Letters to the editor

Bystanders to Genocide

I would like to correct four errors in Samantha Power's otherwise interesting article on the American response to Rwanda's 1994 genocide ("Bystanders to Genocide," September Atlantic).

First, the article says that the United States failed to snap satellite photos of large gatherings of Rwandan civilians or of mass graves, to intercept military communications, or to infiltrate the country. Actually, within three days of the outbreak of violence on April 6, 1994, the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency obtained satellite photos, communications intercepts, and human intelligence that confirmed a widespread, centrally controlled killing campaign. I reported these facts, based on interviews with senior U.S. intelligence officials, in my recent book, The Limits of Humanitarian Intervention: Genocide in Rwanda (Brookings, 2001).

Second, the article asserts that the failure of U.S. officials to recognize genocide during its first days "stemmed from political, moral, and imaginative weaknesses, not informational ones." The main problem initially was, in fact, informational—not too little but rather too much conflicting information. For two weeks the media, the UN, and intelligence sources reported that violence in Rwanda was waning and that it stemmed from a civil war that the Tutsi were winning—thereby undercutting any notion of a genocide against Tutsi. For two weeks the DIA warnings failed to penetrate this background noise or were explicitly rejected by U.S. officials as alarmist Tutsi propaganda. Power's article provides no evidence to contradict this finding!

Third, the article asserts that if the small contingent of troops sent to evacuate foreign nationals had instead combined with peacekeepers already on the ground, the UN commander might have been able to stop the genocide. This is demonstrably false. Even after the evacuators landed, no more than about 4,000 foreign soldiers were in Rwanda, including about 2,000 ineffective peacekeepers from Bangladesh and similar states. They were not "heavily armed," as the article asserts, but, rather, lacked heavy weapons, armored vehicles, or even jeeps to transport themselves. (They commandeered abandoned vehicles to carry out the evacuation.) Even with the reserve Belgian and U.S. forces in Kenya and Burundi, only about 5,000 foreign soldiers were in the area, and they were neither armed nor provisioned for combat. Confronting these international forces would have been approximately 100,000 Rwandan soldiers, national policemen, militiamen, and rebels, including elite units equipped with heavy weapons, armored vehicles, and surface-to-air missiles. No one can say for sure how the Rwandan forces would have reacted to an intervention, but if 5,000 lightly armed foreign soldiers had confronted 100,000 better-armed Rwandans on their home turf, the UN commander hardly would have "had the numbers on his side."

Fourth, the article implies that a quick intervention could have stopped the violence before it mushroomed into genocide. The Rwandan genocide was the fastest-moving in history. Half the Tutsi victims were killed in the first three weeks, before the end of April and before U.S. officials had even figured out what was going on. Though the United States did oppose direct intervention throughout the crisis, and intervention at any time could have saved many lives, the sad fact is that even an intervention launched as soon as the attempted genocide came to light would have been too late to "prevent" it—or even to save half the ultimate victims.

Alan J. Kuperman
Visiting Scholar
USC Center for International Studies
Venice, Calif.

In her superb piece on the Rwanda tragedy Samantha Power states that there was no legislative reaction.

I chaired the Senate's Subcommittee on Africa at that point. When the news of the slaughter in Rwanda first reached us, Senator Jim Jeffords, the ranking Republican on the subcommittee, and I introduced a resolution with six Senate co-sponsors urging action by the United States and the United Nations. Interest was minimal, and the Administration opposed our resolution. Then Senator Jeffords and I got on the phone to General Dallaire, in Rwanda, and he told us that if he could get 5,000 to 8,000 soldiers quickly, he could stop the slaughter. Senator Jeffords and I had a letter produced immediately and had it hand-delivered to the White House that afternoon. When I didn't hear anything for several days, I called, trying to reach Anthony Lake. He was not there, but a member of his staff told me that they would do nothing, because there was "not a base of public support for doing anything that significant in Africa." It was a tragically anemic answer.

Paul Simon
Director, Public Policy Institute
Southern Illinois University
Carbondale, Ill.

At the time of the Rwandan genocide I worked at the U.S. mission to the United Nations and covered the peacekeeping operation in Rwanda. Power's analysis of events is consistent with my recollections, introduces new and critical evidence, and assembles the historical pieces in a way that generates the most comprehensive and balanced picture available of U.S. policy toward the genocide.

Many of the factors that led U.S. policymakers to ignore the buildup to the genocide—the obsession with the civil war, the view that peacekeeping was effective only when there was a peace to keep—were also present in the Security Council and the Secretariat. The UN as a whole was slow to respond, and when it did, it responded sluggishly. Perhaps most mysterious is the behavior of Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali during the first weeks of the genocide. We now know that UNAMIR Force Commander Romeo Dallaire was telling headquarters that ethnic cleansing was gathering speed and that a modest reinforcement might protect civilians and deter the killers. Yet Boutros-Ghali did not deliver this information. Instead he stressed the civil war, failed to speak of ethnic cleansing, and observed that Dallaire was unable to provide recommendations because of the chaotic situation on the ground. Such observations completely undermined any push for intervention. Indeed, at the outset of the crisis he privately concluded against intervention. Only after the Security Council voted on April 21 to draw down the force did he provide a moral imperative for intervention.

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