photo of ghaliGhosts of Rwanda
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boutros boutros-ghali

He was secretary-general of the United Nations from January 1992 to December 1996. In this interview, he discusses how the U.S.'s new doctrine on intervention, which was issued at the peak of the genocide, had a serious impact on the world's response on Rwanda. Although he points out that U.N. internal politics was a factor in the failure to act, he believes discrimination existed in dealing with African crises compared to those in Western nations. And he recounts a meeting with President Clinton in May 1994 as the slaughter continued unabated. "Based on this discussion I had with him, Rwanda was a marginal problem. He said [he was] not so sure if [the United States] was ready to help to send soldiers, but he was not interested in this problem." This interview was conducted on Jan. 21, 2004.

[What happened at] the meeting at the Security Council with the heads of state in January 1992?

Yes, it was maybe one of my mistakes. I had the illusion that the United Nations was asked to find a solution to the post-Cold War situation, to manage the post-Cold War situation. This was a period where we got involved in different peacekeeping operations all over the world, reaching, at a certain time, more than 70,000 [U.N.] blue helmets.

For us, genocide was the gas chamber, what happened in Germany. We were not able to realize that with the machete you can create a genocide. Later, we understood this.

Now, in retrospective, I was wrong, because the unilateral policy of the United States was decided -- not [by] Sept. 11. It started before. It started when the Soviet Union collapsed, but at this time, it's Jan. 31, 1992. The declaration of the different head[s] of state, from China to France to the United States to Great Britain, was saying, "Now you are the new secretary-general. We are asking you to prepare a new United Nations which will take care of all the problems of the post-Cold War." I published in June [an] agenda for peace, which was a great success, an academic success; unfortunately, not a practical success. So I was under [the] impression that the United Nations will be able, not only to manage the problem of the post-Cold War, but [to] have a new approach concerning a peacekeeping operation.

The number of new peacekeeping operations was really astounding.

Exactly. At this time, we had a presence in Cambodia, we had a presence in Somalia, we had a presence in Angola, we were involved in Salvador; not mentioning traditional peacekeeping operation or peacekeeping presence in the Golan, in Cyprus, on the border between India and Pakistan on the Pakistani side. So it means we were, in a certain way, overloaded by this multiplicity of peacekeeping operations and with the financial problem.

Which was--?

The problem was that the United States was not paying their contribution, and this encouraged other countries not to pay their contribution. So what happened, we were not paying the country who sent blue helmets. In other words, we were borrowing money from those countries and the expense of the peacekeeping operation.

At the beginning of the Arusha [accords], why did the U.N. get involved in the Rwanda peace process?

We got involved in the Rwanda peace process for the simple reason that there was a decision which was taken by the Security Council, because the troops were in Uganda, and we decided to have a military presence. We were trying to propose reconciliation between the different parties involved. We were involved in a process of reconciliation. The presence which was there on the ground was a peacekeeping operation; we were not involved in more than peacekeeping [as a] means to maintain the agreement which was concluded.

You knew Rwanda well in your time as foreign minister. When the Arusha accord was signed, were you optimistic?

Each peacekeeping operation [has] its own specificity, and you cannot compare. ... We were saying, after all, this is among the different peacekeeping operations. Rwanda was considered a second-class operation; because it was a small country, we had been able to maintain a kind of status quo. They were negotiating, they'd accepted the new peace project, so we were under the impression that everything would be solved easily.

I agree that the experience of Somalia proved that it is not easy to solve certain problems in certain African countries. But the perception was that we had been able to solve the problem in Burundi in a certain way, [and] we would be able to solve the problem of Rwanda.

When General Dallaire began work on the peacekeeping mission, he first came to the U.N. headquarters in August 1993. He wrote in his book that his first impressions of the department of peacekeeping operations -- As a military man, he thought he was stepping back 40 years.

You know, we completely agree that the PKO [Peace Keeping Office] was done [for] only peacekeeping operations and not imposing peace, because after all, the PKO was dealing with Cyprus, which was status quo with presence of troops on the border, were dealing with the Golan, were dealing with the border between Lebanon and Israel.

So there was no real military involvement. It was just a presence, a military presence. There were forces of inter-position with a symbolic value. The proof [was], when you has the invasion of Lebanon by the Israeli troops, the blue helmets were able to do nothing. They could not stop this invasion.

So the whole approach was based on peacekeeping; that peace exists, and we are there just to maintain symbolically peace. The change began in Somalia, where we discovered that we were involved in an operation where there was no peace, so there was no more a peacekeeping operation because there was no peace. The cease-fire had not been respected. We became involved to protect the distribution of food, to protect the refugees, to protect the NGO, which were working. This was a new operation for the peacekeeping operation, for the PKO.

In late September, President Clinton comes to the General Assembly, and gives a speech about the U.N. and peacekeeping.

I will mention that the real problem was not so much the Clinton speech. [It] was that PDD 25, the presidential decision document, was adopted during the Rwanda crisis. According to this document, the United States will not get involved in any peacekeeping operation unless there is a demand of the true protagonists of the dispute; unless there is a peace; unless we know how many months we will need the presence; and unless it will be in the interest of the United States. So practically, it was a return to the [non-intervention] policy of the United States.

So in fact the real change happened by the adoption of PDD. ... The change was more important than the PDD, because the United States would say, "We don't allow you to do a peacekeeping operation even without the United States. Why? Because, one, we have to contribute 30 percent of the budget of this peacekeeping operation, and two -- and let us be objective -- it is true in the case that you will have problems in this peacekeeping operation, you will ask our assistance, and we will be compelled to give you this assistance." This happened in Somalia when they withdrew the troops, and this happened in Yugoslavia.

So they said, "Even if we are not involved by sending American blue helmets in this operation, we are indirectly involved on a financial basis and on a military basis, because in the case that you have problems, that you have a failure, you just say 'Come help us,' and we will be -- due to our alliance due to our leadership -- we will be compelled. So we refuse even a peacekeeping operation without our participation." The only case they have been able to accept was a peacekeeping done outside the framework of the United Nations like the French Operation Turquoise. They paid nothing, and the whole responsibility will be the responsibility of one member state.

Did they have a point?

Yes and no, because after all, the United Nations is composed of [individual] states, and they may act according to their own national interest. The proof that, in the peacekeeping operation, a country could decide that they wanted to withdraw their troops [is in] what happened in Somalia. The next day, the Germans had done the same, the Egyptians had done the same, and [it was] finished. So we had no guarantee when we were sending blue helmets to maintain peace [they would not have] to get involved in a military confrontation. ...

Let me ask you about the message that Somalia sent.

I agree that this was a reaction, that even you find among different parts of the world [they're] saying, "OK, if they are so much afraid to lose their soldiers, the best way is to kill some of them, and they will withdraw." This what the Hutu had done when they killed the Belgians, and the result was a kind of automatic result.

[The] Belgian minister came to see me at night. I was in Bonn, and [he] said, "We will withdraw, and you must withdraw all the troops, just to avoid the accusation that Belgium is the only one who withdrew their troops." So this was exactly the same reaction like the reaction which happened in Somalia. ...You see what happened to one country, [it] will have an influence on other countries, or at least on the public opinion on the perception of this kind of operation.

What did you say to the Belgian minister when he said that to you?

I begged him to maintain their arms, their heavy arms which they had, so [that] we can use them to reinforce the presence of the other troops on the ground. ... [I said] "Leave the weapons," and he promised that he would do his best. But they took their weapons with them. ...

Did you try to persuade him not to withdraw Belgian troops?

Oh, yes, certainly, but it was a decision which was taken. He said, "Not only we have to withdraw; we have to withdraw all the troops." The only thing I can say is that it was a failure of the United Nations that we failed to convince the member states about the importance of what was going on in Rwanda.

We were not even allowed to use the word "genocide." So this was a failure. It was my failure. I gave an interview to Newsweek, I remember, or Time magazine, where I said publicly it was a failure. Again, another failure is -- and I learned just only a few days ago -- the French intervention came too late. Then why [did] the French intervention not happen two months before? Here I was told only a few days ago that there was a dispute inside the [French] Cabinet. Certain members were in favor of the intervention, and the others were against. ...

In late December 1993, beginning of January 1994, the peace process was slowly inching forward, but there were a lot of disruptions when President Habyarimana was sworn in. What were the signals you were getting from General Dallaire and also [U.N. Special Representative] Booh-Booh about what was happening?

Again, here you must have the comparative approach. The fact that you had disruptions in the peace process was not only in Rwanda. We had the same problem in Cambodia, we had the same problem in Mozambique, we had the same problem in Salvador. So for us, it was not something exceptional. It was normal that before we reached the final peace agreement, [we would have] a lot of accidents.

It had not created a special reaction, first, because we used to receive thousands of telegrams every day, but all over from the different parts of the world, and secondly, this is a normal situation. It is not specific to Rwanda. ... It means that after two months of hard work, you are back to square one, and you have to begin again. So it means the fact that it was disruption and that there was different contradiction, and that Dallaire was maybe sending a telegram saying the situation's quite difficult had not created a reaction, because this is the specificity of any peacekeeping operation.

There was great belief, not just from the U.N., but the diplomatic community in Kigali, that the peace process was going to work.

Exactly. This is again another aspect of the problem. With the exception of what happened to [the U.N.] in the Congo in the different peacekeeping operation, we never had a real fear, because again, what was the objective of the peacekeeping? ... The only big failure which was having an impact [was] Somalia, which was the first failure, which created a syndrome -- a Somalia syndrome.

[What about] the fax that General Dallaire sent on January 11?

In retrospective, this telegram had an importance -- but we received hundreds of telegrams giving information -- that there will be an assassination of Mr. So-and-So, that there are arms which have been discovered. We had this in Salvador ...in Guatemala, or in Nicaragua, et cetera. Retroactively, everybody paid attention to this telegram, but we practically receive tens of telegrams of this kind every day.

Within the PKO, it was taken as an unusual telegram. Did it ever reach--

No, no, it never reached the level of the secretary-general, no. There was a very important decentralization. We received only a report from the PKO based on the different telegrams, and this report was given to the ambassador-general, who read this report to the Security Council.

The PKO has full power to give us the information he wants to give, and the PKO was under American influence since Somalia. The failure of the United Nations -- My failure is maybe, in retrospective, that I was not enough aggressive with the members of the Security Council. I had talked to them, directly, indirectly. I mentioned General Dallaire for the first time, but maybe if I was more aggressive--...

Dallaire sent the warning, but [in his book he writes that] he was also continually optimistic in the run-up to the genocide.

You see, myself being a writer, I've written a different book. The problem is when you are writing something in retrospective, it needs a lot of courage not to change, or you will forget a certain reality, and you will just take in consideration your view today. My view changed. On Jan. 31, 1992, I was sure that I was asked by the international community to play the role of the superman trying to manage the post-Cold War.

It was a mistake. I was wrong, but I discovered this many years later. I was acting on the basis of this mandate given me by the most important leaders of the world: President Bush's father, prime minister of France, President Mitterand, the Chinese, everybody. I just was appointed [secretary-general]. Thirty-one days later, [I was] asked to do the change, "You will do this," so I have the illusion that I have a real mandate, and it was a mistake. ...

You presented to the Security Council three options?

I was in favor of additional forces, which [we had] in some different cases. In Yugoslavia, I'd asked for additional forces too. I even went to meet the French prime minister, and I proposed additional forces... Nobody wanted to send troops. The problem is not to say we will have 10,000 blue helmets. It's to find the country who are ready to send the blue helmets. ...

What were the member states telling you?

They would say different arguments. "For the time being, we have already troops in Cyprus." The real problem was not the troops; the real problem was that only the United States had the infrastructure to do the transport of troops with big planes, and then who will pay? "Will this transport be the in-kind offer by the United States, or we have to pay for it?" Then you have certain countries who said they were ready to send soldiers, but without arms. You had to bring arms for them, to buy arms for them. Not mentioning that, between the decision to send troops and having the troops on the ground, it can be four, five, six weeks.

I've spoken to Tony Lake and some other very senior people in the Clinton administration at the time. They say their feeling was that the RPF had made it clear that it was going to press towards Kigali. Were you aware of what was going on?

No, no, no. Again, this just proves the weakness of the United Nation's system. The member states, to maintain a kind of pressure on the United Nations, will not give you all the information. But definitely, when a decision is taken, or when you are trying to oppose a decision, you are in a weaker position than the member states, because they know more about the situation than you. We gave information, but they never gave us any information.

The unanimous vote to draw down the troops to 270 -- Albright issued a statement, saying something like, "This proves the will and the commitment towards Rwanda of the international community." What was your [take on that]?

Our reaction is they've accepted at least to maintain 270 troops. We were afraid that they will act like Belgium. So we said, "This is better than nothing, and this is the first step. We may now try to reach a second step that we will say we need more than the 270," et cetera. It means the feeling was that the international community had decided, like in Somalia, to withdraw from Rwanda. So the fact that you've been able to maintain Booh-Booh, to maintain the presence of the military people and to maintain 270 soldiers was, for us, not a success, but the beginning of a success, and we will be able, at the second stage, to obtain additional forces.

When did you realize that what was happening there wasn't just a civil war?

We have used the word "genocide" -- again, using the word genocide was to obtain the mobilization of the international society in favor of Rwanda. My feeling was a feeling that there was a discrimination. Because it is an African problem, they are less interested. This was confirmed [by] what was going on in Liberia, what was going on in Sierra Leone -- I was involved there -- and what was going on later, when I left the United Nations, in the Congo. So I was fighting against this, that there is a marginalization of Africa, that when I asked [for] $5 million for Liberia, they said no. They were spending $5 million every day in Yugoslavia, and then I mentioned the difference between war in Europe and war in Africa.

Again, this was my perception; but when I was using the word genocide, I was not realizing that there was a real genocide. Why again? Because there is a definition. For us, genocide was the gas chamber -- what happened in Germany. We were not able to realize that with the machete you can create a genocide. Later, we understood this. But at the beginning, our definition of the genocide was what happened to Armenia in 1917 or 1919, it's happened to the Jew in Europe, and we were not realizing -- In our point of view, they have not the tools to do a genocide.

This was our perception -- which was the wrong perception -- [that] you need to have a sophisticated European machinery to do a real genocide. We were not realizing that, with just a machete, you can do a genocide. It takes time for us to understand.

When you used the word genocide publicly, it was a bluff?

No, I would not say it was a political [tactic]. ... If there is, according to the truth, a genocide, they have to intervene. There is an obligation to intervene. [From] my point of view, how to obtain a decision from the Security Council, I [would] say, "Could you jam the radio [that] creates the mobilization of the Hutu against the Tutsi? Stop this radio, jam this radio." [The response was] "It will cost too much." The whole problem was a marginalization of any event happening in Africa.

And some of the resistance was coming directly from the U.S. and from Albright?

No. It was coming from PDD, the respect of a resolution taken by the president, and by the public opinion who were shocked about what happened to the 11 of 17 Americans in Somalia; among them, the poor one which was [dragged] in the street by black people. They mentioned to me that this represents something important in the American mentality, with the problem with the slaves, et cetera. ...

You had a meeting on May 27 with President Clinton at the White House?

For President Clinton, according to this discussion I had with him, Rwanda was a marginal problem. He said [he was] not so sure if [the United States] was ready to help to transport to send soldiers, but he was not interested in this problem.

You wrote that you raised it, and he said that if other countries wanted to send troops, the U.S. would provide an airlift?

Exactly, this is what I said.

But what was your impression--

My impression was that it was not an important problem for him. He was more interested in the appointment of the man who would be leading the UNICEF. Some of my friends who read the book say, "The most interesting passage of your book was this meeting with President Clinton, where it appears clearly that he was not interested in what happened in Rwanda."

And this is late May?

You can say that the whole tragedy was already finished, and this is why nobody is no more interested; and only will be interested [in] a long-term policy to avoid that this will not be repeated in another part of Africa, to study how it happened and what must be done in the future to avoid the repetition of this in another part of Africa. But for a leader who is confronted every day with daily problems, this is finished. "OK, forget about it, let us see what [are the] other problems of tomorrow."...

In the early days of the genocide, there was the withdrawal of [foreign] civilians. Was there any consideration for taking out Rwandans who worked for the U.N. agencies, as well?

To be honest, I don't remember exactly the details. What I remember is that the French, the Belgians, decided to offer assistance to withdraw the residents. Again, you have let us have a comparative approach. This happened always everywhere. This happened in Vietnam. This happened everywhere. "We just take care of our people." "Yes, but the people who are working with you will be killed tomorrow." "It's not a problem."

Purely for financial reasons, we have not enough places in the plane. We have sent only four planes, because we know that the Belgian residents [number] 200," et cetera. So by definition, again it happened, not only in Rwanda; it happened in Somalia; it happened in Vietnam, it happened everywhere in the world. When you have an accident, they will save their own people, and those who have worked with you or with the NGOs are left. Unfortunately, this happens always. It is not an excuse at all.

We've talked to some of the civilian humanitarian people of the U.N. who stayed behind. Logistically, they felt abandoned by New York.

It is true, not only for those people, but it's true also for the NGO who had worked on the ground. The change happened only after Somalia and Rwanda, where the United Nations must have the responsibility also [for] the NGO.

What was the argument of the United Nations? The argument of the United Nations [was] we never asked them to come there. We had no control on them. They are creating difficulty to our work; they are fighting each other -- which was true, by the way -- and then we must protect them. So the change happened only after Rwanda, after Somalia, where they were saying, "We must pay attention to the different NGO."...

Foreign staff who stayed say that they just didn't get support from U.N. headquarters. Was it a breakdown of just the bureaucracy within the U.N.?

I'm not able to give you an answer [to] this question, because those problems never reached me at my level. It was at the level of DPKO or the local, the people who [were] on the ground. We know that we have many problems of corruption there. When a scandal or corruption happened, then I was aware about it; otherwise I was not aware at all. At a certain time, we have 70,000 blue helmets with more than 30,000 people working with them, so this never reached the secretary-general.

Let me ask you about Kofi Annan. One of the criticisms I've heard is that he and his assistants almost self-censored information from your staff. What's your assessment now?

I used to say I never talk about my successor, neither about my predecessor. But I believe that the DPKO at this time was very much involved with American administration and was acting, taking on consideration the demand or the recommendation of the American administration. American administration was very powerful. They have a control on DPKO. They have a control on the Security Council, so they can obtain what they want to obtain through different ways, and they have information which we have not.

The control of the superpower on the United Nations is greater than everybody will be aware of. They have a control on the finance in the administration; they have the control on the PKO; they have the control on the Security Council; and they have information which they will not share with others.

What do you mean by that?

I mean that DPKO has a very small staff, so they send military people at the expense of other countries. Finally, the military staff in DPKO belonging to a member state was more important than the international civil servants working in the PKO. So practically, the fact that you have military people from the United States and from Canada, from other parts of the world -- they have a direct control. They were not paid by the United Nations; they were paid by the governments, not [to] mention that a high percentage of the civil servants are more in contact with their own government than with [the U.N.] administration.

10 years on, why are we talking about Rwanda?

It matters more because it is in Africa, and there's still a kind of discrimination concerning the African continent, concerning their own disputes, concerning the assistance given to Africa, concerning the perception of the international community concerning Africa -- that they are in a hopeless situation. It is the poorest continent, and [the perception is] they don't deserve the same attention like Latin America or like Asia or like European problems.

So this is why I'm always say happy that somebody mentions Rwanda, because behind Rwanda, we have Africa. A genocide in Africa has not received the same attention that genocide in Europe or genocide in Turkey or genocide in other part of the world. There is still this kind of basic discrimination against the African people and the African problems. So this is why for me Rwanda is a kind of symbol. ...

In terms of the phrase "Never again," are we in a better position now than we were 10 years ago?

No, I don't believe that you are in a better position now. There is a greater fatigue concerning the African problem today than five or 10 years ago. The situation now in Africa is worse today than it was 10 years ago. We don't know how many people have been killed in Congo Democratic Kingdom, or what we call Kinshasa. Total indifference. They just sent a few thousand soldiers and nothing more. If you see what happened in Sierra Leone, or what happened in Liberia, or even the civil war in the Ivory Coast, or the failure in Angola three times in spite of all our action--

If anything [were to] happen somewhere in another part of the world, you will obtain a kind of mobilization, at least in the press. People will be interested to know what is going to be done [in a snap]. But what happens in Africa -- maybe it is a kind of very subjective reaction, because I was involved all my life in African problems. [My experience] is that there is [still] a marginalization of Africa.

When you came into your job as secretary-general, 10 years on, has the international system moved on, in terms of protecting the rights of individuals within nation states?

There is a progress. I will say there is a form [of] progress. I was very much involved in the last organization. But practically, as long as you have this kind of underdevelopment and this kind of poverty, a prerequisite to protect human rights is less poverty and less underdevelopment. The problem is, there is more underdevelopment and more poverty in Africa.

So on the [forum], yes, you have different mediator; you have made a different commission dealing with human rights; you have different special assistance given to good governments; you have now a kind of control [that], if you have not a good government, you will not receive your assistance, which is done by the European Union. ...

For you personally, 10 years on, where does Rwanda sit emotionally for you?

It is one of my greatest failures. I failed in Rwanda. My failure in Rwanda is greater than my failure in Somalia, because in Somalia, I was aware of what will happen once the international community withdrew from Somalia. But I was not aware of the degree of disaster in Rwanda, so it is a double failure.

It is a failure that I was not able to convince the members of the Security Council to intervene, and it is another failure that I was not able to understand from the beginning the importance of what was going on. So we have a double failure. ... It took me weeks before suddenly we discovered that it was genocide. So this is another kind of failure. ...

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posted april 1, 2004

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