervene to evacuate our nationals." This is standard procedure. And so you had a rather massive influx of commando forces from Europe and also some Americans, flying into the airport, fanning out in jeeps and so forth to rescue missionaries, priests, doctors, aid workers, diplomats, and their children, and to take them out of the country--which created some really terrible moments where people were forced to leave behind those Rwandans who worked for them. Didn't matter if you were the loyal, steadiest employee of the American embassy in Kigali. If you were a Rwandan, see you later. And so the European-American world air-lifted itself out and left Rwanda again to its fate.

Anyidoho, who was the Ghanaian commander on the ground, said, "We had enough troops ... we just missed a fleeting opportunity." What was missed? What opportunity was there when these troops were on the ground?

You look at all those troops going in to get the foreigners out, and you can't help thinking, well, that's a lot of troops, if they wished to do something. These are commandos. These are pretty crack troops. These are guys who are prepared to go in there and do what it takes to extract one deputy at an embassy. Couldn't they have done a lot?

It's clear that throughout the Rwandan story and throughout basically any story of non-intervention around the world, what's lacking isn't the military wherewithal. It's extraordinary, the military capacities of America and its European allies. What's lacking is any sense of interest in so doing. And Rwanda lay outside the strategic interests of America. Part of what makes Rwanda extraordinarily a case study almost in the dramatic question of, "When do we and when don't we choose to act," is that we chose not to. One can't argue that there was geo-strategic, economic, or other political interests to motivate us. So this is almost like a petri dish case. And America just didn't want to. It's really a story of not wanting. You hear the phrase "political will." Simply translated: I don't want to.

Explain the scene when the Security Council vote is taken, and Rwanda is one of the member states, and everybody seems deferential to each other. What's wrong?

Diplomacy is a cold business. Diplomats will be polite to each other at all costs. Remember, people were very cordial to Hitler. People had been very cordial to Stalin ... Remember that at the United Nations throughout the late 1970s and all of the 1980s, the United States helped Pol Pot's Khmer Rouge maintain Cambodia's seat at the United Nations. This was Cold War politics. They didn't want the Vietnamese occupiers of Cambodia to be there. We were polite to them. They'd just killed two million of their people. They'd been our enemy 20 years before.

So here, in a complete fluke, in 1994, little Rwanda gets one of these rotating seats on the Security Council, and the Rwandan genocidal government has a representative on the Security Council as the world sits down to debate its fate. You have France, the main patron of the Rwandese government, which also exercises power on the Security Council with some of its other partner states. Djibouti happened to be on the Security Council. And Djibouti is also a complete part of the neo-colonial French sphere of influence. So you have everybody being very polite to one another. Now, people don't say, "Your government's committing genocide, and you shut up and sit down now." No. Everybody gets a vote, and they go about this all very politely, as if it were a routine matter, to some extent. Perhaps that's what keeps the U.N. going, but it's also what makes the U.N. singularly an ineffective place to take urgent action.

I think, when we talk about intervention, it's worth remembering that if the United States wants to intervene somewhere, if the United States wants to go bomb Baghdad, we do so ... like that, without asking permission all over the place at the U.N. When we want to build a coalition, we go to the U.N. The U.N. also is where people go when they want a cover for inaction. "We'll all go there and we'll all discuss it" means, "It's not very important to any of us."

What could or should the world do, even without military intervention?

There are two basic choices that confront the world, the international community, or the world powers confronted with such a situation as one had in Rwanda. Either you intervene aggressively, or you don't.

Now, within the category of "you don't," which was the one that was chosen, that doesn't mean that there's nothing else that can be done. For one thing, if you declare very clearly that you aren't going to, in advance, you don't create the false promise of protection that was created in Rwanda. Many Rwandans have told me that they made their plans, as they saw the situation worsening in early 1994, they decided to stay and take their chances in Rwanda because they also saw these blue helmets. So that's the first step is, you don't make false promises of protection if you're not really going to see them through.

The second thing is, once you've decided not to intervene, there's still a lot of pressure that can be exerted. For instance, you can put a lot of diplomatic pressure, economic pressure. You can delegitimize the government that is committing these massacres. You can make it very clear that you see it as what it is, and that you will do everything within your power to decommission these people. Rwanda maintained an embassy in Washington throughout the genocide. We didn't threaten to shut that embassy down until the genocide was shut down. There's a lot of pressure. One says, "No aid. You're no longer a legitimate government. We believe the reports that we are hearing, that you are a government that is criminal." So a lot of effort could be made beyond direct military action, to at least destabilize that government's sense of its surety as a member of the international community. But instead, everything was done to continue to embrace it as a member.

Even if the world decided not to intervene militarily, it still has options.

It's pretty clear that nothing short of the use of force would stop the tremendous force that was mobilized to commit the Rwandan genocide. And yet, even after the international community had decided (the Western powers) not to intervene and use that force, that didn't mean that they were without further options for putting pressure on the government: economic pressure, diplomatic pressure, moral pressure, to speak out and to be quite active in a way that wasn't done either. There wasn't a sense of really trying to exclude the government of Rwanda that was responsible for mobilizing this genocide from the community of nations. Instead, it was [continually] included.

From the Clinton administration's standpoint and the State Department briefings, what was the dilemma they faced in not calling this a genocide?

The Genocide Convention basically stood as the one document, the international law about genocide. And what it said was, if there's a genocide, the people who have agreed to this convention (which is the United States included) have to act to stop genocide when it's happening. In other words, if it's a genocide, you must act. It was a straight equation. The Clinton administration didn't want to act, which meant that it couldn't call it a genocide, because if it acknowledged that it was a genocide, it's clear from its own statements that its reading was: It had to do something. And eventually what happened was, the Clinton administration came up with a new reading of the Genocide Convention, which basically said, "Well, it doesn't oblige us to act. It permits us to act. It creates a framework in which we can act," which is nonsense, of course. Who needs permission to act? You don't need an international law about genocide to say, "It's okay to try to stop this." You have one that says, "No, we pledge to try to stop this." So they came up with this spin that basically spayed the convention, spayed the pledge. That's what it was about.

Characterize the political calculations made by the Clinton administration at the time.

Well, if you think about the political calculus of that moment from the White House's point of view. If they completely did the wrong thing in Rwanda, was there ever going to be a bill to pay for it, politically? Probably not. I think that they recognized that it was unlikely to cost them politically. And even if it would cost them morally, there would be few people around tabulating that cost and reminding them ... they basically figured it wouldn't stick. It didn't matter.

What would be the cost at home?

After Somalia, it's really clear that the Clinton administration was terrified of body bags. What they didn't want was dead American troops on television, in an intervention whose strategic necessity, whose essence to the national security was not obvious. In other words, what they were saying is: "Yeah, there may be a Genocide Convention, but that's not really what we're responding to. That's not what drives us. We have a downside politically, which is the risk of getting drawn into something where we don't even know what we're doing there." ... After Somalia, the Clinton administration's attitude towards international peacekeeping, international interventions, even in much more strategically vital areas of concern (like, say, Central Europe, Bosnia), was strictly "head in the sand" ... The Genocide Convention was not what was motivating [them]. The Genocide Convention was merely a rhetorical problem for them.

It feels like there was a diplomatic equivalent of the Powell doctrine going on: Only go into a situation where you know you can win. Don't take risks, regardless of moral obligation.

Think about it. April 1993, President Clinton standing in front of the Holocaust Museum saying, "This should be insurance against any insanity that lurks ahead." He appears to be making a pledge that we will not stand for such crimes against humanity, such crimes of genocide, to take place on the face of this earth ... at the very least, he seems to be saying that.

A year later, he actually is saying, "We must learn when it's time to say, no." That was the response to Rwanda. Clearly, the pledge to prevent genocide was hollow. What mattered, at this point, was the obvious political calculus of: We don't want to get involved. We don't want to lose people. We don't know what we're going to go in there for--never mind the moral imperative, never mind the shame of humanity, never mind a sense of common humanity. We have political calculations to make. We're not going to risk any lives on that one ... not our problem.

Presidential Directive 25: How did it come to be? Was it in response to Somalia?

Yes ... after the Somalia debacle, the White House had actually commissioned a policy review. And a document was produced called Presidential Decision Directive 25, which was basically a checklist: These are the things that we should review when we consider intervention. If we encounter any of these factors (and it was a very, very long list of possible political factors), we should not intervene. So it was really a checklist of reasons not to intervene, is essentially what it boiled down to.

This document was sort of in its final draft forms as the Rwandan slaughter began. And it was circulating. People at the U.N. say that Madeline Albright was carrying it around there. It was certainly circulating on Capitol Hill. It was circulating out of the White House. It was the Clinton administration document. And what you hear about that is, the most striking thing in it is that it says, "Not only should we decide when we don't want to intervene, but when we don't, we should exert what pressure we can on others also not to intervene." In other words, "We can't be seen to be sitting it out." This, then, is the closest thing we have to a highly articulated policy position, defining the responses that we saw in the course of Rwanda.

In the administration's view, what did PDD25 represent?

... The administration seems to have looked at Presidential Decision Directive 25 essentially as a template for policy making. They tend these days to downplay its significance. It never became a doctrine, shall we say, of American foreign policy. But it's clearly the backdrop. It's clearly the closest thing we have to a freshly published and clearly articulated policy of non-intervention and obstructing or resisting or pressuring others not to intervene as well.

Madeline Albright explains PDD25 to Congress: "These policies have increased discipline in the Security Council's decision-making procedure. The resolution is driven not by a desire simply to do something, but to do the smart thing," ... What is she trying to say to them?

There was some outrage in Congress about the fact that this mass slaughter by a government of its people was taking place, and that America was caught in the position of doing nothing. So the Clinton administration's job was to try to persuade Congress that, in fact, doing nothing was somehow or other doing the right thing. It's a tough argument to make. Quite often, the language that's used at that time is, "Let's not be emotional. Let's be lucid. Let's be clear. Let's have a policy that's firm and rational. Discipline." Well, it's not clear that this was the smartest thing to have done. It's not clear that it was the stupidest thing to have done. What's clear is that the administration, itself, was deeply conflicted.

And what's striking throughout all of this is how deeply conflicted and defensive the explanations of inaction are. It's not a confident assertion of policy: "The right thing to do is to stay out of this for now." No. What you have is: "We're staying out, but here's why, we're okay, we didn't mean to do any harm. I'm sorry that all these people are being killed, but let's not be too emotional about that." There's a clear sense of shame that presides over this. And that's what's interesting to me. You can have strong strategic arguments about whether or not, in retrospect, it could have been a successful intervention. But what we know now is, it didn't happen. And from the beginning, when it wasn't happening to now, there's an abiding sense of shame.

When she says, "If we do not keep commitments in line with capabilities, we'll only further undermine U.N. credibility and support," what is she saying?

Seems to me that what the administration is trying to say is, "We couldn't do this properly. We couldn't mobilize a substantial enough force, significantly enough to do this properly. And it's better not to." Now, it's important that when there was a call-up for troops, when Secretary-General Boutros-Ghali was then asking member states to volunteer troops, nobody did. And this, to some degree, delighted the Clinton administration because it could at least say, "See? There is no force. It's not like we're resisting a force that exists. We're saying it doesn't exist, so let's not pretend." That's what I think is being said here. But it's also important to remember that there was no eagerness on our part to lead or the assembling of such a force.

Why on May 17th did the Security Council decide to increase the U.N. force?

By May 17th, it was no longer possible to pretend that there wasn't a genocide taking place in Rwanda. There was no getting around it. What was happening with immense speed, on an immense scale, was the slaughter of the Tutsi population of Rwanda, by then, by the hundreds of thousands. It was pretty well understood that at least half a million people had been killed by then. At that point, people began to realize, "We're never going to be able to defend having withdrawn. Maybe we ought to think about going back in. We can't bring back the 500,000 or more dead, but we can at least perhaps attempt to bring an end to this slaughter, and not allow this genocide to be completed." I think it was genuine shame that drove the decision to revisit this.

And shame, of course, tends to have an element behind it, usually in political terms of public pressure. There was press reporting. There were people clucking their tongues in front of their television sets and their radio sets. There were editorials. There were congressmen who were beginning to scratch their heads and say, "What's happening? How are we allowing this to go on?" There was an increasing sense around the world that this would not stand. Why aren't we there?

How did the genocide end?

The genocide was brought to a halt by Rwandans, by the rebel Rwandese Patriotic Front. The world left Rwanda to its genocide. Rwandans committed it, and other Rwandans stopped it. And when the RPF ultimately swept across Rwanda, took control of Kigali, and established a new government in mid-July, the genocidal regime (its military and its militias) took with it large parts of the population who were following it, and led them over the border into exile. As early as late April, 250,000 went over the border into Tanzania. In July, one saw one million and a half going over the border into the Zaire (now the Congo). These were the most rapid mass exoduses in modern history. And essentially what you saw was the establishment of these massive U.N. camps to accommodate these people just across the borders from Rwanda.

But beneath the U.N. flag, what happened was that you really had a rump Rwandan state run by the genocidal military and political apparatus, that had left intact, gone into exile, taken its troops with it, and continued to maintain its claim on political life in Rwanda.

Who was in these camps?

The population in these camps was an incredible mix of innocents and killers. People who were civilians didn't automatically mean that you weren't a killer. Then of course you had the militias, who had blood all over their hands, most of them. And then you had the military. And then you had the political leadership. You had whole villages and civil administrations reproducing themselves. And the camps really replicated the structure of the genocidal state, as well as its composition. So you really had a terrifying reality in these camps.

How did the West respond to the setting up of these camps?

People saw a mass refugee exodus. Suddenly you could get this on TV. They were fleeing across the borders. There was no longer mass killing. It was no longer entirely dangerous. And you had this sense, "Wait. We've been told there was a genocide, and now we're seeing a mass outflow of refugees. Genocide plus refugees must equal refugees from genocide." And one's heart was wrenched.

The reality, of course, was that these were the perpetrators of the genocide and those whom they had cajoled, almost sometimes as hostages, into following them into exile; and that what was being established was this rump genocidal state. What was being established was a replication of the Hutu power regime in camps sponsored by the U.N. And the world poured in money. It poured in support. It poured in humanitarian aid. The world basically completely coddled these camps, presided over by the killers.

What is the Western response to the bodies flowing down river?

It became harder and harder for the Clinton administration to maintain its position (a) that this wasn't a genocide, and (b) that the right thing to do was nothing, as images began to appear. There were relatively few because it wasn't a very safe place to operate. But then you had the bodies floating down the rivers.

I remember, I was at the Holocaust Museum in early May of 1995. Happened to be in Washington, visiting the museum. And I bought a local paper, and on the cover was a photograph of these bodies swirling in the river and it said they were victims of the genocide in Rwanda. The word was used there. And meanwhile I'm seeing museum workers going to work with these lapel buttons on that say, "Remember, and never again."

Eventually, the embarrassment of the administration was such that they said, "Well, we are doing something about what's going on in Rwanda." And they announced that they were involved in an international health initiative in Uganda, all the way downstream, where the bodies were flowing. They had started a health initiative to clean the bodies up off the beach. That's what we did.

Why was it easier to respond to the camps than to the genocide itself?

The camps offered an image of Africa and of African conflict that I think is more suitable to the way the administration wanted to see these things, which is suddenly we could say it's a humanitarian crisis. A genocide is a political crime. A civil war is a political conflict. It's actually, there are things being fought over. In a genocide, you actually have a serious crime being committed before you. Here you have a humanitarian crisis, and you can do humanitarian aid and humanitarian intervention, all of which sounds benign. It's non-military. It sounds only like you are helping to save these poor people from themselves. That's essentially what it sounds like. And that appealed tremendously. You could also say, "Look, we're not doing nothing." You can make a gesture of concern without undertaking much risk.

Describe the season of apologies: Annan, Albright, Clinton going to Africa to apologize. What's that about?

It was pretty striking in early '97, when Madeline Albright, now Secretary of State, visited Africa and one of the centerpieces of it--to be issuing what amounted to an apology for the United States' inaction and failure to respond to the Rwandan genocide appropriately, failure to use the word "genocide" to describe what was happening, and then to act accordingly. And also to apologize and to say that it was wrong to have supported humanitarian aid camps that served as bases for the perpetrators, the killers of genocide. And she visited Kigali at that time, and set the tone for the trip that Clinton then took several months later, where he also went to Kigali and issued a real breast-beating apology.

And I think it's easy to say, "Well, that's nice and fine. Sorry about your million dead, but we didn't mean it. We see that we were wrong now." It's easy to basically take a somewhat cynical tone about the whole apology. I think that it was crucial at that point. What's striking are two things. The Clinton administration, at that point, was under no pressure about Rwanda. Nobody was jumping up and down and saying, "This is a terrible shame. You must rectify this blot." It was an initiative they took. It was an initiative that I think was somewhat heartfelt, because I think they recognized that it was a genuine shame on their record. What they did is, they set the record straight. Rwanda is a land where history is still contested. Rwanda is a place with a question of what really happened. Was it a genocide or wasn't it? If the world didn't call it a genocide, that essentially is an advantage for those who committed the crime. So they set the record straight. And in that, in acknowledging their own failure, there was a value.

On the other hand, they promised greater vigilance in the future. President Clinton basically said, "We won't allow such things to happen again. We must never allow such things to happen again, because the more we allow such things to happen again, the more likely they are to happen." I don't think that one can possibly look at that and feel more secure. That promise rings terribly hollow, because the action of not acting when it mattered in 1994, essentially makes those words moot until proper action is taken when it's needed.

Did any of them take personal responsibility?

None of these apologies is particularly personal. None of it is "I was on the watch and I failed." And they tend to say, "We, the world, failed. We, the international community, failed." And I think really what it's a reminder of is that there is no sense of accountability, and through that then, of responsibility that adheres to the so-called international community, or international responses, anyway. Yes, we could have done more. We should have done better. It's a shame, what we didn't do.

What did you think when you heard the apologies?

When I heard the apologies, what I was struck by is how generously Rwandan survivors of the genocide received them. And it made it hard to be as cynical as, say, a reporter on the White House beat might be, because I knew these people, after being in Rwanda a lot. And what I realized was how desperate they were for the acknowledgment of their ordeal by the very people who had ignored it, refused to acknowledge it, and essentially made it nonexistent while it was taking place; and that it was awfully late and awfully light or easy at this time to do it. And yet it mattered tremendously, because life goes on. And having one's reality acknowledged, it's never too late.

What does it mean for people to applaud Clinton for simply saying the word "genocide?"

Rwandans recognize that the genocide was the product of a regime of lies, a regime that had presided over the country for 30 years, and in every way had been politically and morally dishonest, deceptive, and false. And that the very fabric of Rwandan reality had been twisted, as one sees in totalitarian orders so often, into a Kafka-y world where things were not called by their proper names. And as a result, Rwandan genocide survivors and Rwandans after the genocide have been really remarkably outspoken in describing their own experience, and in reasserting their history against this regime of lies. To have that acknowledged, to have the president of the most powerful country on earth visit their country and say to them, "At the time, we too participated in the lie that what was happening, wasn't happening; and at least now we will acknowledge that it happened," it gives them a more coherent universe to go forward in.

What did it all mean in the end?

Shortly after World War II, Primo Levi (the great writer who had been in Auschwitz) wrote his book about being in Auschwitz and described how, while they were there, the people in Auschwitz often said, "At least the one thing we can say is, this will never happen to us again." In the late '80s, he wrote an essay in which he said, "The one thing was certain, is that it can happen again, anywhere." I think Rwanda proved him terribly right. And seeing those two quotes next to each other, from the same man, and being reminded how in a sense the wish never to have to be confronted again by such an atrocity and such a crime, that followed the Holocaust, should in fact come at century's end to bring us to a place where it seems increasingly familiar, increasingly within the realm of possibility, and that the pledges to act against it seem increasingly to have been abandoned, I think it really leaves us in a state of great uncertainty. And it calls into question how true our wishes are about a genuinely binding sense of common humanity.

How do you understand it was possible that it happened?

When you go deep into the history of Rwanda, past and present, and you really explore how the society functioned and what was at stake for people, you can begin to understand the mechanisms by which the genocidal state manipulated so much of the population and mobilized it to become murderers. And yet ultimately you can add all those factors up, and it doesn't explain something essential. There's a mystery here that people did this. At the same time, I would go further and I would say: But it happens. We keep seeing that it happens. People will be manipulable in this way. Political power will find ways to harness enough wickedness that we will see these kinds of mass slaughters. We've seen them too often now to pretend that they are anomalous.

How could it have happened? On a certain level, I've always approached the question, how could it have happened, by putting it a little aside and saying: It did. It's the fact from which we begin. It's the fact which makes us look into it. We'll never fully get it unless we ourselves ... accept a genocidal mentality. You can look at its [mechanisms]. You can study it. But why so many people chose to kill their neighbors? It was an utterly gratuitous crime.

What does the Rwandan genocide say to the promise of the Genocide Convention?

Encoded in the Genocide Convention was essentially a promise to the world that the interests of humanity were so great that they should override smaller ideas of national interest, and create an idea of international human community so powerful that one could count on an international response to stop genocide, should it ever begin. That's simply no longer the case. That's been rubbed out. The Clinton administration policy during the Rwandan genocide and since has been to essentially delete the prevention clause, the spirit of action to stop genocide, from the promise that we had after the war. That's a big change. I think that's a very big change. I think it leaves us all less safe.

Relate the Holocaust and the Rwandan genocide. Is Rwanda the most clear-cut example since WWII?

Since World War II, since the Nazi extermination of European Jewry, Rwanda is the most clear cut, most unambiguous, by the law, definition case of genocide. Genocide by intent, and genocide by reality. What was intended was a genocide. What was achieved was a genocide. ...

What is motivating U.S. policy?

We talk about Rwanda as a failure of US policy: a failure to intervene, a failure to recognize what was going on, and a failure to take action to stop genocide. But if you look at the Clinton administration's approach to it throughout the entire period, what you really see is that it was actually a success of a policy not to intervene. It wasn't a failure to act. The decision was not to act. And at that, we succeeded greatly. It may sound cynical. It may sound sarcastic to say that. But it actually is important to understand this, because not acting was the policy. It wasn't a inadvertent thing. We didn't want to. We did what we didn't want to do. And we then end up in a world where it's clear that what matters is not some consistent policy, "Oh yes, faced with genocide, we will take action," but, "Oh no, we are in a position to say we don't want to, and to refuse." And that's how policy is going to be made.

Is there a lesson or something to be said about going from the promise of the Genocide Convention to the pragmatism of our policy in Rwanda?

In December of 1998, we had the 50th anniversary of the Genocide Convention. And there were a lot of commemorative events, anniversary events that basically talked about: Where does it stand now? It didn't seem to me that it was really an occasion for a 50th birthday party. It seemed to me more of an occasion for an obituary and a wake, because the lesson the Rwanda leaves us with is that at least the part of the Genocide Convention that seemed to promise that the world was going to put its common humanity above all, and stand at least for stopping genocide when an unambiguous case of it appeared, had proven-- it was ... stricken from the document. It was stricken from the record. It was stricken from the international code. And that what we're left with is the idea of "never again." It may be a true wish, but it's a false promise.

home . interviews . 100 days of slaughter . readings . somalia debacle . ignored warning
discussion . synopsis . press . tapes & transcripts
frontline online . pbs online

web site copyright 1995-2014 WGBH educational foundation

SUPPORT PROVIDED BY

NEXT ON FRONTLINE

The Rise of ISISOctober 28th

FRONTLINE on

ShopPBS