The Journal Editorial Report | February 25, 2005 | PBS
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Briefing and Opinion
February 25, 2005

Hotel Rwanda
Hotel Rwanda

"Hotel Rwanda" raises tough questions about how the world deals with genocide. The film focuses on one man's effort to save people from what has been described as one the worst killing sprees of the 20th century -- when Rwanda's Hutu majority nearly exterminated the Tutsi minority in 1994. About 800,000 people died. The United States and the rest of the world did nothing.

PAUL GIGOT: It's rare to get a popular movie, that's both gripping as a story and historically accurate, yet everything I've read about the Rwandan tragedy suggests that this film is. I know I saw it. I was moved. What lessons does it hold for us nowadays, for our foreign policy?

DAN HENNINGER: I think the main lesson it holds is that under these circumstances we should, as we say, do something. It's fascinating that this movie has come out now and that it has had more power in its effort to get a reaction out of people than the United Nations, the United States, and the world media were able to do in 1994.

GIGOT: Even the journalism during the time was not able to move people.

Hotel Rwanda

HENNINGER: It just kind of swept by. Now what is on the table is whether we should, or can, do something under these circumstances. A common argument that's made is that the United States should only engage in areas where it is in our national interest. This is an idea that has been around for a long time. But you look at this and you go, wait a minute, 800,000 people hacked to death with machetes in 100 days? I think there has got to be something that can be done between doing nothing, because it isn't in our national interest, and reacting to this kind of slaughter in 1994.

BRET STEPHENS: I think that's exactly right. I think there's a mentality that says, "Oh, you know, we don't want to get into Rwanda. We don't want to have a peace-keeping force there Who knows who's right and who's wrong -- these hatreds are ancient, and it's just going to be a quagmire." There are steps that you can take that don't involve a sort of Vietnam-style or Balkan-style intervention, that can do a lot of good and can save a lot of lives.

One of the things that you see in that movie -- and it's absolutely accurate -- is the Hutu militia was getting orders about where to find Tutsi and where to kill them, via the radio. Now it was an option, before the Clinton administration, to take those radio towers out. It would not have cost them a lot. It wouldn't have meant a huge ground intervention force. It would not have been the possibility of another Somalia, which had happened just a few months before. You could have just bombed the radio stations. Now would you saved all of the Tutsi? No, you probably wouldn't have. But you would have saved a lot of them, and at least you would have said the United States is on the right side of this conflict and we are trying to help put an end to it.

Hotel Rwanda

GIGOT: One of the interesting things about this is you see that the violence wasn't spontaneous. It wasn't just, as you say, an ancient ethnic rivalry. It was organized. It was supported by the government. It was supported by the military. They were armed by machetes from China and that is what you see across so many of these kinds of conflicts. In Kosovo it was the Serbs who were supporting and in Bosnia. In Darfur now, it is the government in Khartoum. With a Shiite uprising in Iraq in 1991 it was Saddam's regime that had just lost in the first Iraq war, but still retained the helicopters to be able to massacre these people. The use of a relatively modest military intervention in each of those points might have made an enormous, enormous difference.

Let's take Darfur right now in Sudan, because that is a tragedy that's ongoing right before us. Is the world doing enough on that front?

MELANIE KIRKPATRICK: The world is doing a pitifully small amount. The United States has been good in raising international consciousness about it. Colin Powell has used the word "genocide" in connection with it, and I think he is absolutely right. Seventy thousand people have died, two million have been displaced. But the response has been next to nothing.

Hotel Rwanda HENNINGER: I'd like to push this point a little bit further. When we talk about interim steps, there is an international institution that exists, theoretically. It is the United Nations. The reason the United Nations does not act often in these cases is because it is not in the interest of some of their members. Many of their members are thug regimes. We tolerate the existence of this people. We kowtow to them. We allowed Zimbabwe and Libya to be on the Human Rights Commission of the United Nations. The recommendation has been made that maybe we need a new institution consisting only of democratic nations.

GIGOT: In the case of Darfur, you also have the French and the Chinese blocking action at the Security Council, because of commercial interests, do you not?

STEPHENS: That's absolutely right. I want to pick up on something that Dan said. It's not only thug regimes that are a problem. The Mugabes and other guys. In the case of Rwanda, it was the Belgians. What happened early in the conflict is that Hutu militias killed 10 Belgian peacekeepers, and the Belgians said "We're getting out of here." The Belgian and the Europeans basically corralled the United States, the Clinton state department, to push for the removal of the entire U.N. peacekeeping force which had just been put in there following the Arusha peace accords of that year.

This brings into question the whole value of saying, "Well, we have to act in concert with our European allies before we're going to put a stop to this." In the Balkans, we waited for years for the Europeans to come on board so we could act in concert. In the meantime, a lot of people were being killed. Sometimes, you do have to act unilaterally to stop killings while they are happening.

Hotel Rwanda KIRKPATRICK: But the U.S. can't take the lead in every single one of these cases. In the case of Darfur, it's Muslims killing Muslims. The Arab world has been silent on this point, just about silent. There are some African troops there. Even Rwanda has sent 130 peacekeepers to Darfur. The president of Rwanda was there this week and compared what is happening there to what happened in his country in 1994.

GIGOT: In 1994 in Rwanda, the United States was scrupulous in using the phrase "acts of genocide," not "genocide." Because that word, under international law, carries a certain obligation to act. This time, Colin Powell, the former Secretary of State, deliberately used the word "genocide" as a way of goading the international community to act. Still it does not. Is this a case where maybe the United States, as Bret suggests, should act unilaterally? Or we just can't now, because of Iraq and Afghanistan?

KIRKPATRICK: That's a very difficult question. What are our highest national priorities? Sudan is important, but Iraq, Iran, North Korea?

GIGOT: This is maybe an occasion where the rest of the world ought to carry some of the moral burden.

Hotel Rwanda STEPHENS: But the problem is, they don't. As I said earlier, you don't have to send in four divisions to stop the killing in Sudan. You could have sent in a brigade in Rwanda and it would have had an incredible effect. Now one of the themes of "Hotel Rwanda" is how this one man saves 1,000 lives, just through sheer personal courage. You don't have to go all the way. A limited intervention can do a lot to save a lot of people, and it's worth doing even if it's the United States alone.