Ten Years After Rwanda – Has Anything Changed?


Gayle Smith
Gayle Smith

“Conscience whispers while interest screams aloud.”
– The Committee on Conscience

The Committee on Conscience warned that “organized violence is underway that threatens to become genocide or related crimes against humanity.” Human Rights Watch warned that “the government has recruited and armed over 20,000 militiamen…killed several thousand…routinely raped women and girls…deliberately burned hundreds of villages.” Amnesty International described “a pattern of extrajudicial and indiscriminate killings,” while the International Crisis Group – calling it “one of the world’s worst humanitarian crises” – warned that thousands were already dead and 830,000 people had been uprooted from their homes.

Ten years after the genocide in Rwanda, one might assume that these were warnings of the mass slaughter that was underway in Central Africa. Even today, these alarm bells signal a potential holocaust unfolding today in western Sudan. Yet the fact that few have heard of Darfur and even fewer have responded is the story of why what happened in Rwanda could too easily happen again.

The realities of Rwanda in 1994 were staggering and are no less horrific in retrospect. A recent census confirms that over 900,000 men, women and children were murdered, most of them hacked to death with farm implements wielded by people they knew. The genocide was well planned and systematically orchestrated by government officials fearing the loss of power to an armed rebel movement and ideologically bent on literally wiping out Rwanda’s Tutsi minority and any Hutu that did not share these same goals. The international community failed utterly to respond – a small U.N. mission was abandoned without the reinforcements or the mandate to intervene; Washington failed to move until it was too late; and African nations stood by.

Ten years later, Rwanda has made remarkable progress, but the specter of renewed genocide lives in the hearts and minds of survivors and perpetrators alike. And the world has learned few lessons.

There are four stark reasons why we failed Rwanda, and all of these factors are still at play today. First, the systemic failures that led to international inaction in Rwanda ten years ago have yet to be corrected. Intelligence systems were, and remain, geared to more strategic priorities – if the U.S. intelligence community suffers from an acute shortage of Arabic speakers, imagine how few analysts speak Kinyarwanda. The international community remains without a system for translating early warnings into the diplomatic or military interventions that might prevent genocide before its perpetrators succeed. And neither the UN nor any of its members has fashioned or funded the rapid response intervention capacity that might have been deployed in Rwanda to halt the genocide.

Second, the still operative tenets of U.S. foreign policy also played a primary role in the tragedy that befell Rwanda. The conventional wisdom of U.S. foreign policy is that resources are allocated and risks are taken in direct proportion to measurable security or economic interests. Possessing no oil and posing no threat to America’s security, Rwanda simply did not meet the U.S. interests test. And with American interests now even more sharply defined by the need to secure oil and the imperative to fight terrorism, Rwanda would still not meet the bar today.

The third strike against Rwanda was geography. Even while Africa may have garnered more attention over the last several years, it was and remains on the back burner in foreign policy, and last on the list of U.S. national security priorities. Despite recent increases, the United States allocates far less foreign aid to Africa than either the Middle East or South Asia; Iraq this year will receive more than 10 times the amount of economic assistance allocated for all of Africa’s 54 countries. Our diplomats earn little in the way of career advancement for serving in Africa, and few of our nation’s foreign policy experts has or is expected to have any African experience or even knowledge. American policymakers strenuously avoid putting U.S. “boots on the ground” in African conflicts, even when we’re up against dictators every bit as ruthless as Saddam Hussein.

Fourth, government inattention still reinforces and is reinforced by the cursory coverage provided by a passive American media. Africa warrants only sporadic media attention, and consistent coverage only when calamities of man or nature trigger sensational images of human pain and suffering. Even then it has to compete with other crises considered more compelling because U.S. interests are at stake. In February, the Committee on Conscience, a project of the United States Holocaust Museum, held one of many briefings on the looming crisis in Sudan’s western Darfur region and reissued its genocide warning. Over the ensuing six weeks, the subject of “Iraq and genocide” has produced over 450 articles in the press; “Sudan and genocide” has yielded just 60. During the same period, there were well over 1000 stories about atrocities in Iraq, but only 63 about Darfur.

And so, in a far corner of Africa called Darfur, thousands will die as a government willfully implements a policy of ethnic cleansing and pits armed militia against innocent civilians trying to eke out a living in the desert. Even as the world commemorates the tenth anniversary of unimaginable slaughter in Rwanda, the media will pay Darfur little attention, the White House spokesman will offer few words of condemnation, and the international community will apply only minimal pressure on the Sudanese government.

Buried in the shadows of Iraq, Afghanistan, the continued crisis in the Middle East, the decline of democracy in Russia, elections in Indonesia and the hunt for terrorists in Spain, Africa will again suffer in silence. The sad and ironic fact is that Africa meets the U.S. interests test – the continent provides almost 14 percent of America’s oil, and experts predict that Africa’s exports will rise to meet as much as 25 percent of our needs over the next two decades. Sub-Saharan Africa represents the largest untapped market in the world. And as the bombing of two U.S. embassies and more recent attacks in Mombasa make clear, Africa also qualifies as a player in America’s quest for security in an age of terrorism.

We hear a lot these days about the prominence of “American values” in driving U.S. policy. It is America’s love of freedom and liberty that led us to take on the Taliban and Afghanistan, and our commitment to democracy that led us to invade Iraq. But our dirty little secret is that the export of American values is selective. Neither America’s core belief that all men are created equal nor the fundamental principle of human dignity can compete with U.S. interests shaped not by our values, but by our economic and security imperatives. And until conscience screams as loud as interest, we cannot offer the Rwandans or any other Africans the pledge of “never again” – we can only wait for the next round of death.

  • Gayle Speaks About America’s ‘Dirty Little Secret’: MP3

Gayle Smith is a senior fellow at the Center for American Progress and served as special assistant to President Clinton and senior director for African Affairs at the National Security Council.

The positions of American Progress, and our policy experts, are independent, and the findings and conclusions presented are those of American Progress alone. A full list of supporters is available here. American Progress would like to acknowledge the many generous supporters who make our work possible.

Just released!

Interactive: Mapping access to abortion by congressional district

Click here