Friday, November 14, 2003

I'm presently reading the excellent book A Problem From Hell: America and the Age of Genocide by Samantha Power. It addresses genocides in the 20th century and America's (non-)responses to them. I just finished the chapter on Bosnia and am just starting the one on Rwanda.

I've read a number of works about the Rwandan genocide but it still angers me. Although it's less historically reknown/notorious than the Holocaust, the Rwandan genocide is by almost all accounts the most evily efficient slaughter in history. An estimated 800,000 to 1 million dead in 100 days, as though numbers can really do justice to the magnitude of the horror.

In the book and her appearances on TV book shows, Power has made one pointed repeatedly about the greatest obstacle human rights activists come across when trying to get the America to fight genocide and other massacres: the false either-or choice.

Basically, those who don't want to intervene frame the situation this way: either we risk tens of thousands of American* troops in an all out ground invasion of [place where genocide is occuring] or we do nothing. Since risking American lives, especially for something that's "only" a humanitarian mission, is never a vote-winner, the president of the day and his team always want to avoid doing anything.

[*-As foreign powers go, the French government's hands were far more bloody in the Rwandan genocide, as their culpability was dangerous close to active. But I refer to American govt and public here because Power concentrates on her adopted country]

This is a myth because there are always more than the two choices presented. There is always more than one way to intervene.

For example, there was a small UN peacekeeping mission in Rwanda when the genocide started. Their mandate almost emasculated them, forcing them to be nothing more than "witnesses at a funeral" as one person put it. This was demanded by a gun-shy Clinton administration, still scarred from the experience in Somalia.

The genociders captured 15 UN peacekeepers, 10 from Belgium and 5 from Ghana, unable to fight back due to the absurd rules of engagement. Then the genociders executed a plan that would have a huge impact on the international reaction to the massacres. They released the West Africans but murdered the Belgians. Their plan was to scare the Belgians and other westerners to withdraw or weaken the UN mission, thus imitating the Somali warlords who scared the Americans out of the Horn of Africa. That way, they could remove even the powerless witnesses from their slaughters.

Belgium asked for the Security Council to reinforce the mission, without which the Belgians would pull out. The head of the peacekeeping mission, Canadian Gen. Romeo Dallaire, asked the Council to double the size of his force, since he estimated the larger contigent would deter the massacres. Instead, the Council, under pressure from the US and France (each for different reasons), slashed the size of the mission by 90 percent. The Belgians and others pulled out. The genociders took their cue. Around million men, women and children were murdered.

The Clinton administration claimed that since committing US ground troops was inconceivable, there was nothing they could do. But this either-or, as always, was a sham. A convenient smokescreen. A few of the options, not involving US troops, that Clinton could've pursued were:

-The US could've pushed for the strengthening of the UN mission in Rwanda, rather than actively opposing it

-The US could've used jamming equipment to disrupt the broadcasts of Radio Mille Collines. This "hate radio" was broadcasting names, addresses and license plate numbers of those to be slaughtered. If the hate radio's broadcasts had been jammed, the genocide couldn't possibly have proceeded with the same ruthless, mechanical efficiency. It's likely that hundreds of thousands of lives would've been spared. When the deputy US ambassador to Rwanda (who, ironically, was ambassador to Kenya during the Nairobi bombing) suggested the jamming to her superiors in Washington, she was chided as naive. ""Pru, radios don't kill people. People kill people!"

-The US could've pushed for the expulsion of Rwanda's ambassador to the UN. A symbolic measure to be sure. But the administration barely even bothered with symbolic measures like this or even ritual condemnations of the violence. Rwanda wasn't on their radar screen in spring 1994.

-Gen. Dallaire asked the US to help transport heavy military equipment to the small number of remaining peacekeepers, since the US was one of the few countries with the logistical capacity to offer such help. The US bureaucracy instead haggled over details. Would the UN buy the equipment? Lease it? Who would pay for it to be shipped? If the administration had wanted this to be expedited, it would've been expedited. Instead, tens of thousands of people were being murdered during every week of this stonewalling..

These are only four of the options that could've saved the lives of tens or hundreds of thousands of Rwandans. Four options that entailed no risk to American military personnel. Yet they weren't done.

They weren't done because of the false either-or choice. The American people were fed the line, "Since America can't do everything everywhere, it should thus do nothing." In an part of the world not familiar to most people here and susceptible to pre-conceived notions, Americans trusted what they were told. They believed the either-or myth.

Contrast this to Liberia, another part of the world unfamiliar to most Americans and susceptible to pre-conceived notions. Although the US did not send ground troops, the Bush administration continuously condemned the country's then-dictator Charles Taylor. The Bush people excerted strong diplomatic pressure on its West African allies to push Taylor out of office. US ground troops weren't committed, but Washington did not side aside silently. Without US pressure, it's likely Taylor would still be in power rather than in exile, possibly facing international war crimes charges. When left to their own devices, the most influential African governments (Nigeria, South Africa, Senegal) tend to be very deferrential to other heads of state and prefer "silent diplomacy" even when it's clearly failed miserably. The example of Zimbabwe is a testament to that.

As Liberia shows, committing ground troops is not the only way to effectively intervene in a genocide or other brutal conflict. Don't let the political establishment tell you differently.


-The book We Wish To Inform You That We Will All Be Killed Tommorrow With Our Families by Philip Gourevitch is widely considered to be the definitive account on the Rwandan genocide. It is the most powerful book I've ever read. Fergal Keane's Season of Blood is also excellent. Gourevitch's book looks at the bigger picture while Keane's focuses in on the stories of individuals.

-For a briefer account of the Rwandan genocide, Samantha Power published a comprehensive yet concise article about it in the September 2001 issue of The Atlantic Monthly.

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