Centre for Research on Globalisation
Centre de recherche sur la mondialisation

The Rwandan Genocide: US Complicity by Silence

by Rakiya Omaar and Alex de Waal

Covert Action Quarterly,   Spring 1995
www.globalresearch.ca   3  April 2004

The URL of this article is: http://globalresearch.ca/articles/OMA404A.html ]


This article first published in Spring 1995 has been largely ignored by mainstream commentary.

Ten years after the genocide, the evidence amply confirms that Washington played a direct role. US complicity was not "by silence": it involved direct military support to the FPR as well as covert intelligence operations. The objective was to install a US controlled protectorate in Central Africa.

Michel Chossudovsky, Global Research Editor, April 2004.

A year ago, Rwanda did not figure on the horizon of U.S. foreign policy; strategic and commercial interests in the little central African country were insignificant. No State Department mandarin had made a career out of shining at the Rwanda desk; no diplomat savored a posting to Kigali. It is questionable even whether the U.S. ever had a "policy" toward Rwanda. On April 6, 1994, Hutu extremists unleashed a genocide in which perhaps 800,000 people were murdered in one hundred days. Before, during, and after the meticulously planned slaughter, actions by the U.S. government were a highly significant factor in the unfolding of events. And the effects of those actions were almost universally malign.

The U.S. Ambassador to Rwanda, David Rawson, played a key role. In the absence of higher directives, the positions taken by this single man came to have a grossly disproportionate impact. The sympathy and support he showed for former President Juvenal Habyarimana and his coterie of extremists was no accident. They reflect the way a num ber of European organizations-primarily Belgian Catholic groups- played a similar game, with even more disastrous consequences.

The genocidal maniacs who ruled Rwanda chose an opportune moment to launch their "final solution." In April, powerful individuals in the U.S. government were actively rewriting the rules of international politics. They implemented changes that went beyond merely revising the ground rules for peacekeeping so that the dispatch of United Nations troops to the world's trouble spots would be almost impossible. They knowingly stood by while genocide occurred. By this inaction, they systematically began to unravel the great achievements of humanitarian law of this century--most of them gained in the period 1945-51 by men and women driven by the visceral shock of Auschwitz and Dresden. The genocide in Rwanda-one of the greatest crimes against humanity in the second half of the twentieth century-was an ironically opportune moment for these revisionists to stake their claim.

Rwanda is a tiny country of only 26,000 square kilometers (about the size of Maryland) but a pre-genocide population of seven million. Known as "the land of a thousand hills," it has a balmy climate with excellent soil. In the late 1980s, one of Africa's most promising economies began to slide, accompanied by authoritarian politics. President Habyarimana, avowing a policy of ethnic "balance" that supposedly allotted school places and jobs according to the national ration of 85 percent Hutu and 15 percent Tutsi, was in fact a Hutu supremacist who reserved the spoils of Rwanda's wealth for his own family.

In 1990, Rwandan exiles in neighboring Uganda formed the Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF) and invaded, plunging the country into civil war and a vicious cycle of human rights abuse. By 1992, there had been several large-scale massacres, and political assassinations were commonplace. International investigations concluded that responsibility lay in the president's office. But in mid-1993, it seemed as though an internationally mediated peace agreement would bring the country back from the brink. The government, the RPF, and civil opposition parties (almost all of the latter Hutu-led) signed a set of Ac cords in Arusha, Tanzania, that appeared to provide a model for transition to democracy.

The Ungodly Missionary legacy

It was around this time, in 1993, that David Rawson, after a stint in Somalia (1986-88), became U.S. ambassador to Rwanda. He was no stranger to U.S. complicity in slaughter or to the region itself. In 1988, when he was deputy chief of mission in Somalia, the U.S. delivered $1.4 million worth of arms to the dictator, Siad Barre. The June 28, 1988 shipment, part of broad U.S. support for the regime, arrived precisely at the time Barre's army was waging indiscriminate warfare against the Issac clan family. Barre used the weapons in the early summer campaign in which 10,000 were killed, a half million were made refugees (out of a population of 1.5 million), and two cities leveled. So Rawson, from his post at the U.S. embassy, could be deemed something of an expert on crimes against humanity. Nor was the Somalia post his first experience in the region; he had grown up as a child of Protestant missionaries in Burundi. Speaking Kirundi and some Kinyarwanda, Rawson claimed special insight into the politics and society of Rwanda and Burundi. But his back ground also left him captive to the politics of missionary Christianity in the region. In order to understand his sympathy for Hutu extremism, it is necessary to delve into the extraordinary way in which Rwandese society is a product of a century of Christian evangelism. In particular, the bizarre racist ideology that passes under the bland name "Hutu extremism" is the bastard off spring of nineteenth century European racial theories, refracted through missionary teachings.

For a century, the most powerful force shaping Rwandese society has been the White Fathers order of the Roman Catholic Church. The missionaries had arrived in the 1880s and staked their religious claim in the German colony Ruanda-Urundi. In 1919, as part of the Versailles Treaty, Rwanda was awarded to Belgium as a League of Natios trust territory. Living in a secular Western society, it is difficult to appreciate the impact of this relatioship and the depth of the emotional ties that still bind the Belgian Catholic Church and parts of the Rwandese Hutu political establishment.

Before colonial rule, "Hutu" and "Tutsi" were not ethnic groups as they exist to day. The relationship between different Rwandese peoples was complex and mutable. At the hub of the state was a powerful, centralizing court, based on the Nyiginya (Tutsi) lineage. In the countryside, "Tutsi" were cattle owners and representatives of the court; "Hutu" were farmers. "Hutu" could, and did, become "Tutsi" as chiefs were incorporated into the ruling elite, or farmers be came wealthy and acquired cattle. Rwanda was certainly an unequal society, but the ethnic boundary was permeable, and Nyiginya Tutsi dominance was mitigated by social institutions that gave much authority to certain Hutu chiefs, and imposed certain obligations on Tutsi administrators.

Colonial rule transformed this pat tern. The Belgians made the Tutsi the privileged intermediaries in their rule. No mere cynical "divide and rule" strategy, this intervention reflected the racist thinking that was axiomatic of European imperialism. Since the European conquerors held that no civilization could have existed in black Africa, the centralized state of Rwanda was an anomaly that challenged a premise of colonial legitimacy. Colonial bishops, anthropologists, and soldier-administrators explained it away with a racial fantasy: the so-called "Hamitic hypothesis." Longffince discredited, it held that all "civilized" institutions in central Africa were the result of an invasion by "Hamites"-variously identified as "black Caucasians" and "AfricanAryans."

In the period from 1910 to 1940, the White Fathers, led by Bishop Leon Classe, developed this Hamitic ideology. Classe and his acolytes then rewrote Rwandese history to conform to it, designating the Tutsis as Hamites, inventing a Christian origin for them, and arguing that they were "lapsed" Ethiopians destined for a privileged place in Christian evangelism. The theory coincided neatly with colonial anthropologists' quest for racial topologies-Tutsis were on the whole taller, thinner, and more "European"-looking than Hutus.

In Rwanda, Hamitic ideology legitimized a rigid pseudo-racial hierarchy which had profound and long-reaching political consequences. The elevation of the Tutsi meant the relegation of the Hutu to the status of Bantu serfs, and of the Twa (a small group of potters and hunter-gatherers) to the lowest position of aboriginal "pygmoids"-supposedly remnants of an earlier stage of human evolution. Under the Belgians, Tutsi dominance was extended; Tutsi powers and privileges intensified; and the entire population was required to be registered as Hutu, Tutsi, or Twa. Such was the slender basis of this formal racial classification that the authorities were obliged to use cattle ownership as their criterion-people with ten or more cows were Tutsi (in perpetuity); those with fewer were Hutu. These same ID cards tell modern-day killers whom to kill and whom to spare.

Toward the end of the colonial era, the Roman Catholic Church, and then the colonial authorities, reversed their preferences and inverted the hierarchy. The new generation of Belgian missionaries who arrived in Rwanda brought with them another strand of Catholic teaching-the social justice theory of the Young Christian Workers. These priests and colonial officers-most of them Flemish-turned away from the Tutsi who were a dominant minority. In stead, they readily identified with the oppressed Hutu majority, just as Hutu teachers and priests readily latched onto the new religious politics-egalitarian but conservative. Thus, as independence approached in the 1950s, the racial classification remained, but it was the Hutu who reaped the rewards. In 1959, Belgian paratroopers presided over a bloody uprising in which ten thousand Tutsi were slaughtered and over a hundred thousand driven abroad. In 1962, Gregoire Kayibanda, secretary to the Archbishop and founder of the Hutu supremacist Parme Hutu party, duly became the first president of independent Rwanda.

The Flow of Hatred

The legacy of the missions lives on- not merely in the huge and beautiful churches that dot the hillsides, not just in the fact that the late archbishop, Msgr. Vincent Nsengiyumva served for 15 years on the central committee of the ruling party, but also in the way the Hamitic ideology underpinned that regime's racist extremism. These Hutu extremists took the "Ethiopian invasion" hypothesis, turned it back in the face of the Tutsi, and called for them to return "home." A prominent Hutu ideologue, Leon Mugesera (recently arrested in Canada and likely to be charged with crimes against humanity), repeatedly incited Hutu peasants to send the Tutsi "back" to Ethiopia. Showing a contempt for geography equal to his disregard for history, Mugesera enjoined his followers to throw the Tutsi in the Nyabarongo river. The order was not taken metaphorically. Last April and May, perhaps 40,000 corpses made the watery journey to Lake Victoria. In late 1992, Hassan Ngeze, the extremists' leading journalist (currently in Nairobi, Kenya), published the extremist manifesto, "The Hutu Ten Commandments." Commandment number two says that Hutu women are more beautiful and make better wives and secretaries; number eight commands the Hutu to "stop having mercy on the Tutsi." The Belgian church and political establishment deny the legacy of their ideologies and policies at work in the content and idiom of Hutu extremism. On the contrary, many Belgian priests, academics, and politicians remain closely wedded to Hutu politics and continue to espouse the Hutu extremists' political cause with an extraordinary fervor. The European Internationale Democrate Chretien (IDC, related to the Christian Democratic Party), repeatedly endorsed the program of the government of Juvenal Habyarimana, stating as recently as 1992 that "there is no alternative to the MRND [his party]."

In October 1994, Belgian Senator Dr. Jab Van Erps traveled to the extremists' headquarters in Zaire to coordinate meetings with the men primarily responsible for the genocide. An academic at the Catholic University of Leuven, objecting to an account that the genocide was centrally planned, echoed the mass killers' own words when he described the slaughter as "a people's genocide" mounted in spontaneous response to the supposed provocation of the Rwandese Patriotic Front. His words were closely echoed in a sermon byArch bishop Nsengiyumva in which the genocide was obliquely justified as a means of ensuring democratic majority rule. Equally firm in their commitment to Hutu extremism-equating it with majoritarian rule and thus "democracy" in a crude sense-are some of the Protestant missions, particularly those active in Burundi. After the genocide, some foreign missionaries echoed the extremist propaganda, blaming the entire slaughter on "provocation" by the Tutsis. At a press conference held after they were evacuated to Europe, a group of Danish Baptists who had worked among Burundi refugees were among those who refused to blame Hutu extremists for the genocide.

Ambasador Rawson and the Unleashing of the Apocalypse

U.S. Ambassador David Rawson had much in common with those who continued to view the complex political and cultural landscape through the distorting lens of the colonial legacy. Like them, he failed to rise above the limitations of his background. while giving a sophis ticated, balanced line in public, he consistently espoused the simplistic majoritarian politics of the government. At another time, such bias might not have mattered as much. But when Rawson arrived in December 1993, Rwandese politics rested on a knife edge. Four months earlier, the Habyarimana government, the rebel Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF), and the civilian opposition parties had signed a comprehensive agreement in Arusha, Tanzania. It would have ensured a multi-party system, power-sharing with the main opposition groups, an independent judiciary with respect for human rights, integration of the RPF into the national army, and an abolition of the extremist paramilitary forces. This step toward peace and democracy was successfully negotiated with the apparent support of African and Western governments, and guaranteed by the troops of the U . N. Assistance Mission to Rwanda (UNAMIR). The U.S. government, under former Undersecretary of State for African Affairs Herman Cohen, had also put its weight behind the process that led to the Arusha agreement. But Habyarimana- under pressure from the extremists he had promoted to dominant positions in the army and government-repeatedly stalled in implementing the provisions of the accords. The extremists within the MRND and the CDR opposed the accords because they would have meant power-sharing and an end to their unfettered power and privilege.

According to moderate ministers in the government, Rawson, knowingly or not, encouraged the extremists in derailing the peace process by echoing their claims that it was the RPF that had created all the obstacles to peace. Senior RPF members report that when they presented evidence of the planned genocide, the ambassador dismissed them with the charge that they were just looking for a pretext to restart the war. Most important, Rawson endorsed the demand by the ultra-extremist Coalition for the Defense of the Republic for a seat in the new National Assembly. Since the CDR was explicitly committed to eradication of the Tutsis (even before the April genocide) and destroying the treaty, Rawson's support amounted to collaboration with a stratagem designed to derail the peace process.

Habyarimana's failure to implement the accords was abetted not only by Rawson, but by an international climate which was auspicious for any dictator wishing to wriggle out of commitments to the world community. Following the military debacle of the U.S.-UN operations in Somalia in October 1993, assertive peacekeeping was deeply unpopular in both Washington and New York. One of the first casual ties of Gen. Aidid's Mogadishu triumph was Rwanda.

Once burned, the U.S. acted to con strain the UN's peacekeeping role, thus undermining international efforts led by Belgium and Tanzania (with support from other forces) to prevent the crisis in Rwanda. First, U.S. Ambassador to the UN Madeleine Albright pushed a proposal to downsize UNAMIR. Security Council Resolution 872 invited UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros Ghali to "consider ways of reducing the total maximum strength of UNAMIR" and asked him to "seek economies." Second, U.S. Presidential Decision Directive No.25 0f March 1994 greatly limited the peacekeeping operations that the U.S. would support-not just those to which it would contribute troops, but those to which it would give financial support and its vote in the Security Council.

In the prevailing climate, President Habyarimana and the extremists who surrounded him hoped that if they could prevaricate until UNAMIR's mandate expired on April 5, 1994, the Security Council would lose patience and with draw the force. They would then have a free hand to dispose of the opposition and indeed the entire Tutsi population. On April 4, the day before the dead line, the Security Council was scheduled to review the progress made by, UNAMIR and the Rwandese parties' commitments to the Arusha Accords. Rwanda and its close ally and patron, France, were doing their best to undermine chances for a renewal of the mandate. The U.S. was at best lukewarm. But in tense lobbying by Belgium-which had contributed the largest number of troops to UNAMIR and had undertaken to underwrite the peace agreement with aid funds-ensured that the Rwandese extremists' expectations were confounded. On April 5, at a meeting in Dar es Salaam, Tanzania, African heads of state reaffirmed their commitment to the Arusha Accords and insisted that Habyarimana cease his delaying tactics and implement the power-sharing formula to which he agreed. On the way back to Kigali, Habyarimana's own handpicked extremists in the Presidential Guard shot down his plane and set in motion their final solution.

U.S. Fiddles While Rwanda Burns

What followed was a carefully planned extermination. The government specially trained and mobilized its militia, the interahamwe, compiled in advance a list of targets, and dismissed all administrators seen as moderates, replacing them with extremists. The extremist Hutu radio RTLM and the state-sponsored Radio Rwanda broad cast calls inciting mass murder. Interim president, Theodore Sindikukwabo, also made incendiary speeches on radio and in person around the country congratulating the killers on a job well done and telling those in places such as Butare, where the killing had not yet started, that they should "set to work." Within 48 hours of this zero hour, France and Belgium found enough troops to mount an evacuation of foreign nationals from Kigali. But, after ten of their soldiers were killed protecting (Hutu, moderate) Prime Minister Agathe Uwilingiyamana, Belgium ordered its soldiers home-without even first informing the UN. On April 19, even as the slaughter escalated, the UN Security Council voted to reduce the UNAMIR force from 4,500 to 270 men and to restrict its activities to the bare mini mum. Literally minutes after the UN troops abandoned their base at a former school, which had become refuge for several thousand Rwandese Tutsis and op position Hutu, the interahamwe militia and the Presidential Guard stormed the compound and began to massacre those who had taken shelter there.

Ambassador Rawson stayed in Rwanda for ten days after the genocide was first unleashed, before returning to Washington. It was only on April 28-a full three weeks into the slaughter- that he officially declared a "state of disaster." Then he characterized the genocide as tribal killings-exactly the description the killers wanted as a smokescreen for their program of extermination. Had he or any other official invoked the word "genocide," all nations who were signatories of the 1948 convention on genocide would have been obligated by the terms of that treaty to condemn the slaughter and act to stop it.

Rawson's views need not have carried such weight. But there was a policy vacuum in Washington and officials who knew what was happening and could have sounded the alarm were more concerned with avoiding risks to their careers than with preventing slaughter in little Rwanda. At the State Department, Undersecretary of State for African Affairs George Moose focused on elections in South Africa and delegated responsibility to a deputy assistant secretary, Prudence Bushnell. Her insistence on adhering to the minutiae of bureaucratic procedure has come under widespread criticism, despite her subsequent attempts to portray her role as that of a vigorous exponent of action thwarted by others' obstruction. In any case, Bushnell is a junior official easily outranked by those at the National Security Council and the Pentagon, who were even more hostile to any assertive U.S. policy. Since Clinton delayed in appointing a senior director for Africa at the NSC, responsibility was taken-or not taken-by the acting director, Col. MacArthur DeShazer. Even after Don Steinberg took up the position in February 1994, confusion continued for months as the State Department issued policy statements that contradicted those of the White House.

In any case, Rwanda became a test case for the new presidential policy of caution in all peacekeeping affairs. The director of peacekeeping at the NSC, Richard Clark was one of the lead sup porters of U.S. non-action. The Pentagon reportedly insisted that there was a slippery slope between UN involvement and the dispatch of U.S. troops, so that even though nobody had as much as suggested the idea of sending U.S. soldiers, Pentagon representatives op posed any multilateral involvement at all. These positions fed into strong U.S. advocacy for the April 19 pullout of UNAMIR.

The UN's Scuttle Diplomacy

The UN's "scuttle diplomacy" became an international scandal and by April 29, Rwanda was again on the agenda of the Security Council. The secretary general pleaded for the deployment of enough troops to save some of the Rwandese civilians taking refuge in churches, hospitals, and football stadiums. The Ghanaian contingent of UNAMIR, just evacuated, was ready to return at any moment; it just needed transport and armored cars. The Ethiopians offered a fully equipped contingent, lacking only transport. And the remaining 450 UN soldiers (the complete reduction to 270 was never carried out) under the energetic and courageous leadership of the Canadian Gen. Romeo Dallaire, grossly handicapped by the lack of fuel and spare parts, were reduced to improvising to keep at least some vehicles running. Nonetheless, they managed to save some people. Over the following weeks and months, U.S. parsimony and insistence on the utmost caution impeded the dispatch of UN troops to Rwanda. In fact, all the troops involved were African, and the U.S. financial commitment amounted merely to a contribution to the UN peacekeeping budget. Finally, despite U. S. recalcitrance and after considerable delay, the secretary general seemed to have cobbled together an agreement to dispatch 4,000 troops. But then suddenly, Ambassador Albright insisted on a more modest plan-only 850 troops and observers to prepare the ground for a full force to follow at some unspecified date. On May 16, the Security Council acceded to this U.S. proposal, adopting Resolution 918. Still three weeks would pass until the UN worked out the precise terms of the deployment -a U.S. precondition for action under Presidential Decision Directive No. 25. Only on June 8 did the Security Council give the final authorization to a deployment that had been accorded the "utmost urgency" on April 29. In the intervening five weeks, at least 100,000 died; probably well over 200,000. Each day's delay in April and May meant at least 10,000 more people dead.

Then, the pressing issue became how to transport the troops and equip them with armored personnel carriers (APC) so that they could evacuate trapped civilians. Gen. Dallaire had publicly appealed to the U.S. for APCs. The U.S. agreed-but introduced tough new preconditions. The Pentagon raised its price for leasing 60 APCs, and then insisted that the UN also pay for returning the vehicles to their base in Germany. The whole exercise was priced at $15 million, with $11 million for transport. The APCs finally arrived in Uganda on June 23 and the Ghanaians began training to use them. On July 2-3, while the vehicles were still being readied for action, the Rwandese government collapsed. On July 9, the Rwandese Patriotic Front took power and halted the genocide. Three months had passed since Habyarimana's plane was shot down. The death toll had reached 800,000.

What Genocide?

Did the U.S. have a policy, or did it sit on its hands out of bureaucratic inertia, racist contempt for "tribal" warfare, or simple confusion? Certainly, there was a minimalist imperative at work: Do as little as possible without provoking serious condemnation, especially at home. Throughout this protracted episode of dithering and caution, the State Department was in tune with U.S. public opinion-at least as it was represented by the mainstream media. An April 13 Newsday editorial asked, "What is to be done?" and recommended "nothing." The New York Times was scarcely more subtle: "No member of the United Nations with an army strong enough to make a difference is willing to risk centuries-old history of tribal warfare and deep distrust of outside intervention." Later, in support of the administration's position, the Times wrote: "...to enter this conflict without a defined mission or a plausible military plan risks a repetition of the debacle in Somalia." The lesson of Somalia might have led the New York Times and the administration to a different conclusion. In that case, stinginess was combined with fear of setting a monetary precedent for the level of U.S. contributions to future militarized humanitarian operations. The human cost of this penny-pinching became evident later in the year when 200,000 Somalis died in a famine that could have been prevented.

For Rwanda, the point of principle was somewhat different, but here, too, avoiding precedent was key. In 1948, the U.S. had signed the Convention against Genocide. A triumph of international humanitarian law, this Convention obliges contracting parties to prevent and punish the crime of genocide. In previous post-World War II cases-such as Cambodia under Pol Pot-the U.S. could pretend that it did not know about the genocide while it was being perpetrated. It could then fudge the issue of punishing those responsible, ostensibly in the name of seeking a peaceful political settlement. In Rwanda, no one could claim ignorance. But the U.S. did not want to act and its failure to condemn and take action to prevent genocide endorsed a more horrific precedent: flaunting an international law designed to never again allow a holocaust to happen while the world stood by.

Legal Nicety Lost on the Dead Secretary of State Warren Christopher, an accomplished lawyer, instructed his staff to avoid calling the situation in Rwanda genocide, but merely to say that "acts of genocide may have been committed." Ambassador Rawson went one better: "As a responsible government, you don't just go round hollering 'genocide. 'You say that acts of genocide may have occurred and they need to be investigated." The media rightly mocked this piece of legal obfuscation, and Christopher disingenuously conceded, "If there is any particular magic in calling it genocide, I have no hesitancy in saying that." (Rawson has since compared the killings to a war crime, carefully avoiding the term "genocide.") Christopher's new-found lack of hesitancy was probably related to a policy statement, issued by the State Department, that the Genocide Convention "enables" contracting states to respond. This required an imaginative interpretation of the term "obligation", but was not beyond Christopher's legal expertise or moral adaptability.

When the White House claimed on July 15 that "As the crisis in Rwanda has unfolded, the United States has taken a leading role in efforts to protect the Rwandan people and ensure humanitarian assistance," it was, as the British say, "economical with the truth." By that point, the genocide was over and the U.S. government could concentrate its moral energies on saving refugee children in Goma, Zaire, from cholera. The war had driven about 2 million refugees to overcrowded camps across the border. They certainly needed help, but, in fact, much of the assistance was gratefully appropriated by the Hutu extremists who had master minded both the genocide and the mass exodus.

Like the killers in exile in neighboring countries, the U.S. government is hoping that the bodies will stay buried and that it can resume business as usual in central Africa. On July 16, the Clinton administration expelled the Rwandese ambassador to Washington. Washington had waited until that regime was militarily defeated and a new RPF-headed government was about to take power. Then, suddenly, the administration was indignant: "The United States," said President Clinton, "cannot allow representatives of a regime that supports genocidal massacres to re main on our soil." Taken in April, the gesture and the words might have had meaning; in July they reeked of opportunism and hollow moralizing. The U.S. had broken a solemn covenant under taken nearly a half century ago that never again would the civilized world al low genocide to occur. President Clinton may utter words in commemoration of Auschwitz, but there is little consolation to the survivors of the Rwandan holocaust of the 1990s. Meanwhile, around the world, dictators have noted the U.S. reaction, taking solace from the policy of non-action. Silence in the face of genocide, with no outcry of "never again" should disturb us all.

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