Twenty years ago this week, a US State Department spokesman berated several foreign governments for banning Steven Spielberg's Schindler's List. "This film movingly portrays the 20th century's most horrible catastrophe," he said. "It shows that even in the midst of genocide, one individual can make a difference. The most effective way to avoid the recurrence of genocidal tragedy is to ensure that past acts of genocide are never forgotten."
A real genocide was going live in Rwanda but the spokesman preferred to talk about a film about a past genocide after his press conference briefly touched on the killings then unfolding. That attitude was typical of the Clinton administration, which not only ignored it but made sure no one else could do much about it.
There was an infuriating editorial cartoon in The New York Times on Tuesday showing an empty UN chamber commemorating the Rwandan genocide. But it was not the UN that did little or nothing; it was the key member states. Yes, there was plenty of blame to go around. Kofi Annan, then responsible for peacekeeping operations, refused desperate pleas from its military head on the ground for more troops and supplies. Belgium, Rwanda's ex-colonial master, withdrew its troops after 10 of them were slaughtered. The US used that as a pretext to press for the phased withdrawal of UN peacekeepers, thereby removing a key obstacle to the mass killings. Not only did the US never consider a military intervention, it resisted diplomatic and other "soft" pressure. In a key UN statement, it forced member states to remove the word genocide.
The Rwandan nightmare actually led to something even worse for Africa. After the Rwandan Patriotic Front led by the brilliant but ruthless Paul Kagame stopped the genocide and took over the country, he pursued Hutu soldiers and civilians across the border into the larger Congo, thereby helping trigger a continental war that involved at one time or another Rwanda, Uganda, Zimbabwe and Angola, as well as Namibia, Burundi, Libya and Sudan. It killed more than four million people. Who sold arms to them? It was not neo-colonialist China; it was the West. It was truly Africa's world war.