Ghosts of Rwanda

analysis: can it happen again?
The world's leaders have denounced what happened in Rwanda and are shamed by their failure to intervene to halt the slaughter. But if another Rwanda happened, would the world respond any differently? Here are the views of those who were involved in decision-making on Rwanda and a journalist who has analyzed America's response to genocide: Boutros Boutros-Ghali, U.N. secretary-general; George Moose, assistant secretary of state for Africa; Gen. Romeo Dallaire, U.N. force commander in Rwanda; Madeleine Albright, U.S. ambassador to the U.N. Mission; Major Brent Beardsley, executive assistant to Gen. Dallaire; Michael Sheehan, peacekeeping adviser to Madeleine Albright; John Shattuck, assistant secretary of state for human rights; Prudence Bushnell, deputy assistant secretary of state for Africa; Samantha Power, author of A Problem from Hell; and Anthony Lake, national security adviser to President Clinton. These excerpts are drawn from their extended interviews with FRONTLINE.

Boutros Boutros-Ghali
  U.N. Secretary General, 1992-1997

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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.

george moose
  Assistant Secretary of State for Africa

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I'm not really sure that we have in fact learned, or internalized or acted on the lessons of what in fact we would need to do in order to at least be in a better position to deal with something like Rwanda in the future. I'm not sure that, were we confronted with a similar situation today, that we would be any better prepared to respond to it, let alone prevent it, than we were back in 1994.

But there's another part of that which I've wrestled with, and that is the other aspect of "Never again" is that you have some understanding of why what happened in Rwanda happened. I haven't read all the literature, but nothing that I've read to date has helped me to understand how it was possible for people who had lived with each other, who were neighbors, who had intermarried, to systematically go about the destruction of an entire ethnic group.

General Romeo Dallaire
  U.N. Force Commander in Rwanda

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Could something like this happen again?

In my pessimistic mood, I'd like to use the example of Dian Fossey and the mountain gorillas in the northwest of Rwanda. I have this terrible feeling that if some outfit wanted to go and slaughter those 300-odd gorillas, that today people would react with far more consternation than they would if they started killing thousands of black Africans, Rwandans, in the same country.

I do not believe that the developed world actually considers Africans, particularly South Saharan Africans, as being total humans. I still feel that they consider them as children, as reactive to extreme emotions, and that sooner or later even the more developed ones you'll have a coup d'etat or something else and they'll go into [mass killings]. Now there's enough examples to prove that, I'm afraid. However, what I find sad is that it's sort of stated as an excuse to not get involved. It's sort of habit. …

madeline albright
  U.S. Ambassador to the U.N.

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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.

major brent beardsley
  Executive Assistant to Gen. Romeo Dallaire

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There are things that could have been done to prevent it; this was definitely a preventable genocide. I think what bothers me even more, and where I lose a lot of my sleep over, is we haven't learned anything from it. It's 10 years later, and it's almost forgotten. I still bump into people in Canada who've never heard of it, don't know where Rwanda is, never heard that there was a genocide.

I don't know what they were doing in 1994. They must have been deaf and blind. We haven't learned from it, because we had the same thing happen again in Rwanda and Burundi and Congo over the last 10 years. We've had 4 million people die in Congo, five times what died in Rwanda, and still the world sits back and does nothing, and that's where I feel bad.

I feel that we haven't learned from our mistakes. Instead of like in 1945, when we said, "Never again" after seeing the Holocaust, you know, after Rwanda, it's like "Yet again, yet again, yet again, yet again." We don't seem to be able to marshal the will and the means to stop this. That, I find very lamentable.

Michael sheehan
  Peacekeeping Adviser to Madeleine Albright

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I went with [National Security Adviser] Tony Lake in August of 1994 and visited the killing fields of Rwanda. [We] saw the little dresses of baby girls that were massacred by these drunken murderers with machetes. We knew that was happening. It was a period of enormous frustration, something I'll never forget. Hopefully the world will never allow that to happen again, and that any president or leaders around the world will step up and find the will to put real forces on the ground to deal with those situations. But it won't be easy, and forces' lives will be put at risk when you go into a raging civil war. But I think hopefully those memories will remain and it will be resolved next time that type of situation unfolds.

"Never again" was said after the Nazis. It was said after the killing fields of Cambodia, it was said after Rwanda. Well, could it happen again? It certainly could. Will the world respond? I hope so, and I hope if I'm there again on the margins, I'll be able to express that rage again, perhaps a little more publicly and clearly to try to push people into action.

John shattuck
  Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights

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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. …

Prudence bushnell
  Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Africa

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Could it happen again? [If] a genocide were to come out of the blue, so to speak, again, would the response be any different?

I would hope the response would be different. But I think we need to have a lot more discussions like the one we're having right now in order to raise people's consciousness of what it is that an ordinary citizen can do. Because we tend to think, "That's not my problem, not my kid, not my issue." Where's Rwanda? Who are those people? How long have they been killing each other?

So there're all kinds of reasons why I don't have to get involved. Yet, as our world community becomes smaller and smaller, the price of non-involvement becomes higher and higher for individual citizens.

Samantha power
  Author of A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide

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I think we have progressed in the sense that what was once unthinkable - namely, military intervention in the face of genocide -- is now totally thinkable. It just very rarely is going to be done, barring again the re-conceiving of what foreign policy is for -- that it's not simply about getting involved abroad unilaterally when your own vital national interests are at stake; but it's recognizing that the welfare of distant strangers is important. … A world that avoids not only stopping genocide militarily, but that avoids even owning it, is not a world that is going to be safe or at all hospitable for the United States, either.

These things matter intrinsically, because of the human stakes, and they actually matter long-term for America and its role in the world. I think the hope is, anyway, that with Sept. 11 and with some of the events that have occurred since, that there might be some recognition that there's no such thing as mere genocide -- that it has tremendous bearing for the kind of global rules of the road that are essential for our ability to persist in this world.

Anthony lake
  National Security Adviser to President Clinton

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Rwanda, if it happened again--

Would we act? I think the chances are better than they were back then. The context has shifted, and maybe all the people who died didn't die absolutely in vain if their deaths had enough of an impact on the collective conscience that maybe we'll do better in the future.

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posted april 1, 2004

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