photo of shattuckGhosts of Rwanda
john shattuck

He was U.S. assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor and is the author of Freedom on Fire: Human Rights Wars and America's Response. His interview with FRONTLINE illuminates how America's failure to intervene in the genocide was the result of bureaucratic and domestic politics and higher priorities. He says Rwanda never drew top-level attention in the Clinton administration because policy-makers were on "overload": "I discovered that Christopher was totally preoccupied with China and the Middle East, … [and the president] had to make his decision on "most favored nation" status for China. ... One of the untold stories about Rwanda is the terrible tragedy of the timing. … Had the genocide occurred a year and a half later, the response might well have been different." This interview was conducted on December 16, 2003.

Are the memories of Rwanda still powerful?

 It looked like there were logs floating in the river. But as we flew lower, you could see these bodies  going down at roughly 100 a minute. It was just -- we are witnesses of something the world is not doing anything about.

Yes. I was walking a couple of days ago along Boston Harbor and was thinking about Rwanda, because I've just finished this book, and was thinking about how people really don't understand at all what happened, the dimensions of it. They can see some images and they have some vague ideas in their mind. But all of a sudden, [in my mind, the] Boston Harbor was filled with bodies. … I actually saw bodies floating down the Kagera River during the time of the genocide, from the air. It was a really staggering image. …

In your book, you say that you were drawn into the actual crisis itself on [April 7, 1994 at] the meeting with 20 senior officials. … Who was there, and what was said?

This was a daily meeting of assistant secretaries of state and the deputy secretary of state, which usually took place for 15, 20 minutes in the very beginning of the morning, and [we'd] go around [with] what's happening in the world. There was a lot happening in April, and it was all very horrible in many ways. Bosnia was in terrible condition; there were many, many more killings and shootings. Sarajevo was being strangled. There were thousands of Haitian boat people who were trying desperately to reach the shores of Florida to escape the human rights catastrophe that was going on in Haiti. … I was right at the center of a huge controversy over human rights in China.

… All of these issues, and many, many others came up at that meeting. I remember Pru Bushnell, who's the deputy assistant secretary of state for African affairs, reported that there was an outbreak of violence in Kigali; particularly, that [a] plane had crashed, carrying the president of Rwanda and the president of Burundi, and that violence had broken out in the city following that. Not a lot more information [was given], although the next day there was the same kind of meeting at the same time, [and] there was somewhat more information.

But frankly, at that very early stage, [there was] a lot of confusion about what was happening. Was this a continuation of a civil war that had been going on in Rwanda? Was the violence related to the plane crash? As reports began to come in [about] the targeting of Tutsis and moderate Hutus -- that was several days later -- obviously there was much more concern about the ethnic and racial nature of the violence. In some ways, [it] sounded like what was going on in Bosnia.

… On [April] 8, Assistant Secretary Moose comes in and says, "The question depends on what the U.N. can do." Describe your own thoughts about that.

The concerns, I think, that those of us who were trying to get a more aggressive U.S. policy in Bosnia had at that time was that the U.N. and George Moose said that it depends on what the U.N.'s going do in Rwanda as to what can be done to try to stem the violence.

My own view … was that the U.N. was really nothing more than the principal countries that were making up the Security Council, of which the United States, of course, was the most powerful. So obviously the question immediately arose -- what was the United States going to do?

Did you raise that question?

I don't think at that meeting I probably did raise that question, because we were still at that very early stage. But it was certainly the question that began to get raised. The first 10 days before the decision was made to pull out the U.N.-- Well, there was a debate that grew over the question of what should our position be on the U.N. My position certainly was, along with some other people, including George Moose and Pru Bushnell … [that] if the U.N. can save lives, the U.N. ought to stay in. But of course there were evacuations going on then of all the foreign nationals, and very shortly after the violence broke out, there was the killing of the 10 Belgian peacekeepers. That put a tremendous amount of pressure on pulling the U.N. out.

Then there was an additional factor, which [is] Somalia. … Somalia was a traumatic experience for the new Clinton administration in the fall of 1993, when peacekeepers, American soldiers, [and] Rangers had been killed. One of them [was] dragged through the streets of Somalia before CNN cameras, and tremendous outcry. Congress [was] in opposition [of] the U.S. having any continuing role in that peacekeeping operation there, and [made] a decision early on to pull out those peacekeepers. … I could see that the Somalia crisis was going to have an impact on Rwanda. I remember, before the genocide started, hearing a number of administration officials tell me -- particularly people in the White House … our principal focus has to be, "No more Somalias."

That ultimately was a very damaging thing, too, because I think we misunderstood what had really happened in Somalia, and projected what had happened there into all kinds of other different contexts. So the U.S. -- in the Congress, and certainly in the administration -- became resistant to maintaining the kind of aggressive peacekeeping that clearly was required in Rwanda, and that General Dallaire who was the Canadian general commanding the U.N. troops in Rwanda, had been actively calling for [for] some time. …

… So on April 11, what becomes of the U.N. peacekeepers, once the Belgians had just been killed? …

On April 11, we had another one of these morning meetings. At this point, obviously Rwanda is a very sharp focus, even with all the other things that are going on. The news of the morning was that 10 Belgian peacekeepers had been killed and a number of them decapitated, and it was a pretty awful scene. It evoked the image of Somalia, once again, certainly in the minds of those who had been in the middle of [the] Somalia crisis.

At that point, I think there began to grow a pretty strong sentiment that the U.N.'s got to get out of there, because if the U.N. stays in, who knows what will happen? Now, there was minority few -- and I expressed it, and some others did as well -- that [said] if the U.N. has a chance of saving lives, and General Dallaire was continuing to say that, [the peacekeepers] ought to stay. They not only would stay, but there were certainly strong views that perhaps the force ought to be increased and given a stronger mandate.

One of the tragedies of the Dallaire force was that the mandate that it had was very limited. [His force] was not authorized to take any military action in response to killings that were going on in front of it. It was really, literally, a classic peacekeeping operation. It was authorized to create places where people could come and be protected, or at least try to be protected.

So, in [retrospect] … I see the grave importance of having a strongly mandated peacekeeping operation, and you do not withdraw it at the moment that it is challenged. We know from earlier information that General Dallaire himself had sent [information] back to the peacekeeping organization in New York that an informant had told him back in February that the planners of the genocide were planning to attack the U.N. That cable never made its way up through any channels that I'm aware of. I think it was ultimately brought to the attention [of] the U.S. ambassador in Rwanda, but certainly didn't make its way into the channels in Washington and other capitals that it should have.

But the terrible gut feeling that I have is, I'm not sure anything different would have been done even if that information had come forward, which is one of the many reasons why I consider this to be the most horrendous breakdown of human rights protection, perhaps, since the Second World War. …

[On April 11 there was the meeting. What then happens with the U.N. force?]

At the April 11 meeting chaired by [Deputy Secretary of State] Strobe Talbott, with George Moose and all the other assistant secretaries [present], the question was, what happens to the U.N. force? With the information having come in about the killing of the Belgian peacekeepers, there was increasing sentiment -- certainly sentiment coming from the Pentagon -- that the force ought to be withdrawn. Since the U.S., following Somalia, was in the process of reviewing its role in peacekeeping operations under considerable pressure from the [U.S.] Congress, that view that the U.N. force ought to be withdrawn gathered strength pretty quickly.

Did you get a feeling at that meeting that the decision had really already been made?

It's hard to say. I suppose I could see the handwriting on the wall once the information about the Belgian peacekeepers had come through, and also with the rapid evacuation of all foreign nationals from Rwanda. But it was still at a point when the information about what was actually happening on the ground was sketchy. There were certainly reports of Tutsis being rounded up and killed in the capital. But the scope of the genocide and the [concept] that it had actually been fully planned -- as we now know it had been -- was not particularly known at that point.

So what we saw was the killing of the Belgian peacekeepers, and that created a lot of pressure [to] withdraw the force. …

Would it [have taken] a champion [of this cause] from inside the U.S. government for the U.S. to assert power in Rwanda?

I think there're a lot of lessons from Rwanda. It certainly takes a champion; it also takes a bureaucratic signal, and we were getting exactly the opposite bureaucratic signal. The presidential decision directive on peacekeeping [PDD-25] was a straitjacket that was being applied to the bureaucracy. So it was in nobody's interest, really, to be a champion, at least in the bureaucratic context.

There were those of us who had the "human rights in Africa" portfolios -- that was really what we were trying to push for. Yes, it does take a champion, [but] it also takes some breathing room, and there was not a lot of breathing room in early April 1994. By [breathing room], I mean that all these other crises were stampeding the bureaucracy at high levels for attention, and therefore there wasn't much room for something else. There was no breathing room for Rwanda. It's a terrible way to put it, but that's true. …

[Senate] Majority Leader Bob Dole made it very clear on the Senate floor, very soon after the American personnel were withdrawn from Rwanda, that there was no further U.S. interest in Rwanda, and that we should not engage in a way that would risk being drawn into another Somalia. …

Let us talk about Monique [Mujawamariya]. April 19, [the] same day the U.N. Security Council votes on the new level of forces for the United Nations Assistance Mission in Rwanda (UNAMIR), she flies into Washington, and what happens? …

Well, Monique was this wonderful Rwandan activist who I had taken in to meet President Clinton in December 1993 on Human Rights Day. … When the genocide broke out, I began to hear from my friends in the human rights … that Monique was missing, and perhaps in grave danger. She had been, obviously, a person who visited President Clinton … and so there was attention paid to her. There were efforts to try to track her. Then she disappeared, literally -- got swallowed up by this horrible wave of genocide that started very quickly after April 6.

Miraculously, she managed to escape and then to leave the country and come back to Washington on … April 19. … I know she met with Dick Clarke at the National Security Council, [and] I think she may have met with [National Security Adviser] Tony Lake. She certainly met with me. She met with Prudence Bushnell and probably George Moose, and described the horrors that were unfolding in her country. Her family was still in the path of the cataclysm, and she knew of no way how they were going to escape. As it turned out, some of her children did escape.

So [I'm] caught in this sort of bureaucratic morass, when the government is doing nothing and I'm trying, in my own not-very-effective way up to that point, to do what I can to keep the U.N. in. … Several days [later], I found [out] in [a] meeting that I attended with Peter Tarnoff, who was then the undersecretary of state for political affairs and had a Rwanda working group, that there was an interest in having a mission go out. At this stage, the U.S./U.N. had voted to scale back to 270 soldiers, the UNAMIR force.

I thought about talking to the regional heads of state and seeing whether they might work to form a regional peacekeeping force, which had been discussed in the context of this debate over withdrawal of the U.N. force. I found that idea, which others had as well, resonated in the meetings that I had with Tarnoff. So I became the point person for going out to the region to talk with the presidents of Uganda, Burundi, Ethiopia, the head of the Organization of African Unity (OAU), and Tanzania, to see what kind of consensus could be developed quickly among those African leaders for forming an African force to go in as an alternative to UNAMIR. In my view, it was a force that needed to be logistically -- and very heavily -- supported by the United States and the rest of the international community.

[On April 29], I attended a meeting at the White House situation room on the eve of my trip. It was a meeting on Rwanda; my trip was on the agenda. … The consensus was developed that it was appropriate to go out and try to find whether there was regional support for a new peacekeeping unit. Also, we managed to get some agreement on the need for an investigation -- which ultimately ripened into a plan to establish an international criminal tribunal, but that was down the road -- and finally to survey the humanitarian needs, that is, the tremendous crisis of refugees fleeing the country into Tanzania, but later also into Zaire. So I went on this mission. …

[So] at the April 29 meeting in the situation room, there was discussion led by Sandy Berger, the deputy national security adviser, about whether there might be some regional peacekeeping force that could be assembled as an alternative to the U.N. force or as a supplement. … A lot of things were not stated at the meeting, probably because the consensus would have broken down had they been. Certainly my view was that this force would need strong logistical and other kinds of U.S. support -- maybe not U.S. troops, but certainly U.S. support. There was also a question of when this force might be put together and actually deployed -- all of these were kind of notional.

But there was certainly a consensus that it was important to talk to the leaders of the region and see what their interest was and what their view was of these other issues, including the issue of how this genocide started, what kind of an investigation would be appropriate, and what kind of accountability ultimately could there be to hold those who are committing the genocide responsible. There wasn't much spoken about that, either, but there was a kind of general consensus growing that it was an important subject.

You saw this as an opening.

I saw this as an opening, and so did the others who were backing my trip, particularly the African Affairs bureau and [Prudence] Bushnell, with whom I was working very closely at that stage. So the trip was put together. … [It was] a presidential mission, which gave me the right to get an Air Force plane and fly basically from … Frankfurt down to the region. It was helpful to be designated as a presidential mission, because it certainly gave me a good calling card when I showed up in the offices of the presidents from the region, all of whom met me and gave me extensive time when I got there. …

We stopped in Addis [Ababa, the capital of Ethiopia], and met with Salim [Ahmed Salim], who was then the secretary-general of the OAU. The OAU is a very weak organization, but none the less it was the organization of African states that needed to be consulted in terms of an operation being assembled. So I met with Salim. [He] and I [were deeply distressed] over what was going on, on his part [and] certainly on my part as well.

But I think our depression was somewhat different. Mine was because I didn't feel very strongly backed by my government. I wasn't sure how much room I had to discuss. His [depression was] because he had been one of the chief negotiators in the Arusha talks, which of course had totally collapsed and [been] overwhelmed by the genocide. But I did find Salim willing -- as the presidents [also were] when [I] went to meet with them -- to put down on paper his commitment to the concept of a regional peacekeeping operation.

You also stopped at some of the other [large African cities]. …

I did a little mini-shuttle diplomacy around the capitals. I met with President Museveni, president of Uganda, in Kampala, President Mwinyi in Tanzania, and President Ntibantunganya in Burundi, and President Meles in Ethiopia. In each case, I asked them to enter into a kind of bilateral agreement, loosely constructed around my talks with them about the value of a regional peacekeeping operation.

Then there were other elements of the agreement that we had. One was conducting investigations into the genocide, and the [other] was developing a plan for humanitarian operations. They were very, very desperate to have the international community start engaging on [the humanitarian operations] -- which it was beginning to, of course -- and the U.N. refugee agency.

So I came back with these agreements. They were basically just the summary of the discussions that I'd had in the meetings.

Were they offering troops?

They were close to offering troops, but I think they were also asking what the U.S. would offer. Here's where I felt I had very little room. As I talked to Pru Bushnell, who encouraged me to continue these discussions, I called her from various capitals. She would report to me the growing opposition within the Pentagon to really do anything to engage the U.S. directly in this kind of a regional peacekeeping operation, logistically or otherwise so. I felt that I was out there having perfectly good talks, but I didn't have much to offer. And it wasn't clear that the leaders were going to follow through on any commitments unless I did have something to offer, which is perfectly understandable on their part.

Pru Bushnell -- was she frustrated when she relayed that to you?

Yes, she was very frustrated. She and I were both very frustrated at this point.

What was she saying?

Here are the time frames on all this. On May 3, when I probably [was] in [my] last meeting in Tanzania, the White House announced the presidential decision directive on peacekeeping [PDD-25]. [That] was essentially a set of very extensive conditions that had to be met before the U.S. would even vote for a new peacekeeping operation in the [U.N.] or support one in a regional organization. It had to have a clear and reasonable prospect of success. It had to be permissive rather than -- in the sense what we call in the U.N. context -- Chapter VII -- which is basically going in when the environment is not a permissive environment.

So it was very restrictive … [in] response to the Somalia crises, and the timing could not have been more horrendous. I mean, here's this terrible cataclysm unfolding in Rwanda, and the trajectory of this presidential decision directive, which had been drafted for months, suddenly intersected directly with the cataclysm in Rwanda, and results in a bureaucratic clampdown on any prospect of U.S. support for that regional peacekeeping operation that I thought I might be able to sell when I came back from Rwanda.

Did Bushnell just tell you that on the phone? …

Well, we knew it was coming. This was not a surprise. These things were coming, and of course, it all came out of Somalia.

… Flying over there with Ambassador Rawson-- … What was that like?

It was an extraordinary trip, in the sense that there was so much desperation everywhere in the region. The presidents [that I] mentioned -- Salim being deeply depressed when I [arrived] in Addis, and he was my first meeting. I think I could calculate that there was something like 21,000 killings a day at that stage. I was there in the region for five days, so perhaps as many as 100,000 were killed at that period, probably the most intense period of the killing.

I was in this small plane [and] we were flying. I wanted to go to Rwanda, but I wasn't being given permission to actually land in Rwanda. I had … cell phone conversations with General Dallaire, and one with his deputy in Rwanda. So I was hearing about what was actually unfolding there. This is by the time the U.N. force has been withdrawn … so they didn't have anything they could really do other than hunker down.

And he told you, "You can't fly in?"

Well, no, he didn't deny me permission to go in. I was on this presidential mission, and the State Department wasn't going to allow my plane to land. Americans had all been evacuated, and it wasn't clear that I would be able to do anything there, in any event. I certainly wasn't bringing in troops. So I managed to have a conversation with Dallaire and then to fly over Rwanda.

I guess the most searing moment was when we flew over the Kagera River, which was the river dividing Tanzania from Rwanda. From a couple of thousand feet, it looked like there were logs floating in the river. But as we flew lower, you could see these were bodies, and they were going down at roughly 100 a minute. I was told, heading down toward Lake Victoria -- a beautiful lake in the central part of Africa -- the bodies would later be fished out by boys for a couple of pennies a body. So that's the image that I carry with me in terms of my personal view of that genocide, at the moment when it was occurring.

How low were you flying? … [Could you see?] …

… We could see the refugees streaming into Tanzania. There were two things that we saw that were emblematic of what was happening. One was the thousands of refugees desperately fleeing. Some of them, of course, were themselves probably responsible for some of the genocide. But at this early stage, it was probably refugees who were genuinely victims rather than what later on in Zaire were the refugees who were responsible. Then the second thing, of course, were the bodies.

So those of you on the plane, you were just, what, peering out the window? What were you saying to each other?

There was no real conversation to be held at that stage. It was just-- We are witnesses of something that the world is not doing anything about, and it's an image that I will certainly carry with me forever. …

So on the way back from that trip you stopped in Geneva … and gave a press conference [in which] you said, "acts of genocide." Why did you use those words? Had anyone else used those words from the administration at that point?

One of the terrible sordid aspects of this in the policy context was the debate over the use of the term "genocide" that began to develop inside the administration. As it became clear that there wasn't going to be the kind of peacekeeping military response that I think could have saved lives, there was a hesitancy throughout the administration and … the State Department to call this thing by its right name -- and what I'd seen clearly was genocide.

But I was told before I went on the trip that I really shouldn't be using that term yet, because it was a legal conclusion, and who knew whether this was really genocide? But at that stage, genocide was engulfing Rwanda as far as I could see. … So I certainly went beyond what I was probably supposed to do, and that ruffled some feathers back in Washington. …

You made a conscious decision to use that word in public?

Yes. Many people were using it informally. … At that stage, the genocide word [was] very much out there, just not being validated within the administration. …

What sort of feathers were ruffled?

The guidance that we had at that stage was not to use that term. So I was told that I had used the term that was not within the guide. So I … managed to get it through the bureaucratic process within about a week, to authorize the use of that term, "acts of genocide." I'm still very angered at that process, that we had to waste bureaucratic time over this kind of thing.

Of course there are those who would dispute this analysis, but I read the Genocide Convention, which the U.S. was a party to, to require the parties who have signed that convention to do what they can to prevent genocide, and the word "prevent" and "prevention" is in fact used in the treaty. So I felt that there was a legal obligation for us to take some action. I think there was probably hesitancy in the administration, but particularly among the lawyers, to start using a term that might carry a legal obligation. …

During that bureaucratic process, [when] the lawyers were having trouble with it, you said the public affairs office went well.

Well, again, the way the system works is that public affairs officers in the State Department and Pentagon and National Security Council use terms to describe what's going on that have been cleared for the system. It's just a process so that U.S. policy is articulated in a hopefully coherent way. So it was the public affairs office that was kind of marshaling the language that needed to be used here.

Again, I don't have any specific evidence on this. But I just think there was a lot of squeamishness at high levels about really getting into calling this genocide until about the middle of May. By then, I think it was just so evident, [that] it had to be called by its proper name. It was both intellectually and morally dishonest at that stage not to have [done so]. …

So you came back and thought maybe that there was an opening for some sort of a U.S. support for an African force? You came back and said the system was on overload. …

When I returned from my trip to Africa, I had a plan. It wasn't a totally well-formed plan, but it was based on the consensus that I could see among the African leaders. I had done my job; I'd gone out and gathered the views of the leaders, and they certainly believed that it was necessary to mount a new peacekeeping operation. I passed this information on through cables … so it was well known what had been found.

Just about that same time, there began a debate in the U.N. Security Council over a reconstituted peacekeeping operation. But the U.S. was in, I think, a very non-constructive position on that, largely because of this presidential decision directive that came down on peacekeeping on May 3, and the Somalia cloud, and also the overload of all these other [world] crises. …

I think it was finally on May 21 that the Security Council did approve a new resolution to authorize a new U.N. peacekeeping operation. But it was not what I had in mind in my trip out to the region, because it was largely a permissive force; it was not a force that was going to be able to go in and do anything.

And by May 21, it was really almost too late, because you've got to look at the incredibly rapid time frame within which all of this is occurring. Nobody could believe how quickly this genocide engulfed the country. In comparison with the Holocaust, for example, it was just racing with time. So at that stage on May 21, I don't know whether anybody knew that it was too late, but it certainly was, in retrospect.

[So] when you came back with this opening, a crack in the door, had the door closed because of any opposition? …

Very specifically, the system was on overload, I discovered, and wasn't surprised to find that [Warren] Christopher was totally preoccupied with both China and the Middle East. About 10 days later, President Clinton had to make his decision on the most favored nation status for China and the human rights issues, and I was of course going to be riding on all that, too. [We were] deeply involved in changing [the] Haiti policy and making it much more robust.

One of the untold stories about Rwanda is the terrible tragedy of the timing of Rwanda. I believe, had the Rwanda genocide occurred a year or a year and a half later, the response might well have been different. I base that on the fact that in the fall of 1994, six months after the Rwanda genocide, the U.S. finally overcame the shackles of the presidential decision directive on peacekeeping and assembled a multinational force and went into Haiti.

Then another nine months after that, the U.S. changed its policy toward Bosnia, and developed a much more aggressive approach, and ultimately brought it to the war and to the genocide in Bosnia. … [And] the competition for time was intense, and the resistance from [the] Pentagon to really doing anything with U.S. forces in the region, including training regional peacekeepers, was huge, because of the presidential decision directive. So the door that I thought had opened when I was in the White House situation room on April 29, before I went on my trip, seemed to be pretty well closed by the time I came back.

[In the] middle of May, the State Department mood, as you describe, is pretty grim.

Well, mid-May was probably the nadir of 1994, which itself was in many ways the worst year in the Clinton administration, certainly on foreign policy. By then, we really did have a political crisis on human rights and trade in China. The president was about to take a huge hit on human rights because of his change in position in China, whereby he basically authorized an extension of the "most favored nation" trading status with China without any human rights conditions, which he had imposed a year earlier.

So that really cut the legs out from under the human rights assistant secretary as well as, at least at that stage, within the administration more generally. I think later on we recovered significantly. Bosnia was in one of its real crisis modes. The Europeans and the Americans were kind of arguing about whether to have more peacekeepers, in the case of the Europeans, or more air strikes, in the case of the Americans. The Europeans didn't want to authorize American air strikes for fear that it would endanger their troops, and U.S. was not about to authorize any troops for Bosnia.

So it was a terrible stalemate there, and the Bosnia situation just kept getting worse. [And] thousands and thousands of Haitian boat people [were] taking to the high seas and trying to get away from Haiti. The policy was slowly being changed at that point, but it hadn't been changed yet.

Then, of course, there's Rwanda, which I think for anyone who had any sense of human rights and human catastrophe, they had to think that was the worst thing going on in the world at that time, and nothing was being done about it. So the mood was not only grim, but very much resigned, if you will, to something overwhelming happening in Africa that was not being dealt with by the United States or any other country. I don't want to just keep pointing a finger at the U.S. -- the international community as a whole failed the Rwandan people.

Did you ever have a conversation with Warren Christopher about Rwanda?

I never had a conversation with Warren Christopher about Rwanda at that stage. There was no occasion when there was a Rwanda meeting. He had sort of delegated this to [Strobe] Talbott and to [Peter] Tarnoff, whom I had many conversations with. But I did not have a conversation with Christopher about it.

Did anyone [at that stage] talk to him about it later?

I think later, I did -- certainly reflected on how terrible I thought the situation was. He was, of course, being battered over Bosnia, because he was taking the position that nothing really could be done about Bosnia. I think it was he actually who called Bosnia the "problem from hell," and I didn't believe that a lot could be done about Bosnia. …

But it's been described to me that he really [was] not … interested in the policies about Rwanda.

Yes, I think that's true. I think he tended to take issues and farm them out, and this was one that he farmed out. He kept the Middle East and China for himself at that stage, and there were other issues I'm sure that he was deeply involved in. As secretary of state, he had to make sure that somebody was paying attention, and there were people paying attention. …

Any other principals that you ever discussed this with at the time?

Berger, certainly, though Berger's not a principal, of course. I had a couple of conversations with Tony Lake. I think Tony was depressed about the fact that there was no one pushing from the outside for action on Rwanda. There were a few human rights groups, to be sure, and they were heroic, although even they were somewhat late to arrive at the conclusion that this was a genocide. I did have a couple of conversations with him.

Was there anybody, as far as you know -- Lake or anyone else within the administration -- [that] tried to make the case at a higher level for more accurate--

That I don't know. My position in the spring of 1994 was weakened by the controversies that I was involved in in Haiti and China, so I didn't have any direct access to the president on this.

Talk about [General Paul] Kagame [of the Rwandan Patriotic Front], because you were the first U.S. official to meet him after the war had ended. …

Kagame is an extraordinary figure. He succeeded in the retaking [of] Rwanda. The Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) that he headed -- it was guerrilla campaign that then became an army, and the army basically swept aside the genocide forces of the Rwandan army. I met him in early August 1994, just very shortly after he had come and taken over the government in Kigali.

I'll never forget going to see him in this abandoned villa. … I sat on the porch talking with him -- and he was surrounded by bodyguards, and the roads are basically all manned by RPF forces and a lot of guys with AK-47s. I'm sitting on this porch looking out over the city, and you could literally see vultures circling around where the human carrion is. The human bodies -- what [were] left of them -- were being eaten by the vultures, [and] it was a very hot day, very dry.

Kagame was this ascetic figure: very thin, rail thin, kind of a cross between a monk and a monarch, I think is the way I saw him. He [is] just somebody that seemed to live within his own world entirely, and a man of few words, but a man of great force.

I had gone to see him for a number of reasons. I was the first U.S. official to meet with him. I was there to talk with him about what to do about those who had committed the genocide. At that stage, I had become the champion inside the U.S. government, along with Madeleine Albright and several others, of creating an international criminal tribunal for Rwanda along the lines of what we had earlier created in Bosnia.

I also was there to offer the assistance of the U.S. in helping to rebuild the Rwandan justice system. But [Kagame] made it very clear that there were really only two things that he needed from us in that regard. One, arrest the leaders of the genocide now as quickly as [we could], and put them on trial in Rwanda. Two, deal with those refugee camps in Zaire where many of the people at lower levels, and some even at higher levels who were actually responsible for the genocide, had fled.

He made it very clear, even at that early meeting. I remember his words. He said, "We need the international community to deal with this, because if it isn't dealt with, we'll have to do it ourselves." I think that's really been the history of the region since, because while the tribunal ended up being created -- and it indeed has tried and now is trying one of the highest-level figures -- … the trials didn't take place in Rwanda. [He] wanted the trials in Rwanda; he needed [what he called] "visible justice."

I think there was danger of having the trials in Rwanda, because who knew whether they could have any remote degree of fairness? But then the more serious problem was the refugee camps, because [of] the fact that there were people who had led the genocide who had fled to those camps [that] were able to organize and conduct raids back into Rwanda. [That] created, in that early stage, a security problem for Rwanda, which ultimately Kagame and his government had to deal with by breaking up the camps and then creating a huge number of further refugees in Zaire.

The whole process of the destabilization of central Africa, and the war that's now gone on for 10 years in Zaire -- which is now the Democratic Republic of the Congo -- really had its beginnings in the Rwanda genocide.

[Why was a relief operation necessary in these refugee camps?]

Well, a relief operation was necessary, but there were a lot of misunderstandings about what those camps were. I think the images in the press led many people to believe that the camps were filled with victims, and so you'd seen the pictures of victims in Rwanda [and] now you saw the pictures of all these starving -- and many of the were indeed starving -- in Zaire. But the camps also contained many of the leaders of the genocide.

The U.N. agencies did mount a serious effort -- and a successful one, I think -- to provide relief to the camps. The U.S. was very strongly supporting that. … There were also efforts to develop a method for going in and arresting the people who were responsible for the genocide in the camps.

I remember Sergio Vieira de Mello, the very, very eloquent and wonderful deputy high commissioner for refugees who was just recently killed tragically [in a terrorist attack] in Iraq. He was certainly a champion of the effort to assemble some kind of a force to go in and conduct those arrests, and it was even some talk about having some kind of a private force go in and do that. But this was not something that either the U.N. or the international community, including the U.S., really had the stomach for. Frankly, it was not totally clear how it could be done.

Dallaire, always inventive on these things, made a proposal. He was then no longer the commander; he was then back in the Canadian army. I think [he] proposed in the fall of 1995 some kind of a U.N. force that would go in and separate out the genocide victims from those who'd committed the genocide.

But the bottom line is it was never done, and it continued to have the same kind of resistance that we saw earlier in Rwanda. I think it was tragic that it was never done, because I do believe that [what] happened in the Democratic Republic of the Congo since has at least, in some part, been traceable to the crisis along the Rwandan border in those camps.

… [You have] seen the bodies going down the river, and then you saw the camps and the killers that were there.

Well, we didn't at that stage really know who was there, but I was picking up information that they were there. We got information that the old radio Mille Collines, the hate radio that had been broadcasting from Kigali earlier [that gave information on the whereabouts of victims to the killers], was now broadcasting again at the camps … and spreading rumors -- which had probably some truth -- that it was dangerous for Hutus to return to Rwanda, and certainly continuing to spread anti-Tutsi propaganda.

I didn't see them myself, but I was told that these Mercedes would arrive from time to time with these guys, who'd get out and assemble their trustees and give them instructions about how to conduct discipline in the camps. It was a pretty ugly sight, I think, as the camps began to develop.

But we also shouldn't lose sight of the fact that there were hundreds of thousands of genuine victims in those camps as well. I mean, these were not camps of killers; a small percentage of them were killers, but there were a lot of victims, and the victims needed and deserved assistance.

You said nobody in the camps looked you in the eye.

Yes. Of course they were all traumatized. But I also took it to mean that [they] probably, to some extent, felt guilty, or at least there was a kind of collective guilt. The vast majority had not participated probably in the genocide, or hadn't done anything to stop it, but probably hadn't themselves been the killers. I think there was a sense of collective guilt, which was something that only accountability and justice for the leaders can ultimately deal with.

… I also saw some really horrendous examples of retribution and revenge and discipline being taken out on [a man] with his arm chopped off, lying in the gutter, basically dying, [with] a small crowd around him. But nobody dared to go to help him, for fear they'd end up having the same fate happen to him -- and this is in the refugee camps. That was pretty horrendous. …

… You were with President Clinton when he went [to Rwanda in 1998]. … Talk about that.

It was in March 1998. It was an extraordinary trip, and as it was part of a much larger Africa trip that he was on. He came into Kigali in Air Force One. I mean, this gigantic 747 landed on the tarmac at Kigali, which I can remember was where I landed four years earlier when I was met by the then-justice minister of the new government of Rwanda in this ramshackle car, which was the only car in the area. Furthermore, it was the same tarmac where the plane carrying the two presidents had been shot down. So there was a kind of remarkable fact that the Air Force One showed up.

But more remarkable, of course, was the president of the United States coming to the people of Rwanda and apologizing. I think the apology was very important, but there was a kind of a hollowness, [but] not in Clinton's motive. I think the motive was very genuine; I think Clinton genuinely felt remorse about this -- as all of us did -- and spoke movingly about it, and met with victims and was told by the victims how they felt. It was a kind of little mini-truth commission, if you will.

But what was hollow about it was simply the enormous gap between what had actually happened and this apology that came four years later, which of course could not restore the 800,000 people who were killed.

I do think that President Clinton himself, and the Clinton administration, learned a lesson from Rwanda. I think Rwanda and Clinton's trip to Rwanda in March 1998 are closely related to the doctrine of humanitarian intervention which developed in the Clinton administration and was implemented, first in Haiti in the fall of 1994, and then in the summer of 1995 in Bosnia, in the fall of 1999 in Kosovo, and then finally in East Timor in 2000.

I think Clinton and others in the administration came a long way from the days when Rwanda did seem to be a distant place that really we just couldn't do anything about -- to actively and aggressively engaging with other countries to stop human rights abuses and killings in places like Haiti, Bosnia, Kosovo and East Timor. So in that sense, the apology was not hollow. It actually symbolized a fundamental change in the thinking of the president himself, and certainly many others, that now we need to be much more effective in backing up our diplomacy with force, and not standing aside and keeping our troops from engaging on humanitarian crises -- in fact, doing what's necessary to stop a genocide in progress.

So I would hope … since 2000, since certainly [Sept.] 11, 2001 … in this new administration -- not so new anymore -- I would hope this lesson is still there, but I fear that it's not. I do not have confidence based on my own trip this summer to the Congo and my involvement in Liberia and other crises that are taking place now in real time in Africa. I don't have confidence that the United States remembers the lesson of Rwanda, even though I think President Clinton learned that lesson, and I think acted on it in those areas that I talked about.

[Why] don't [you] have confidence?

Well, I'm just not sure that, if it happened again, that the current administration would take the kind of action necessary. Basically, I think that the old strategic framework has re-emerged, and Rwanda doesn't fit into it; neither does the Congo, neither does Liberia. That's my fear. But I think there are plenty of people who have learned the Rwanda lesson and who -- and I'm certainly one of them, and many others -- won't stand aside if it looks as if the government is unwilling to engage. I think we will take much more aggressive action. …

A lot of these people, yourself included, have [a] human rights background … and may now have the sense of, "My God, what's happened on our watch?" Talk about that.

When you get to 1998, I think the lessons have already been learned in terms of other policies that have changed. I've mentioned Haiti and I've mentioned Bosnia, and then after 1998, it's Kosovo, and then other humanitarian crises. So, yes, I think we did have a sense -- and I still have a sense -- of the fact that I was on duty, as it were, when the Rwanda genocide took place, and that I will never forget that. That has informed my opinion of the importance of stopping genocide by using force and working with other countries to do that.

I think there needs to be a presidential decision directive on genocide, and that directive, just like the one on peacekeeping, should send messages throughout the bureaucracy that when the genocide bell rings -- and nobody should stand in the way of ringing it -- the bureaucracy should respond and should work with other countries to take action to prevent it. I think the genocide bell finally rang in Bosnia in 1995, and that's why the policy changed there. I think Rwanda had a lot to do with that. …

And just to go back to President Clinton's trip to Rwanda, where were you?

I went with him on the trip and I worked with Sandy Berger and others to draft his speech, which contained this apology. I was with him when he gave that speech, in the audience, in the hanger in the Kigali airport. I was with him when he met with a small group of genocide survivors in another hanger in the Kigali airport. It was an extraordinary time. Again, it had a kind of hollowness at the time, because I felt, "My God, look what's happened, and now it's just coming down to an apology." But on the other hand, I felt then -- and I feel even more so now -- that that speech symbolized, not only the real apology that was made, but the change in policy that had actually resulted from the lessons of Rwanda.

Some people said it's hollow, because he didn't leave the airport.

Yes, well, the atmospherics of it may well have been-- No question that there were some issues about that. No question about that.

Why was that?

I'm not sure I really know. These presidential trips are [a] nightmare, because there's so many commitments and stops. There were arguments, I know, whether to make a stop in Rwanda. … Sandy Berger, who was then his national security adviser and his secretary of state, won the battle to stop in Rwanda. But I'm not sure we had the capacity to make it a longer trip than it was. I wasn't involved in the scheduling, so I don't know what happened in terms of the shortness of the trip.

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posted april 1, 2004

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