Two decades ago, the world stood by and watched as hundreds of thousands died at the hands of their neighbors. Blood poured through the streets and only after 100 days did the killing finally trickle to a halt. In the immediate aftermath, once the international community realized it had just witnessed the largest instance of genocide since World War II, the pledges began rolling in: Never again. Never again would the peoples of the world sit and wait and watch while innocents die by the thousands. But as world leaders and Rwandan survivors marked the twenty year anniversary on Monday, just how much can that claim be said to be true? What has really changed since the days of the Rwandan Genocide?
Inside Rwanda: Fear and progress
There’s no set consensus on the number of dead in the three-month long massacre. Most agree that it falls between a range of a low end of 500,000 to the Rwandan government’s estimation of more than one million. Members of the Hutu majority also faced the machete blade should they defend their neighbors, the vast majority of whom came from the Tutsi ethnic group. After the ethnic Hutu presidents of Burundi and Rwanda both died when their plane was shot down, Tutsis were blamed, decades of grievances related to the Tutsi’s position of superiority under the Belgian colonial government bubbled over, and the bloodletting began. The genocide left a giant scar on the psyche of Rwanda, one that manifests itself in the form of hundreds of thousands of survivors.
Paul Kagame came to power in the Tutsi-dominated government in the aftermath — first as de facto Defense Minister, then later president — as members of his Rwandan Patriotic Front seized control. The RPF had before the genocide been a rebel group bent on overthrowing the Rwandan government and has been accused of committing abuses of its own. The fact that such a group helped end the genocide reflects strongly the uneasy quality that the rebuilding of Rwanda has had in the years since 1994. Economic growth has skyrocketed under Kagame, with the economy expanding at a rate of 8 percent in 2012 according to the World Bank. And one of the less commented upon legacies of the genocide is the spurring of gender equality — Rwanda currently leads the world with the highest percentage of women holding seats in parliament.
During the last presidential election in 2010, concerns began to be raised about just how open and free Kagame’s Rwanda actually is. Groups like Amnesty International condemned the atmosphere ahead of the ballot, in which at least one prominent member of the opposition was found beheaded. Kagame’s RPF — now a political party instead of an armed rebellion — won 93 percent of the vote in that election. More recently, accusations have begun to appear of Kagame’s government silencing opposition even outside of Rwanda’s borders. Patrick Karegeya, a Rwandan ex-intelligence chief, died in South Africa in January. Shortly after, whispers began to emerge that the Rwandan government had him killed. Kagame has denied Rwandan involvement repeatedly, but has also gone out of his way to convey a lack of sympathy for the man’s death. “Nobody has a right to go and enjoy protectional security somewhere else while he kills Rwandans,” Kagame insisted recently. Whatever questions or criticism that may bring, he told Buzzfeed, “I don’t give a damn.”
An ongoing legacy
The rehabilitation of Rwanda has also managed to take place even as the legacy of its genocide continues to take shape across the border in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC). The Hutu extremists that committed the genocide swarmed over the porous border into the country then known as Zaire, where dictator Mobutu Sese Seko for the most part turned a blind eye as they set up base in U.N. refugee camps. Cross-border attacks back into Rwanda from these extremists — conducted alongside their attacks on Congolese civilians — made the group a serious threat to a Rwanda still recovering from genocide.
Kagame and his allies in the region turned to arming and supporting Congolese rebel Laurent-Désiré Kabila in his quest to seize power, on the premise that he could help them in turn root out the Hutu threat. When Kabilia proved to be outside of their direct control, Rwanda, Uganda, and Burundi alike all backed rebels determined to overthrow his fledgling government. The resulting conflict would consume the Congo, drawing in participants as far away as Libya to quarrel over control of the country. The many mineral resources available beneath the Congolese soil gave added incentive for armies to loot and pillage or break off and form their own independent armed groups. While the war officially ended in 2003, the conflict is by no means over.
The ongoing violence is fueled by the nearly 40 active armed groups currently operating within the eastern region of the Congo. Focused in two states, North and South Kivu, these rebels and bandits attack civilians and government alike, then maddeningly defect to serve with the government, before leaving again to commit more mayhem. One such group is the March 23 movement, also known as M23, which itself was a reformatted version of an older rebel group. For months the M23 rebels attacked and retreated from towns in eastern Congo, all the while receiving the alleged support of the Rwandan government. Though the Rwandans have vehemently denied the accusations of the United Nations Group of Experts on the matter, the United States has repeatedly condemned Rwanda for its assistance to the rebels. While the Rwandan decision to not provide aid when the United Nations’ peacekeeping force had the group on the ropes was a huge factor in its military defeat, the relationship between Washington and Kigali has grown fraught to the point that lawmakers are considering cutting aid over Rwanda’s actions.
America the guilt-ridden
The American failure to take action in Rwanda is one that has been well-documented, as President Bill Clinton and his administration struggled with the fatigue of Somalia and the looming crises in Bosnia and Haiti. That hasn’t stopped Clinton from reflecting on his actions since then and finding his past self wanting. “One of my great regrets in foreign policy is not sending troops to try to stop the Rwandan genocide when I realized how severe it was,” Clinton said in a 2004 interview with CNN, one of several times he has expressed regret about this lack of inaction. “[W]hen I finally came to grips with the magnitude of it — I will always regret it,” Clinton continued.
Opinion polls taken during the crisis show that contrary to hindsight analysis, the American people were generally supportive of intervening in Rwanda — a Program on International Policy Attitudes (PIPA) poll found that sixty-one percent of respondents would support contributing U.S. troops to a U.N. mission to halt the killing. That viewpoint became subsumed in the years thereafter, to the point that it was still seen as a winning point to avoid committing U.S. forces in support of preventing genocide. “I would work with world organizations and encourage them to move, but I would not commit our troops,” then-governor George W. Bush told ABC’s Sam Donaldson during a 2000 interview, reflecting the ongoing reticence even six years later towards intervening. “I would not send the United States’ troops into Rwanda.”
Later, during his second term as president, Bush visited Rwanda and toured the museum and memorial where nearly a quarter million Rwandans lay in mass graves. Along with commemorating the dead, he was encouraging the international community to step up and take action in the Darfur region of Sudan — a conflict that he specifically referred to as a “genocide.”
The Obama administration has been steadily working to codify that belief in preventing mass atrocities into formal policy. Presidential Study Directive 10 (PSD-10) was announced in 2011, declaring for the first time that “preventing mass atrocities and genocide is a core national security interest and a core moral responsibility of the United States.” Never before did an official document so bluntly state that the United States’ “security is affected when masses of civilians are slaughtered, refugees flow across borders, and murderers wreak havoc on regional stability and livelihoods. America’s reputation suffers, and our ability to bring about change is constrained, when we are perceived as idle in the face of mass atrocities and genocide.”
“The genocide we remember today—and the world’s failure to respond more quickly—reminds us that we always have a choice,” President Barack Obama said in a statement commemorating the genocide’s anniversary. “In the face of hatred, we must remember the humanity we share. In the face of cruelty, we must choose compassion. In the face of intolerance and suffering, we must never be indifferent.”
His Ambassador to the United Nations, Samantha Power, issued a similar paean while on the ground in Rwanda, leading the American delegation to anniversary events. “As individuals and nations, we lack the power to rewind history; we cannot restore life to the hundreds of thousands of men, women and children who were so ruthlessly deprived of life twenty years ago,” Power said. “But we do have the power to honor the memory of those who were lost; to strive to prevent future genocides; and to join forces across every boundary of geography, culture, ethnicity, and creed to foster a climate of mutual understanding, shared respect, and lasting peace.”
“Never again” tested
Power came to the White House already a famous personality for her stinging critique of the U.S. government’s inability to act in times of genocide. Since then, according to reports she’s engaged on a crash course of learning what it’s actually like in government and the constraints that provides. Her predecessor at the United Nations, Susan Rice, now serves as Obama’s National Security Adviser. At the time of the genocide, she was serving as a much more junior member of the National Security Council, focused on Africa.
At one point during the crisis, Rice — as fittingly enough described in Power’s book “A Problem From Hell” — reportedly asked, “If we use the word ‘genocide’ and are seen as doing nothing, what will be the effect on the November [congressional] election?” Rice has said she doesn’t remember making that statement and that it was inappropriate if she had, but the Rwandan genocide clearly had an effect on the young bureaucrat. “I swore to myself that if I ever faced such a crisis again, I would come down on the side of dramatic action, going down in flames if that was required,” Rice later told Power. That determination has transformed her into one of the most hawkish proponents of using military force to end humanitarian crises within the Obama administration, backing first the NATO intervention in Libya in 2011, then pressing for military strikes against Syria last summer.
Despite the combined efforts of Power and Rice, the United States’ actions still lag behind its rhetoric. In the Central African Republic, the U.S. has donated more than $100 million to helping stop the violence that has seized the failed state since December and activated the Atrocities Prevention Board to help coordinate the response. That effort seems to have done little, however, to prevent the current climate of ethnic cleansing and wanton murder between the country’s Christian and Muslim communities. As the Rwandan genocide’s anniversary has approached, so too have comparisons between the situations begun to increase again.
And in Syria, the U.S. has been repeatedly criticized for not doing more to prevent Syrian president Bashar al-Assad’s government from massacring civilians amid his ongoing struggle to remain in power, despite being the largest donor of humanitarian aid to the resulting humanitarian crisis. Neither the CAR nor Syria have reached the astronomical level of deceased seen in the 100 days twenty years ago. Solid numbers for those conflicts are impossible to come by, but estimates place the death tolls in the tens of thousands and hundreds of thousands respectively. And the Democratic Republic of Congo continues to eke along towards peace, despite massive challenges — some of their own device, some at the hands of their neighbor. But the continuation of these conflicts marks a black mark against the promise that the world sent up first in 1945, then again in 1994.