Home | Comment & Analysis    Wednesday 18 January 2006

From Rwanda to Darfur: Lessons learned?

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By Gerald Caplan, Pambazuka.org

What lessons did the international community learn from the Genocide in Rwanda ten years ago, especially in relation to the crisis in Darfur? Gerald Caplan, an expert on the Rwandan genocide, charts the response of the international community in Rwanda and then discusses what the response has been in Darfur. Once again, the international community, with key players only able to serve their various economic and strategic interests, have shown a scandalous disregard for human life and failed to act and prevent genocide.

Jan 12, 2006 — Even before the 1994 Rwandan genocide ended, some began wondering when "the next Rwanda" would be. Not "if", but when. Despite Indonesia in 1965, Burundi in 1972 and Cambodia from 1975 to 1978, genocide had receded in the public consciousness. From the late 1960s, it’s true, memory of the Holocaust was in full bloom. But the Holocaust was treated as almost a self-contained phenomenon separate from "ordinary" genocide. The earlier Armenian genocide was mainly the crusade of Armenians, the Hereros’ extermination was unknown beyond a few experts. As for the post-Holocaust massacres of half-a-million Chinese and Communists in Indonesia, the slaughter by the Tutsi army of perhaps 200,000 Hutu in Burundi, including all those with secondary education, and the deaths by beating, starving or torture by the Khmer Rouge of a million and a half Cambodians, none quite seemed to meet the standards set down in the 1948 Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide (UNCG).

Rwanda was different. Rwanda was a classic UNCG genocide, fulfilling all the conditions, and it reminded the world that a half century after the world first vowed "Never again," genocide had not disappeared. What Primo Levi had said of the Holocaust was now said about Rwanda: It happened, so it will happen again. For some, it happened soon enough. For them, Srebrenica in 1995 seemed "another Rwanda", and indeed, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia eventually decided that the murder of 8000 Muslim Bosnian males by Bosnian Serb militias was indeed genocide. But this has been a controversial issue. Cold-bloodedly murdering 8000 Muslim Bosnians was beyond question an egregious war crime, even a crime against humanity, but, some wondered, how could it belong in the same category as killing 1 ½ million Armenians or six million Jews?

Rwanda, however, left no room for ambiguity. Ironically, the seeming absence of genocide since 1945 had made most observers refuse to take seriously in advance that an actual genocidal conspiracy was being hatched in Rwanda before 1994. Once it was over, it seemed all but inevitable that others could, would, follow. For many, early in the new millennium, Darfur seemed well on its way to becoming "the next Rwanda". The urgent question then emerged: Had Rwanda taught the world any lessons that might help prevent Darfur from following in its place?

Three lessons from Rwanda

Assuming of course that there really are any lessons at all that the past can teach the future, it is possible to isolate three from the unmitigated catastrophe of Rwanda in 1994. Of these, the first and most obvious is profoundly disheartening to all those who favor intervention in crises where no interests beyond the humanitarian are at stake. The second and third are apparently, or potentially, encouraging. To seek a ray of hope out of a genocide borders on the desperate, but in the curious universe of those who study genocides in order to prevent them, what else is there to hold on to?

The horror of the Rwandan genocide extends beyond its intrinsic bestiality. What’s also notable is, first, how swiftly it became evident that this was a perfect storm of a genocide, and, second, how easily it could have been prevented. (Before addressing the betrayal of Rwanda by the "international community", genocide prevention activists must not forget that it could have been prevented most successfully if the Hutu conspirators who plotted to "cleanse" Rwanda of its Tutsi citizens had simply called off their plot.) Yet the genocide was not formally named as such by the vast majority of governments and institutions, including the United Nations and Organization of African Unity, until the 100 days of slaughter had virtually come to an end. Moreover, not only was the genocide not prevented, it was not even marginally mitigated. From the first day to the last, not a single reinforcement arrived in Rwanda to bolster the puny UN force of 400 that was trying desperately to save the relatively few Tutsi that it could.

Thus, the first lesson from Rwanda: the harsh unwelcome reminder - as if the world needed another - that the global powers-that-be are capable of almost infinite callousness and indifference to human suffering if geopolitical or political interests were not at stake. Calls for forceful intervention bases strictly on humanitarian grounds, as we have learned the hard way once again in Darfur, are simply irrelevant to those with the means to intervene.

Here I refer essentially to the Security Council, and within that body to the remarkably powerful five Permanent Members (P5) who alone hold a veto over all its resolutions. Since UN missions can only be authorized by the Security Council, and since any one of the P5 can veto any resolution, the leverage of the US, Britain, France, Russia and China can hardly be exaggerated. Those who have begged for a more assertive response in both Rwanda and Darfur understand the immutability of this phenomenon.

Often, middle powers are looked to as a means to exert pressure on the inner sanctum of the P5. Canada, northern Europe and the Scandinavian countries are all seen, sometimes naively, as being less in the thrall of self-interest and more open to humanitarian projects. In trying to leverage action for Darfur, activists placed considerable hope on these countries. The role of Belgium in 1994 shows both the leverage that a middle power can play and the perverse use it can make of that leverage.

For 110 years prior to the Rwandan genocide, no external power played a more deplorable role in Africa than Belgium - a tiny country responsible for giant crimes against humanity. Its impact on the Congo, Rwanda and Burundi was catastrophic. The turbulent history of the entire Great Lakes region in the 20th century would have been profoundly different if it had not been for Belgian colonial rule. Now, just as the genocide was exploding across Rwanda, the Belgian government sought to bring pressure on the Security Council to withdraw in its entirety its 6-month old UN Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR). Ten of Belgium’s UN troops had been murdered by Rwandan government soldiers less than a day after the genocide was triggered by the shooting down of the Rwandan president’s plane. The Belgian government decided it was politically impossible for its troops to remain in Rwanda. Their withdrawal very substantially undermined UNAMIR’s capacity, and its lethal consequences are not merely theoretical. It immediately and directly led to the death of some 2500 Rwandans being protected by Belgian troops at the Ecole Technique Officielle (ETO) school compound in the capital, Kigali. At least the Belgian government had the good sense to feel humiliated by the decision to abandon Rwanda at its moment of greatest need, and sought to cover its guilt by convincing the entire world to share its culpability.

To the everlasting sorrow of Rwanda, the Belgians found the Administration of US President Bill Clinton ready and willing. Largely for their own entirely short-term partisan reasons, with pathological UN-hating Republicans breathing down their necks, the Clintonites were unprepared to have anything whatever to do with sending a new UN mission to a tiny African country which, as is invariably said, almost no American could even find on a map. Among the P5, France was the only country genuinely concerned about Rwanda for its own perverse reasons of francophone solidarity, and it was stealthily seeking a way to intervene on behalf of the Hutu extremist genocidaire government. It was left to the US Ambassador to the UN, Madeleine Albright, to lead a vigorous movement in the Security Council to literally decimate UNAMIR’s 2500-odd force. Britain, for reasons British journalist-historian Linda Melvern is still trying to unravel, fell in solidly behind the Americans. Russia and China were largely uninterested, a situation that would change significantly in the case of Darfur. At the end of the genocide’s second week, with an estimated 100,000 or more Tutsi and almost all prominent moderate Hutu already dead, and the genocide gaining daily momentum, the Security Council voted to reduce the UNAMIR mission to 250 men. Force Commander Romeo Dallaire, furious and sick at heart, disobeyed this explicit instruction and managed to retain 400 men for the duration of the genocide.

Even now, it is impossible to recapitulate these events without feeling they cannot possibly be true. But as virtually all authorities on the subject agree, and as the Security Council’s reaction to Darfur a decade later make entirely plausible, they were only too true, and their lesson was clear. There seemed barely any depths to which the "international community" would not sink if it deemed them necessary to its own national interests, even if that interest was nothing more nor less than, in Belgium’s case, covering up a cowardly abandonment of a people at ultimate risk, or for the US, winning an impending election. Political expediency was all, and human need seemed completely irrelevant.

However, two other lessons of the international reaction, distressing as they were at the time, seemed to offer a certain hope for intervention in future crises. First were the lies told by both US President Bill Clinton and UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan in later apologizing for their inaction during the 100 days. Both claimed that they were insufficiently aware of the situation at the time. These claims, on the part of both men, have been repudiated beyond a shadow of a doubt. They knew everything, or at least everything they wanted to know. Nevertheless, their very disingenuousness permitted the inference that the next time "another Rwanda" loomed, if it could attain a sufficiently high public profile, the Security Council would have lost the excuse of ignorance and have little alternative but to intervene. This apparent truth initially gave heart to the movement to intervene in Darfur.

Second, as already noted, almost no one in an official position at the time agreed to characterize Rwanda as a genocide and, led again by the Clinton administration, actually denied that a genocide was in fact in progress. This refusal to affirm the obvious was again tied directly to the Clintonites’ electoral fears. Government lawyers studying the 1948 Genocide Convention appear to have decided that accepting the genocide label would trigger a major obligation on the administration to intervene actively. That such an interpretation was highly debatable is neither here nor there. It was perfectly possible to argue that a mere Security Council resolution satisfied the wording of the UNCG. But Clinton’s advisors chose not to adopt this reading. Their judgment powerfully affected Clinton’s public stance.

Television captured a moment of true self-debasement when a US State Department spokesperson, a certain Christine Shelly, tried to explain to reporters that Rwanda was the scene of "acts of genocide" but not of genocide. When pushed to indicate how many "acts of genocide" constitute one full genocide, Ms. Shelly, obviously humiliated beyond words, explained that she wasn’t authorized to deal with that question. (To her everlasting chagrin, several documentaries on the genocide include footage of her disastrous performance, unforgivingly immortalizing her forever.) The difference between this pathetic moment and subsequent American reactions to Darfur under President Bush could hardly have been more glaring.

And indeed, Clinton’s position that there was no full-blown genocide in Rwanda unwittingly provided the glimmer of hope out of an act of unsurpassed political opportunism. If Rwanda was "not quite" a genocide, and therefore intervention was not obligatory, it surely followed logically that if a genocide were declared in future, would it not mean that intervention was mandatory, inescapable? That logic, combined with the prospect that if a disaster was well-enough publicized, the world would have little choice but to move in, offered some real hope that the "next Rwanda" would not be betrayed and abandoned as the original Rwanda had been.

The next Rwanda

Then came Darfur. Less than a decade after Hutu Power was defeated, the world had found its "next Rwanda". It is irrelevant to my argument that serious genocide authorities disagree about whether the conflict is a genocide or not. All agree that it had many of the dimensions of a genocide, that it is an appalling catastrophe, and that robust intervention is demanded. As we know, no such intervention has occurred, and as this is written early in 2006, the situation seems to have deteriorated substantially and become even more complex - the almost inevitable consequence of the world’s meagre response to date. From the point of view of the hopes raised by two of the optimistic lessons from Rwanda, the response of the "international community" to the crisis in Darfur can only be considered a giant, tragic set-back. It is not too much to say that Darfur shows that only the first despairing lesson - the bottomless cynicism and self-interest of the major powers - -remains valid, while the hopes have been largely destroyed.

After all, by the middle of 2004, at the very latest, everyone who counts knew that an overwhelming political and humanitarian man-made disaster had befallen western Sudan. On April 7, when he rightly should have been in Kigali for the commemoration of the tenth anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, Kofi Annan was instead in Geneva unveiling a new five-point plan for genocide prevention and announcing that the world must not permit Darfur to become "another Rwanda". Everyone who counts soon either visited Khartoum to plead with the Government of Sudan that was orchestrating the crisis, or popped in at a displaced persons or refugee camp in Darfur or across the border in Chad. When Annan and Colin Powell make a stop somewhere, you know that it’s already a major story. It may not have competed with the Michael Jackson trial, but even in the mainstream media, Darfur stories, features and opinion pieces were remarkably common for a crisis so remote and complex.

The crisis in Darfur, in other words, was fairly big news. This was unlike Rwanda. Clinton and Annan knew all about Rwanda, but media coverage for many weeks was both minimal and distorted ("tribal savagery") so the public remained largely uninformed. Yet despite Darfur’s profile, the Security Council was effectively paralyzed by the conflicting interests of the veto-casting P5. This time China, thirsty for Sudan’s oil, and Russia, anxious to sell arms to a genocidal government, also played spoiler roles. The Council passed a series of powder-puff resolutions each threatening the killers in Khartoum that if they did not rein in their Janjaweed forces, they would be forcefully confronted with - yet another resolution. Perhaps not since a representative of Rwanda’s genocidaire government retained his position on the Security Council through the entire 1994 genocide has the Security Council appeared to be more of a joke than over Darfur.

The role of the United States

Yet there was another reason for hope. Pushed by an unlikely coalition of domestic pressure groups, the US Congress and Executive publicly declared that Darfur constituted a genuine genocide under the 1948 Convention. Such a radical and dramatic step was unprecedented in American history. Both chambers of Congress hastily and unanimously passed their own resolutions declaring Darfur to be a genocide with barely an explanation, let alone debate, and President Bush and Secretary of State Colin Powell each eventually followed with their own concurring declarations. To the genocide prevention community, this seemed the moment they had so long dreamed of and planned for. What would be the point of making this declaration unless significant action was being planned? It was true the Bush government, and others, were modestly generous in providing humanitarian aid to the displaced and the refugees as well as funding for the Africa Union Mission to Darfur. But now, surely, with these declarations, was the long-awaited moment of qualitative escalation. Now we would see the kind of forceful intervention denied Rwanda and that was crucial if the travesty in Sudan was to be ended.

In fact, all that was needed was to pay heed to the second part of Colin Powell’s statement before the US Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Yes, the US had decided, upon looking at evidence it had specifically commissioned - the exact opposite of Rwanda - that a genocide was taking place before the eyes of the world. Powell had no doubt what the world expected next, and said so explicitly: "Mr. Chairman, some seem to have been waiting for this determination of genocide to take action. In fact, however, no new action is dictated by this determination. We have been doing everything we can to get the Sudanese government to act responsibly. So let us not be preoccupied with this designation of genocide. These people are in desperate need and we must help them. Call it a civil war. Call it ethnic cleansing. Call it genocide. Call it ’none of the above’. The reality is the same: there are people in Darfur who desperately need our help." (US Department of State, "The Crisis In Darfur," Written remarks before the Senate FRC, Washington, DC, September 9, 2004).

How was this possible? Had the historic declaration of genocide been nothing more than an opportunistic political ploy by the Bush administration to assuage some domestic pressure groups? Could even the Bush neocons be so cynical as to play politics with genocide? If not, how could this wholly unanticipated development be explained? How could the esteemed Colin Powell participate in this destructive exercise which has done so much to debase the currency of the Genocide Convention?

Within mere months of the American government’s determination of genocide in Darfur, a new Bush administration betrayal of Darfur was exposed. First came the revelation that the CIA had sent a plane to Khartoum to ferry the head of Sudanese intelligence, General Salah Abdallah Gosh, to Washington for discussions with his American peers on the "war against terror". Sudan, it appears, had become "a crucial intelligence asset to the CIA." (Suzanne Goldenberg, "Ostracized Sudan emerges as key American ally in ’war on terror’," Guardian Weekly, May 6-12, 2005.) Never mind that General Gosh’s name is widely assumed to be among the 51 leading Sudanese officials named by the UN-appointed International Commission of Inquiry on Darfur. The "war on terrorism" obviously trumps genocide.
Later we learned just how close this tie really was. In October 2005, Guardian reporter Jonathan Steele reported the following:

"Question: When do Bush administration officials cuddle up to leaders of states that the US describes as sponsors of international terrorism? Answer: When they are in Khartoum. I know because I saw it the other day.... We were attending the closing dinner of a 2-day conference of African counter-terrorism officials, to which the US and UK were invited as observers. The western spooks were less than happy to have the western press on hand, especially as their names were called out. But loss of anonymity was a small price for the excellent cooperation both agencies believe Sudan is giving to keep tabs on Somali, Saudi and other Arab fundamentalists who pass through its territory.... [The dinner] was in the garden of the headquarters of Sudan’s intelligence service, not far from the Nile. Up stepped a senior CIA agent. In full view of the assembled company, he gave General Salah Abdallah Gosh, Sudan’s intelligence chief, a bear hug. The general responded by handing over a goody-bag, wrapped in shiny green paper. Next up was the [British] M16 official, with the same effusive routine." (Jonathan Steele, "Darfur wasn’t genocide and Sudan is not a terrorist," Guardian, October 7, 2005.)

There are still Darfur activists who believe that despite close working relationships between the Bush administration and precisely those Sudanese leaders against whom the International Criminal Court intends to issue warrants, the US can still be relied on as an ally in pressuring Khartoum to end its war against the Fur and other Africans. I wish I could agree. The Khartoum government is as canny as it is treacherous, and blithely uses its leverage to continue getting away with murder in Darfur. It now has trump cards with the Americans, the Chinese and the Russians. Those of us who urge intervention on strictly humanitarian grounds have no comparable influence whatever. The result is virtually pre-ordained: the death and rape and suffering in western Sudan will continue.

Are there now lessons from Darfur, having seen that the only lesson from Rwanda that proved relevant was the most despairing one? It is almost too disheartening even to ask. But for those committed to genocide prevention or to interventions on strictly humanitarian grounds, tough questions must again be asked, creative new directions and mechanisms sought. The alternative is too ghastly to contemplate.

* Gerald Caplan has a Ph.D. in African history from the School of Oriental and African Studies, University of London. He is author of Rwanda: The Preventable Genocide, the report of the International Panel of Eminent Personalities appointed by the Organization of African Unity to investigate the Rwandan genocide; founder of "Remembering Rwanda"; and co-editor with Eric Markusen of a special edition of the Journal of Genocide Research devoted to the 10th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide. He teaches a course on the genocide to Rwandans in Rwanda.



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