photo of albrightGhosts of Rwanda
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madeleine albright

She was the U.S. ambassador to the U.N. at the time of the genocide and later served as secretary of state in the Clinton administration. In this interview, she tells FRONTLINE that during the early weeks of the killing what was happening in Rwanda "was not clear. … For whatever reason, the system did not manage to push the information up high enough to people making decisions." She insists that, in retrospect, she did all that was possible. She wishes that she had pushed for a large humanitarian intervention, but even if she had, she believes the support wasn't there. "Nothing would have happened. … There was no way to get a large number of troops there quickly enough and to get the right mandate." This interview was conducted on Feb. 25, 2004.

Where does Rwanda sit for you, on a personal and emotional level?

It sits as the greatest regret that I have from the time I was U.N. ambassador and maybe even as secretary of state, because it is a huge tragedy, and something that sits very heavy on all our souls, I think.

Why a regret?

Because I wish it had been possible for us to do more, and President Clinton has said how much he has regretted it. I have reviewed the record a lot, and I don't think actually that we could have done more. I just wish that it had not been something that the international community was not capable of dealing with. So it's a huge regret.

It's all fine for people to comment years later  about what could have happened. The timing, resources and  approach of the international community just could not make it happen.  I wish I had fought for it. But even if I had, nothing would have happened.

I have been to Rwanda many times. I went and I met with orphans and widows. I went to see the mass graves. I saw the blood in the stadiums. So it's just a horrible, horrible story.

Why is it different from other tragedies?

This was such a massive killing in a very short period of time. Hundreds of thousands of people died very quickly. … I think going to Rwanda was one of the biggest shocks for me, and flying into a place that the church was actually the killing ground, because the Church was so strong there. People ran to the churches in order to flee from killing.

… Then there was a mass grave right next to it where the U.N. workers were excavating. There was a small skeleton that they had managed to excavate, which was about the size of my grandchild at that time. You could see the machete mark on the skull. Then going to this stadium where there was blood all over--

What had happened was that they herded the people into the stadium, and then cut their tendons at night when they'd run out of ammunition, so that they wouldn't run away.

Genocide is something different in terms of international politics. Is Rwanda different because it was a state-planned--

I think that, clearly, because this was an almost volcanic explosion of killing and terror and horror that had been clearly planned in some way without much knowledge of the international community, and without it really being brought to the attention of the international community at high enough levels to do something about-- It was secretly planned genocide … and then a volcanic explosion of this horror. This is my firm belief; that even if we had been able to get anybody there, it could not have been stopped, because it was just so-- Volcanic is the only word. I used that to describe it later, because it just exploded, and was so massive.

Can you talk us through some of the time line of this event, from April 6 onward? When the Rwandan president's plane went down, do you remember where you were and what your first reaction was?

I don't remember exactly where I was. But I think that what had happened was that basically there was very little information about Rwanda brought to the Security Council. We were dealing with a lot of other issues. I think that what's important to realize is the context of everything. There had been killings in Somalia, Bosnia; just constant attention to a lot of other issues, unfortunately. We did know obviously that there were struggles both in Rwanda and Burundi. There was hope that the Arusha accords would actually have resolved some of the long-term fighting between the Hutus and Tutsis, so I think it was not high on the agenda. That's what is so awful. It didn't show up very often in intelligence summaries. There were not very frequent reports about it.

When the word came about the 10 Belgians in the U.N. peacekeeping force being killed on April 7, what was the reaction? What was your reaction to that?

I think at that stage it was confusing, because the Belgians wanted out. They were our NATO ally, and … we didn't know about the massive aspect of [the killings at that point]. What was being focused on by the international community and the U.S. was the fact that the peacekeepers were under attack, and the Belgians wanted to leave.

The question was whether there was a U.N. force that was even capable of taking care of things, because the UNAMIR mandate had been for one thing, and all of a sudden it was caught in something else and there was not even-- Some of the other members of the force didn't even have flak jackets, or had no equipment in order to deal with something that happened that quickly.

Can you tell the story that you talk about in your book of the instructions that came to you at the U.N. about the U.S. position on calling for a full withdrawal of U.N. forces?

The secretary-general basically came to the Security Council with three options: either to reinforce this UNAMIR group, which really was inadequate; to withdraw it completely; or to have a kind of medium option of some reinforcement of it. My instructions were to support full withdrawal. I listened to the discussion very carefully in the Security Council. I could see that our position was wrong, and especially in listening to the African delegate, Ambassador Gambari from Nigeria, [who] was very moving on this.

[So] I had these instructions which made no sense at all. These were in informal meetings of the Security Council, where the real discussion goes on. I asked my deputy to take my seat while I left, and went out into the hall into these phone booths and called Washington. I decided not to call the State Department from whence my instructions really came, but the National Security Council, because they were dealing with it on a very imminent basis. Tony Lake, the national security adviser, was somebody that certainly knew a lot about Africa. He was the great expert.

I felt that I would get a better hearing if I called the National Security Council, which I did, and they said, "Well, no, we're worrying about this, and these are your instructions." I actually screamed into the phone. I said, "They're unacceptable. I want them changed." So they told me to chill out and calm down. But ultimately, they did send me instructions that allowed us to do a reinforcement of UNAMIR; not a massive changing of the mandate and enlarging it or withdrawing it, but the middle option allowed me to support that.

I have been told you talked to Richard Clarke, that the conversation was with him.

That is correct.

Why Clarke?

Because he was in charge of peacekeeping. The way the National Security Council was set up was that this was coming through those people that had been studying what the appropriate role of peacekeeping was at the United Nations. Now, this was a truly interesting time at the U.N., in terms of trying to figure out what the role of peacekeeping was. There had been a number of peacekeeping operations throughout the history of the UN, but they were primarily operations that came in to monitor cease-fires, to make sure that there was separation between contending sides. They didn't often have authority to get involved in any fighting. They were definitely the neutral observers.

All of a sudden, in the early 1990s, there was the recognition that the United Nations could have a much larger role. So we were looking generally at the role of peacekeeping, and Dick Clarke and others were in charge of developing a new peacekeeping policy that had begun to be discussed under the Bush administration, that ended up being this Presidential Decision Directive 25. And that listed how, and under what circumstances peacekeeping operations would be supported by the United States.

I must ask you-- Tony Lake says he has no recollection of anybody raising objections to the instructions [on voting on the UNAMIR withdrawal]. He's not disagreeing with what you say. He just said it never reached his level.

Well, that may be. I didn't talk to him. I talked to Dick Clarke. I did not talk to Tony Lake.

Can I ask why?

I think he probably was busy. I don't know. But the appropriate thing was to call the people. I probably tried to reach him, because that would have been my instinct, because that was my-- His being part of the principals committee and-- I do not know.

So then there was some leeway; the U.S. would support a smaller force in Rwanda. When that vote was taken, what was your gut feeling about the effectiveness of that force that was being left behind?

I think that my gut feeling was that it couldn't do what it had to do. But the whole problem was U.N. Security Council resolutions. They're easy enough to pass. … [But the problem] was how to make sure that a Security Council resolution actually was implemented.

But the hardest part here for anybody trying to understand it is to put it all back into the context of the time. We had lost Americans in Somalia as a result of having had faith in the functioning of a U.N. peacekeeping operation. I had to talk to the parents of the people that went down in the Black Hawk helicopter. There was a real sense that the U.S. was not in control of any of these mandates that were being passed. Congress was not supporting us on either paying the money that we owed the United Nations, or in how these peacekeeping operations should be funded. It was a very, very difficult time, and the situation was unclear.

You know, in retrospect, it all looks very clear. But when you were [there] at the time, it was unclear about what was happening in Rwanda. It was very clear that Congress was not supportive of additional peacekeepers; very clear that the Pentagon was not interested in getting deeply involved. And I was not the secretary of state; I was the U.N. ambassador, and I was trying very hard to make sure that we could continue to support peacekeeping operations. Therefore, the mandates were very important.

You wrote in your book that the scale of the killing became clear later in April. A Red Cross representative mentioned up to 500,000 people had been killed. Do you remember when you got a sense that something of a different magnitude was happening there?

I think in listening to the people-- There was a refugee that knew a lot about Rwanda. She came out and talked about-- But she really gave a very stark report about what was happening and--

She came to see you?

She did, and it was shocking. … So I think it became evident very quickly. But at the time that the decisions were being made, it was not that clear to people at a higher level. It was obviously clear to General Dallaire. He turns out to have been right, and Doctors Without Borders were right. But for whatever reason, the system did not manage to push the information up high enough to people making decisions.

Even if you had the information, what, in your opinion, were the real options actually at the time? Because, I mean, General Dallaire was being told by Paul Kagame that the RPF would oppose an intervention force.

Well … I think that it's very hard to imagine what the forces would have done unless there had been a massive number of them as a humanitarian intervention. That would have needed a different kind of a mandate, and who would have participated in it? I mean, in retrospect, the thing that might have made sense is for a massive humanitarian intervention led by a major country; if not the U.S., then somebody else. But that was not even vaguely in the cards at the time.

There were a lot of questions as to whether it-- I mean, this is why I go back and forth on this a lot, because I wish that I had pushed for a large humanitarian intervention. As I write in my book, people would have thought I was crazy. It would never have happened. But I would have felt better about my own role in this. But [I] don't think, in retrospect, it would have made a difference. It just would have made me feel better. But I don't think it would have happened.

Why was it crazy? Why would people have thought it was crazy?

Because first of all, the Somalia issue, in our own case. The Pentagon was working with or disagreeing with some of the ideas that Boutros-Ghali had. They couldn't agree on a plan of operation. Then, when actually we were able to figure out a mandate for an enlarged operation, nobody wanted to go.

So it's all fine for people to comment years later or journalists who were not there to make assumptions about what could have happened. The timing and the resources and the approach of the international community just could not make it happen on time.

But, you know, if you think about things you wish you would have said or done, I wish I had fought for it. But even if I had, nothing would have happened. I think that's the saddest assumption about it. I mean, I definitely would have been considered as being crazy, because there was no way to get a large number of troops there quickly enough and to get the right mandate.

Can I just ask you again about the RPF's role? Were you aware at the time of the messages being sent by Kagame to Dallaire that they actually didn't want a U.N. intervention?

No, I was not at the time, no.

We talked a bit about Presidential Decision Directive 25. Can you talk about the atmosphere when this document, a year and a half in the making, comes out, and how it comes out in early May, when the Security Council is looking at putting in some new force in Rwanda?

Well … the issue for the United Nations generally at the time … and the question for the United States and for other members of the international community was, what role could there be for the United Nations? What was happening was that there was all of a sudden "Let the U.N. do it" seemed to be the cry of the day, and there was a push by the administration, for instance, to shift the U.S. role in Somalia to a U.N. role.

At the same time, the U.N. didn't have the money. The peacekeeping operations were creating huge kind of balloons in terms of the financial debts. The U.S. was not willing to pay even the annual dues, much less part of what was owed in the peacekeeping operation. So there began to be questions within the administration that started, as I said, in the first Bush administration, about how these peacekeeping operations were set up, and what the mandate was going to be, who would participate, what they would cost.

The peacekeeping part of the United Nations and the operations center was primitive, frankly. I used to say the U.N. was the global emergency number, but they only worked from 9:00 to 5:00. Or it was busy. So we had a lot of things we were doing, in terms of looking at how to make the peacekeeping more credible. One of the things that made it credible was to make sure that you actually had the right mandate and that you could fulfill it, not just pass useless resolutions.

So the process went on within Washington -- primarily a combination of the Pentagon and the National Security Council -- trying to figure out under what circumstances the U.S. would, one, vote for a U.N. resolution? … There were questions about command and control. Under what circumstances would there have to be an American command? There was a big discussion in Congress.

So that was the process that was going on. The publication of the Presidential Decision Directive came at a time [May 1994] … in combination with what had happened in Somalia and with what was happening in Rwanda. It put us in a position of raising a lot of questions of process on instruction, if I may say, at a time that a volcanic explosion was happening in Rwanda. And it's a huge tragedy.

The questions that were being asked by the process were not the wrong questions. I mean, you can't just keep saying that you're going to do a United Nations mandate, and then not fulfill it. So I have no criticism of the process. It's just that the combination of the timing of all these things in retrospect was coincidental and tragic.

When I interviewed Kofi Annan, he said that often he would sort of almost self-censor reports from General Dallaire to the council, because he knew that certain demands or requests for more troops or whatever just would never have any chance.

No. I think that the tragedy is that then Boutros-Ghali, when he finally got the mandate that he needed, you basically went around like with a tin cup (1) trying to get money and (2) trying to get troops, or both at the same time.

I think we've learned a lot. But the other problem was that, in many ways, the lessons of Somalia did not apply to Rwanda. This was a very different kind of a situation -- this did not require a peacekeeping operation. It required a humanitarian intervention of major scale by a force led by a major country.

But we were occupied in Somalia and Bosnia. The British were in Bosnia. The French, I think, were willing to do it, but they were more associated with the Hutus, which is one reason I think that Kagame probably said they didn't want [U.N. intervention]. The Belgians were the colonial power and they left. So it all seems easy in retrospect, but was not at the time.

You talked about your conversation with Richard Clarke. Did you have a chance at other points in this to raise objections to other Cabinet members, to Warren Christopher or to the president?

At the time, yes, I'm sure. But we were all in various principals meetings. But I was not the secretary of state. So I was not actually involved in some of the discussions of that time between the two resolutions, so to speak, when there was a discussion about Boutros's plan for military action versus the Pentagon's plan for military action. There was a disagreement between the Pentagon and the U.N. about how to do what [and] when.

I can't cite moments, but we talked about-- I thought it wasn't working well, and I was troubled generally by-- I happen to believe in the United Nations and peacekeeping operations, and I wanted to see it work. I was troubled by the fact that it was very hard to get support in Congress for what we were doing.

There was CNN footage we viewed of you coming out after, I think, the first vote on Rwanda, and nobody asked you about Rwanda. They all asked you about Bosnia.

First of all, Mike McCurry, who was the White House press spokesman, got no questions on Rwanda. People were not interested in Rwanda at all. I was actually in Africa at the time of April, at the beginning of April, when it was customary for every chief of mission to go and have discussions with the president of the Security Council about what the president of the Security Council thought the agenda for that month was going to be. Colin Keating from New Zealand was taking over as president. My deputy went to this meeting, because I traveling. And Rwanda wasn't even on the agenda.

So it's the question of how the information filters up about a particular problem in a region. I had gone to Angola. We were working on very serious other issues within Africa and in Europe. It's so awful, in retrospect, to think that this did not filter up; but it did not.

You mentioned a couple of times that you weren't secretary of state. When you were secretary of state, were you able to take any lessons you learned from Rwanda?

Absolutely. My lessons were that we could not sit by to wait until all the various aspects of peacekeeping operations were worked out in detail. It was the lesson that I took into Kosovo. I felt that we simply had to intervene in a humanitarian way there to stop ethnic cleansing. I thought if I ever was in a position that I was, finally, when I was secretary of state, that I would fight and argue -- and I did. I spent quite a lot of time in my book describing how difficult it was within the bureaucracy to make sure that we were able to move in Kosovo. When things didn't work well at the beginning, it was called "Madeleine's war." So I did learn lessons. Absolutely.

Can you draw a direct connection from Rwanda to Kosovo?

No, but I think generally lessons that I learned in terms of standing up and finding my own voice. … As I say, I wish I had spoken up earlier on Rwanda. … But basically, the lessons were that I had to marshal my arguments properly, that I had to keep focused on trying to use whatever instruments we had to make it work. I mean, there were a lot of lessons out of Somalia, lessons out of Haiti, lessons out of Rwanda -- the usage of the United Nations, when to use NATO. Those were all kinds of things that I had observed as U.N. ambassador that, unfortunately, I was able to put to use against some other terrible things that were happening. Kosovo, I think, was the starkest, at the time.

The phrase "Never again" -- did it mean anything? Did it apply in 1994?

The thing is that there were so many kinds of legalistic -- and I found irritating -- discussions about whether this was genocide or not. But those were not ones that-- There's no way to describe exactly that the role of the U.N. ambassador is not the same as-- While you are a Cabinet member and a member of the principals committee, it's not quite the same as being secretary of state or national security adviser. So I think they are very hard roles.

I think "Never again" definitely applies, but at the time-- I have to make so clear to you that, at the time, people just did not have the sense that this was happening in the proportions that it was. By the time that it happened, you couldn't do anything about it. That's why my lesson has been that you can't kind of ignore ethnic cleansing, because it develops some momentum that you have to stop as early as you can.

Regarding the international system -- if something like that happened again today -- not in Rwanda, but somewhere else -- do you think we are better equipped to deal with it?

I think the mechanisms for it exists. But there are still questions always about how the mandate is created. You know, "Is the U.S. going to be the major player in this?" and whether you can get there fast enough. The truth is that, unfortunately, every genocide ends up being slightly different, and they look more evident in retrospect than they do at the time. One would hope that the lessons of Rwanda would be that you have to respond instantly. But you can't be sure.

It requires a great deal of cooperation in the international community and a great deal of work within the United Nations. Unless the United States is going to do everything itself -- which it isn't -- then we have to figure out how to make it clear that the U.S. will contribute and participate in peacekeeping operations and support others that will do it. But I hope the lesson is that the U.N. system is the best way to do it, but it needs the support of the United States in active involvement and money.

When you were talking about Kosovo, you were a very strong voice within the administration. In Rwanda, there was not a similar strong voice at that level within the administration.

I think the problem, again, is that no two situations are the same, and the tragedy in Kosovo was kind of-- I have stated, more of a rolling tragedy, I guess. The tragedy in Rwanda was so quick, that I am not sure there was time for a major voice in it. Also, again, I think what's important is to see it within the context of the other things that were happening.

Somalia, and watching Americans be dragged through the streets of Mogadishu, was a searing event. Trying to figure out how to deal with the results of that, the lessons learned, and then the lessons don't apply exactly to another situation -- I think it was a very troubling time, in terms of decision making generally.

But the thing that I think one has to keep in mind is that the decisions being made were not being made because people weren't interested or were cold blooded or brutal or didn't care. It's that the information wasn't there, and the wherewithal wasn't there to do it. For those people to judge what happened on the basis of what we know now, versus what we knew then, I think is not fair.

If the information had been there, do you think, given the pressures of Congress and--

I think it would have been possible to make a stronger argument, because I do think that American decision makers and the American people are very concerned about humanitarian disasters and are willing to do something about it. Our problem is more that we don't stay long enough to finish the job, but not that we are not deeply moved by great tragedy.

So I think if there had been more, clearer information, I think it certainly would have made the argument stronger. Whether we would have been able to get there fast enough -- there's so many hypotheticals in this, because just to mount an operation takes time, just to pull together the troops and the airlift and the equipment. Easier said than done. I think that's what many people don't understand -- you can't just all of a sudden parachute in and make a huge difference in something that is this massive.

It was a terrible time and I've been over it so many times. You know, one wishes that there had been things [done], but I'm not sure there could have been.

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posted april 1, 2004

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