Tuesday, April 20, 2004

Rwanda: Lessons and Conclusions

From: BBC. Caption: Since 1994, the numbers of students attending secondary education has increased five-fold - to 200,000. Before the genocide, girls were not encouraged to go to school but today more girls than boys receive an education.

Rwandans and the rest of the world learned many lessons from the genocide, most of which were not pleasant.

MYTH DESTROYED: "Never again" will the world allow genocide. As Holocaust consciousness exploded in the last few decades, "Never Again" was one of the lines that was repeated ad nauseaum. People intoned "Never Again" constantly but when it came time to put that into practice, when it came time to act (both in Bosnia and Rwanda), those people had a million reasons/excuses not to intervene. Ancient ethnic hatreds. Chaos. Morally equivalency between those committing 5% of the atrocities and those committing 95%. But many members of the "Never Again" crowd contented themselves with lighting candles, holding ceremonies and giving speeches while other genocides raged. Such memory is dangerous when it becomes a shackle on action rather than a motivation.

LESSON LEARNED: "Never again" doesn't really mean never again. "Never Again" really means "Never again will the world permit a genocide of Jews in the heart of Europe." I don't know if this is what the phrase's original proponents intended. I've written and read extensively about Rwanda. In the course of doing so, I've come to believe that though the Holocaust has sensitized us to genocide, it's inadvertantly made us more loathe to react. Simply put: if there's not 6,000,000 dead (not even counting the non-Jews killed by the Nazis), then it's not on the same scale as the Holocaust. If it's not on the same scale as the Holocaust, then it's not genocide; it's "merely" ethnic cleansing or 'ancient ethnic hatreds' or tribal warfare or 'inadvertant casualties of war' some other eupehemism. Tragically, there's a sense that calling something "genocide" before the magic 6 million mark somehow demeans the Holocaust's memory; that we diminish the word by overuse, so it's better never to use it at all. We've chosen to take the Holocaust and make it THE standard for future genocides, rather than saying: it must never get THAT bad ever again. We end up saying: we won't act until it gets that bad. Maybe the lesson is that we should stop pretending that the "Never Again" mantra applies to people who aren't Jewish.

MYTH DESTROYED: The US didn't stop the Holocaust because it didn't know. Saying that Americans would've supported intervention in Europe if they knew the Holocaust was taking place is a dubious assertion. But the Rwandan genocide (and that of Bosnia) were both broadcast live and in color to the US and the world on CNN and the BBC. Americans were bombarded with stories of slaughter by machete in central Africa and concentration camps in the heart of Europe. There was no groundswell for intervention. I'm sure some will give reasons why this was a legitimate choice, but no one can pretend non-intervention was based on ignorance.

LESSON LEARNED: The "international community" doesn't exist. And there isn't really any reason we ought to expect that it should. The "international community" comprises some 200 countries, each with their own interests, values and priorities.

LESSON LEARNED: The UN is nothing more than a collection of member states. Its peacekeepers can not act if UN member states don't want it to. When there's a crisis, there's usually a call from some quarters for "the UN" to do something. Except "the UN" isn't a sovereign entity. People think the secretary-general is the president of the world. In reality, he has no authority, other than moral. He's less like the president of the United States and more like the Pope. In Rwanda, UN peacekeepers wanted to intervene to halt the genocide but UN member states immmorally refused to allow it. (Some people just use "the UN" casually to mean many different things). Then-UN Rwanda peacekeeping head Gen. Romeo Dallaire contends that the this responsibility was not simply moral but criminal.

LESSON LEARNED: If you're planning a genocide, impliment it when something else big is going on in the world. It's easy to say that the world ignored Rwanda because it was in central Africa, the stereotypical "heart of darkness." And while this is surely true in part, there's more to it. One of the tragic ironies of the Rwandan genocide is that occurred at the same time as South Africa was having its historic first-ever democratic and multiracial elections. Almost all international media attention was focused on South Africa. This is ironic because for years, developing country advocates complained that the American and western press only reported negative stories about Africa. South Africa was the media's chance to show balance, to report a truly good story from the continent. I think in their hearts, the media WANTED an unambiguous good story from Africa. Unfortunately, this good story deflected attention from what was really one of the worst atrocities ever to occur in the continent in the 20th century. I doubt international reACTION would've been significantly different but public pressure might've forced western governments at least to adopt smaller measures like hate radio jamming or giving the UN force already there a stronger mandate.

LESSON LEARNED: If you're planning a genocide, make sure you buddy to a western power. This is certainly not news to Guatemalan Mayans or to Iraqi Kurds. Contrary to popular belief, a western country DID intervene during the genocide. Except it was on behalf of the murderers. The French "Operation Turquoise" was authorized by the UN Security Council ostensibly to create a humanitarian corridor. In reality, it allowed members of the genocidal regime, the French government's old buddies, to escape to then-Zaire. This was after France resolutely refused to strengthen the UN peacekeepers, a somewhat less tainted force, or even to permit the Blue Helmets to try to stop the genocide. As this column in The Guardian noted, Dallaire's mission was a sham force designed to trick the rest of the world into thinking it was doing something but weak enough that the genociders knew it would never actually enforce its pretend mission. "Operation Turquoise" promised a more robust enforcement but since it was entirely French-run, it implimented French objectives. Specifically, making sure no one ever knew fully how complicit Paris was in the slaughter.

LESSON LEARNED: Whether or not the world pays attention to a tragedy has little to do with the magnitude of that tragedy. This is perhaps the most important thing people around the world in desperate situations must learn: Don't expect foreigners to help you. They might. They might not. But it will be largely random. If other countries help you, it will be more due to a series of fortunate coincidences that have more to do with them and less to do with you. You can't count on it. For example, the US intervened in Kosovo because President Clinton wanted to distract people from his sex scandal; the action was right, but had the same decision been called for five years earlier, pre-Lewinsky, the choice would've been different. The people of Bosnia can attest to this. Kosovars got the luck of the draw; Bosnians didn't. People in Charles Taylor's Liberia and Saddam Hussein's Iraq both lived under a vicious, bloodthirsty dictatorship that cost countless lives and was internationall condemned; but one of those nations was deemed worthy of "liberation." The dichotomy had more to do with the disparity of American economic considerations in those countries and less to do with the actual repression of Taylor's and Hussein's regimes. In even some of the most extreme cases, western powers have been on the wrong side of human rights. American support for Saddam during the Kurdish genocide. France and Operation Turquoise. British and American support for the apartheid regime in South Africa for economic reasons. People living under desperate totalitarianism may hope for the series of coincidences required to attract the attention of a major western power, but they are foolish to bet their lives on it.

To the people of Rwanda, I wish you the best of luck. You are proceeding down a difficult, possibly unprecedented path. Your president has noted that Rwandans must fix their society themselves. This self-reliance is a good message since history has shown relying on others is dangerously self-deceptive. Hopefully, you've learned the most important lesson of all: arbitrary divisions between human beings rarely leads to anything productive.


Recommended reading: Deliver Us from Evil: Warlords and Peacekeepers in a World of Endless Conflict by William Shawcross. Addresses the successes and failures of international humanitarian interventions and non-interventions during the 1990s.

Recommended listening: Days of Darkness, Days of Light, BBC World Service documentary.

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