Friday, April 09, 2004


From: UNICEF. Caption: In 1994 in Rwanda, a boy with a machete scar on the back of his head, caused by being attacked at the height of the civil conflict, stands with other children outside the Cyugaro primary school.

Lots people, even liberal internationalists, hold many myths about the Rwandan genocide and the world's non-reaction. Some of them are addressed below.

-It was pointless for any outsiders to doing because it was ancient ethnic hatreds that would inevitably flair up again anyway.

By 1994, the 'ancient ethnic hatreds' line had become the US State Department's new motto. The Clinton administration had used this excuse against engagement so many times regarding the Balkans that a transferal was seamless once Rwanda rolled around. As I mentioned in an earlier post, considering Hutus and Tutsis as two distinct ethnic groups is probably the greatest myth of all. They were one ethnicity divided by class* by the Belgians in the early 1900s. So even if you accept the dubious premise that they are two ethnicities and even if you questionably assume that they hated each other from the moment of the arbitrary division, the 'ethnic hatreds' were less than a century old. By contrast, the Catholic and Protestant "ethnicities" in Northern Ireland have been fighting each other since at least the 1600s. Bill Clinton tireless (and admirably) intervened in that dispute even though the tribal hatred was far more ancient than in Rwanda.

*-incidentally, this is a reason why I'm not keen on the class warfare rhetoric many Democrats and some Republicans eagerly use to score political points.

-The killings were spontaneous and the situation was so chaotic, that intervention could've done nothing.

Essentially, the unstated assertion of this is: Rwanda was another Somalia. The myth gained steam simply by people's ignorance of East African realities. Some of this ignorance was willful on the part of many people who didn't want to the US to intervene and thus believed that which supported their pre-conceived notions. Some of it was due to the fact that information in the midst of wars is necessarily difficult for journalists to assess. In fact, Rwanda was the polar opposite in every way of Somalia. The violence in Somalia was the result of anarchy. The violence in Rwanda was meticulously planned and executed. Somalia was a notoriously fractious society. Rwanda was a society with deep, and in this case excessive, obedience to hierarchy and authority. Somalia was random. Rwanda was choreographed, down to a radio station reading of names of Tutsis to be murdered. While the fog of war may have obscured things for journalists and the public, members of the Clinton administration had access to more detailed information which debunked this myth.

-Your hindsight is 20-20, isn't it? The Clinton administration probably didn't fully appreciate at the time how bad things were in Rwanda.

This was the line peddled by President Clinton during his 1998 visit to Kigali. Er rather, the Kigali airport, which he never left. "It may seem strange to you here, especially the many of you who lost members of your family, but all over the world there were people like me sitting in offices, day after day after day, who did not fully appreciate [pause] the depth [pause] and the speed [pause] with which you were being engulfed by this unimaginable terror."

The Sydney Morning Herald was one of many news outlets to report just last week: Papers prove US knew of genocide in Rwanda. The Australian daily wrote: Senior officials privately used the word genocide within 16 days of the start of the killings, but chose not to do so publicly because the president had already decided not to intervene. Intelligence reports obtained using the US Freedom of Information Act show the cabinet and almost certainly the president knew of a planned "final solution to eliminate all Tutsis" before the slaughter reached its peak... [investigations] discovered that a secret CIA briefing circulated to Mr Clinton, his vice-president, Al Gore, and hundreds of officials included almost daily reports on Rwanda. One, dated April 23, 1994, said rebels would continue fighting to "stop the genocide, which . . . is spreading south". Three days later the secretary of state, Warren Christopher, and other officials were told of "genocide and partition" and of declarations of a "final solution to eliminate all Tutsis". Why? "They feared this word would generate public opinion which would demand some sort of action and they didn't want to act," noted Alison Desforges of the group Human Rights Watch. It's not that the Clinton administration didn't know. It didn't WANT to know.

-It wasn't really genocide because many moderate Hutu political opponents were also killed.

There was certainly a political aspect to the genocide. In fact, all genocides have a political aspect: usually to find a scapegoat to focus people's anger and frustration about things they can't control (but the government often can). Genocide is, by definition, a political act. Why? Because the word genocide means 'race murder.' But all humans belong to the same race: homo sapiens. The main differences between "ethnicities" are sociological: religion, language, cultural practices and traditions; in the case of Rwanda: class. The Nazis targeted for extermination the Jews (different religion) but also gays (different mores) and Gypsys (different language and culture). Serbs targeted Bosnians (different religion and culture). No one would argue that the Holocaust wasn't really genocide just because the Nazis didn't target Jews EXCLUSIVELY.

-If the extremists were targeting all opponents, not just Tutsis, then shouldn't it be called politicide instead?

An intent of the extremists' plan was to purge Rwanda of all Tutsis. This is genocide, as clearly described by the international Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, ratified by the US Senate in 1986. That Hutu extremists also targeted moderate Hutu political opponents adds to the severity of what the extremists did, not diminish it. What the Hutu extremists did was genocide AND politicide.

There are so many myths to debunk, I'll make this section in two parts.

Incidentally, since I've found so much to write about, I've decided to expand this series to ten parts.


Tommorrow: Myths and realities, part two.

Recommended reading: Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda by Roméo Dallaire. The general in charge of UN peacekeeping in Rwanda during the genocide gives his account.

And "A Problem from Hell" : America and the Age of Genocide by Samantha Power. Though the chapter on Rwanda is obviously most pertinent to this series, the book is probably the most important one I've ever read, at least in terms of influencing my thinking.


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