Ghosts of Rwanda

 what are the lessons of rwanda?
Ten years after the genocide, have America and the world community learned anything that could help prevent another Rwanda? Here are the views of those who were involved at the time in the crisis: Kofi Annan, U.N. head of peacekeeping; Ibrahim Gambari, Nigerian U.N. ambassador; Alison des Forges, Human Rights Watch; David Rawson, U.S. ambassador to Rwanda; Boutros Boutros-Ghali, U.N. secretary-general; Madeleine Albright, U.N. ambassador; George Moose, assistant secretrary of state; Prudence Bushnell, deputy assistant secretary of state for Africa; Samantha Power, author of A Problem from Hell; Anthony Lake, national security adviser to President Clinton; and Carl Wilkens, Adventist Church aid worker. These excerpts are drawn from their extended interviews with FRONTLINE.

kofi annan
  U.N. Head of Peacekeeping

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One of the lessons a lot of people have been talking about has been the responsibility to speak out when these things happen. Can you speak to that?

Yes. I think it is important to speak out. We didn't have that culture in this U.N. We've improved. We've improved. At that time, we were very cautious about dealing with the press, what we said to the press. It was only the secretary-general's office and the spokesman of the press who spoke. We are better, but we could still get better and speak to the press and open up.

I think it is not just the U.N. speaking, but the concept of a third party, a third party to a conflict speaking out, you know, sometimes saying, "Stop, this is enough. This cannot be allowed to happen," gives the victims and the people who are caught in that situation, offering courage, encouragement, support. It sends that somebody cares. Sometimes it even gives them courage to resist and to fight and to protect.

So the third party has a very important role we should never underestimate, not only in speaking out trying to get help, but it also gives inspiration and the strength to those who are caught in that situation. It is something that we are beginning to do more and more of, but we don't do enough. I don't think it is only the U.N. who should speak out. The press should speak out. Other governments, NGOs and others -- we should all speak out. We have improved since Rwanda, but I think we can still do better.

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

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Ten 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. ...

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

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How much confidence do you have that, if it happened again -- not in Rwanda per se, but the next time a crisis like this happens -- would the response be any different?

The president has expressed his profound regret for allowing the genocide. An internal investigation was commissioned by Sandy Berger, Tony Lake's successor as national security adviser, on how it happened, bureaucratically. But there have been no congressional investigations, no public reckoning, no institutional lesson learning that has come out of this.

The only lesson I think that has been learned that I'm aware of is that actually it turns out people will remember, more than you think, when you allow genocide, especially if it's of this scale. So to some extent, that's a kind of a footstep effect if you will, in the future, in that it's just a little more awareness that names can be named of bystanders; that sins of omission will eventually, belatedly, get dissected by the press or whoever.

But in terms of what is actually required to move the machine of the U.S. government, there are two things. [First], top-down leadership by an American president, not simply visiting a Holocaust museum, and saying "Never again" as a slogan once a year -- which is what successive American presidents have done -- but meaning it, and saying, "It's not going to happen on my watch." Issuing a presidential decision directive, signaling the bureaucracy that, career-wise, "There's a price to be paid if you're in a bureau and you allow this not to come to my attention. … You're not going to pay a price if you do the right thing. You'll pay a price if you do nothing or the wrong thing." …

But the one lesson of this period is that American leadership is indispensable, even when American troops are not going to be at the front line of the suppressive mechanism. A lot of the planning has to go on pro-actively. You can't wait until the plane has been shot down and the machetes are out and being sharpened; you just can't. There are too many human variables, congressional issues, logistical operational obstacles to rapid deployment. If you're serious, it's now, and we haven't seen that kind of top-down commitment.

The second way, of course, that a response could come about that would be very different would be if the rest of us on the outside succeeded somehow in creating the impression that there is actually a political price to be paid for doing nothing about genocide. We could play into this calculus that is long-standing -- the calculus that says things that benefit the American people will go uncritically received; things that harm the American people or harm American lives, American soldiers, that cost money, are risky. We could pay a price for doing something risky; we will not pay a price for doing nothing.

We have to change that calculus. That requires the mobilization of opinion leaders, the recognition that it's not enough simply to be passively in favor of a value-driven U.S. foreign policy, but that you actually have to be loudly in favor of that. You have to actually pick up the phone. When Tony Lake met with Alison Des Forges of Human Rights Watch just two weeks into the genocide -- an incredible event for a human rights monitor from Rwanda, who was an expert on Rwanda, to be meeting with the national security adviser of the United States -- he put it to her very simply. He said, "Look, I hear you, I hear about radio jamming. I hear about denunciation. I hear about your list, and duly noted. But you have got to make noise. The phones are not ringing."

Unfortunately, I don't think we have either the top-down leadership or an improved capacity to make noise quickly. All we have achieved since the Rwandan genocide is alerted the victims and the survivors that we feel badly about what was allowed. Perhaps … the Clinton administration has alerted those who have come since in government, that this will not go away; that the one place you will pay a price will not be at the polls, it will not be in the election, but it will be in posterity. It will be in your legacy. You will in fact be remembered for whether you stand up to genocide.

John shattuck
  Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights

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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.

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

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When you were secretary of state, were you able to take any lessons you learned from Rwanda?

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

Can you draw a direct connection from Rwanda to Kosovo?

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

Ibrahim gambari
  Nigerian U.N. Ambassador

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I will still insist, as an African, that the Security Council has special responsibility for maintenance of peace and security all over the world, including Africa. It cannot [balk] when it comes to Africa, because that's a charter responsibility. That is why five members are permanent members with vetoes. They have elected to play special role within this primary responsibility, and it cannot be ducked, in my view.

But the Africans themselves should take the lead in defining their problem, [establishing] their priorities, and trying to prevent the kind of abuse against the issues of human rights of their own people that leads to this kind of genocidal activities that we've witnessed, which I hope will be never [happen] again. But I wish I can be sure that you can say, "Never again." I'm not so sure. I hope so.

Anthony lake
  National Security Adviser to President Clinton

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What can you learn from it?

I think you can learn personal lessons, and you can learn, more importantly, professional lessons. I think the personal lessons -- and I've always to believe this, and this was a failure to do so -- is to remember that the substance of foreign policy is not only abstract national interest, but in the end, the reality of what you are working with is human lives. And this was a disaster in those terms.

Did Rwanda become an abstraction for you when you were in office?

I wish I could say it had even become an abstraction. I think the problem here for me, for the president, for most of us at senior levels, was that it never became a serious issue. We were focusing on the edges of the problem. We were focusing on what we could do, for example, in putting on the radio the names of some of those who were responsible for the killings in an effort to diminish it. We were concentrating on getting a peace process going, which became, in my view, a diversion from dealing with the underlying problems. We were focusing on and made a proposal on how to deal with some of the refugees and those most at risk.

But we never came to grips with what in retrospect should have been a central issue -- do we do much more to insist that the international community intervene and go out and find the troops that are necessary, or even contemplate an American intervention itself? That issue just never arose.

We'll get into the specifics. But just in general, why did it not arise?

I think it didn't arise for us because it was almost literally inconceivable that American troops would go to Rwanda. Our sin, I believe, was not the error of commission, or taking a look at this issue and then saying no. It was an error of omission -- of never considering that issue. I would think, especially in the wake of Somalia, that there was no chance that the Congress would ever have authorized funds to send American troops into Rwanda. Indeed, we were struggling to get the funds for our relief operations.

There was no appetite in the international community for such an effort. I might add, not just among other governments -- and of course, some of the governments that had troops there were extremely anxious to get out and stay out -- but in the whole international community -- editorial writers, legislatures, other African governments, even NGOs. …

Just on a very basic level, why does Rwanda matter?

If you visited Rwanda, as I did in December [1994] and see the bodies, it matters. One Rwandan life is exactly equal to one European life -- no more and no less in terms of the life itself. So that's one reason.

But there are other reasons to think about Rwanda, not just in itself, horrible as it was, but as, again, a lesson or even a symbol of the larger issue of, when do we conduct humanitarian interventions? And, I believe, just as important, how do you make sure that when you do intervene, you do it effectively? Because if you are simply wringing your hands and if you are simply saying, "We've got to fix all these problems everywhere around the world," which is beyond the capacity of the U.N. and certainly beyond the political will, even writ large of its member governments, then this is rhetoric, self-indulgent rhetoric, rather than coming to serious grips with a very, very serious problem. …

Just looking forward and the lessons that we can take -- a question of national interest versus humanitarian intervention. ... How do we grapple with issues like this in the future that come completely unexpectedly?

I think there are a number of different arguments as to why we need to move beyond narrow calculations of national interest in dealing with these problems. One of them is simply human. It comes as a revelation to my students that government officials are actually human beings rather than interest-calculating machines. But if you are a human being -- I'm not talking about moral obligation there, because that's presumptuous. But if you are a human being and you are blinding yourself to the fact that hundreds of thousands, millions of people are dying around the world, then you are blinding yourself to an important reality. That's a part of it.

Another part of it is that when states collapse, they do become breeding grounds for terrorism, etc. So it impacts on national interest.

But another argument is the CNN effect, and whether that plays into our politics. In fact, the CNN effect certainly has a profound effect on our public. I'm not sure it translates yet politically -- as we saw in 2000 where President Bush was saying, "We're not going to do this kind of stuff anymore." But let's suppose in the real world -- and I think this is the case -- that when you're looking at interventions, in a Kosovo, in a Rwanda or in a Sudan, or in Bosnia, wherever -- some we did, some we didn't -- you're weighing national interest and humanitarian obligation under international law, and these other reasons against each other.

I would argue that if you compare, for example, Kosovo and the southern Sudan over the past eight years, that in Kosovo we have more of a national interest than we do in southern Sudan. Let's say it's 10 times as big. Then look at the humanitarian implications; that in Kosovo, something like, as I recall, 15,000 to 20,000 people died, and in southern Sudan, 2 million people have died. So even if the national interest gets more weight than the humanitarian obligation, when you look at the scope of each, we ought to be paying a lot more attention to southern Sudan than we have been.

The Bush administration has done a pretty good job, over the last year, I think, in pushing along the diplomatic process. Or the situation in eastern Congo today, where a lot of people are dying and being raped, and the U.N. is trying to do something. But we still, in my view, have not seriously come to grips with it as an international community.

Prudence bushnell
  Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Africa

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I think that the lesson of Rwanda is that the world didn't care enough, and if the world doesn't care enough, we who inhabit the world will pay a price. You do not look indifferently at the pain and suffering in that magnitude and then turn your television set to a comedy program and forget. You don't do it. It is with us today. It will stay with us, and the smaller we become as a world community, and the more we try and turn our back on injustice and inhumanity in other places of the world, the closer it's going to come to us, and the higher the price will be for us.

Do you think the stakes are that high?

I'm beginning to think that it was a much greater turning point than I suspected in the past. Who knew 10 years ago? Who ever heard of it? Who cared about Rwanda even after the genocide? During the genocide, after the genocide, the Rwanda war crimes tribunal -- nobody cared.

Now, fast-forward 10 years and you have a Pulitzer prize-winning book that's been written on genocide in the century. You have young people engaged in getting their doctoral thesis on parts of aspects of Rwanda. You've got major television broadcasts like FRONTLINE engaged in finding out. Ten years later, people are still talking about it with more vigor and more conscience that they ever talked about it while it was going on or in the immediate aftermath.

So yes, it hasn't gone away. Those things, I have found, don't go away. So we deal with them now, or we deal with them later. But you deal with them.

Alison des Forges
  Human Rights Watch

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Why do we still need to talk about this 10 years later?

Because there's a war going on in Burundi, which has already led to killing on an ethnic basis, which could lead to further killing on an ethnic basis; because we have just seen killing of thousands of people in the Congo on an ethnic basis; because Rwanda, although it appears at the moment extremely stable, still has major problems of reconciliation and justice to resolve, so that the consequences of this genocide and the effect that it could have on neighboring countries continues to be enormous.

We're not finished with it yet. The trials go on of some of the leaders of genocide at the international tribunal. Within Rwanda, there are about 100,000 people waiting to be tried.

We also have inside the country an entire generation of children, the vast majority of them who were alive at the time, the vast majority of them saw people killed in brutal fashions. Perhaps as many as 60 percent of those children saw members of their own families slaughtered in brutal fashion.

We have significant numbers of women infected with HIV/AIDS because they were raped during this genocide, and little is being done to relieve their misery. We have lots of pieces yet to pick up.

But even more than that, we need to be ready. We need to be ready for the future. These kinds of wars directed against civilians are increasing. The kind of war that happened in the middle of the 20th century, where you had professional armies confronting each other, has given way now to another kind of war, which is being waged against civilians. The laws of war that we drew up were meant to protect civilians. Now the context has changed, and the civilians are becoming the object. Are those laws of war still valid? Can we enforce them? And what will we do, the next time a civilian population becomes the objective for extermination?

That's why we're still talking about this 10 years later.

david rawson
  U.S. Ambassador to Rwanda

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I think that we did what we thought was best -- we, the United States government. I think that I tried to carry out what was U.S. government policies as best I understood [them]. Once back in Washington, I was but one figure amongst many scurrying around, in what was quite clearly an inadequate response. All of these things need to be taken into account.

Ultimately, I think we're forced to confess that our best is sometimes not good enough; that our designs, as logical as they may seem, may not have been the appropriate solution. And that's something you just have to live with. At least we have the opportunity of continuing to live and to work for peace -- something that had been taken away from many hundreds of thousands of Rwandans.

george moose
  Assistant Secretary of State for Africa

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The lessons that you take from this, personally and officially?

One of the lessons -- and I think it's a lesson that a lot of us learned during that period, although it's a lesson as time passes [that] maybe is less poignant, salient. The first lesson is that there's a correlation between your instruments, your tools, and your willingness and your will to use them. One of the things that severely constrained us in Rwanda is we didn't have the tools. We didn't have a collection of ready, willing and able forces that could be deployed in a relatively short period of time to respond to this kind of crisis. Hence the effort to try and figure out how we could support [and] stand up African forces to do this. …

I know that some people viewed that as a way to avoid responsibly on the part of the United States, by saying, "We'll let the Africans take care of their problems," although I frankly do believe that, if in fact you had capable African forces in whom you had some confidence, [that] increased the likelihood that we would be going to go in with them in situations such as Rwanda.

But I'm not sure we've really learned that lesson. The U.N. report, the inquiry of 1999, came out with a whole list of recommendations. I think if you went back and looked at how well and how thoroughly those recommendations had been implemented, you would find we're probably not in much better shape today than we were back in 1994.

I do recall looking at the U.N. Web site to see who had actually signed up to be part of those so-called rapid reaction, rapid deployment force, and I recall there were only two countries on that list. That's not the fault of the U.N. only. It's the fault of all of us, all the member states, because only if you've got member states who are not only supporting, but are actually willing to take the lead to do this will it happen. So I don't have the sense that there's any great enthusiasm in the current administration either for the effort to build the capacities of other troops.

And it was not just African. There were other things going on at the time in Europe, and elsewhere as well, or in the capacity of the United Nations either to manage or organize these kinds of operations. I guess -- back to the other point -- I have personally been very wary of invoking that expression "Never again," because to do so implies that you have changed something; you have done something; you've created something -- a modality, a mechanism, an instrument -- that will allow you credibly to say that, "We will not allow this to happen ever again." And I don't think we're there.

Carl Wilkens
  Adventist Church Aid Worker

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I learned lessons as I reflect back on what happened then, what I'm doing now -- parallels. I'm not in the middle of a genocide now, but I sure am in the middle of a self-seeking, self-satisfying influence all around me. I know where that ultimately leads. I know the destruction that a constant focus on an insatiable self-appetite leads [to].

I think we need to remember -- recognize -- the potential that each of us had for evil, and the potential that each of us has for good. It didn't, in many ways, serve as a reality check for me. It may not be the obvious outward reality I'm living in right now, but that's where things really boil down to -- the battle between good and evil, and whose side I'm going to take. …

It reminds me that one person can make a difference, and it reminds us to look outside of ourselves and to reach outside. What can you do to help? I'm thankful that people remember this 10 years later, because there [are] people in Rwanda who will never forget it, and we need to have a connection. We need to live for each other.

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posted april 1, 2004

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