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  • Dec 19, 2014
  • Updated: 9:50am
My Take
PUBLISHED : Friday, 11 April, 2014, 4:29am
UPDATED : Friday, 11 April, 2014, 4:29am

Why the United States should take the blame over Rwanda inaction

People with great foresight who act on it to prevent disasters and save lives are far more likely to be criticised than praised.

This was pointed out by financial mathematician Nassim Nicholas Tabel in The Black Swan. He argues they would have no proof that a disaster was avoided: for all we know, they might have cried wolf. The only fact is that they wasted valuable resources on an imaginary threat.

I raise it here because an outraged reader sent me a note rounding on my column yesterday that he said unfairly singled out the US response, or lack of response, to the Rwandan genocide that started 20 years ago this week. Politicians like Bill Clinton instinctively understand Tabel's point. I agree that partly explains his inaction on Rwanda.

He and his top advisers calculated, correctly at the time, that the risks of committing substantial US/UN troops needed in Rwanda were far higher than doing nothing. They would have faced certain public criticism and congressional backlash. Suppose they had committed troops and stopped a potential genocide. Clinton would not be praised but instead would have been rounded on for risking American lives in the name of faraway tribal violence. But that's too charitable; Clinton's sins went much further.

A full account of the cynical US response can be found in A Problem From Hell by Samantha Power, the current US ambassador to the UN. Suffice to say that far from not knowing or being confused, from the first days the CIA, the State Department and a marine special forces team sent deep inside Rwanda all reported killings on an extraordinary and systematic scale.

Washington made what may be called a classic "category error". They were thinking Burundi (tribal violence) and Somalia (botched US humanitarian-military operations) instead of the Holocaust.

Like old generals, they were thinking of "the last war", a fight between the Tutsi and Hutu in Burundi in October 1993 which killed more than 50,000. Despite the implicit racism, that was an acceptable level of violence in Rwanda for the Americans.

Why blame the US? Because it was at the apex of the international system and no viable UN/African operations could have got off the ground without US support.

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impala
This is all about the 'Black Hawk Down' disaster in Somalia and the PDD-25 that resulted. PDD-25 basically stipulated that the US would not intervene (through peacekeeping missions or others) unless its 'vital interests' were at stake. That was clearly not the case in Rwanda, leading to the Clinton's administration hands-off approach to the events that were unfolding there.

Clinton was furthermore reluctant to call things a 'genocide,' mainly out of concerns for the lack of domestic public support for yet another boots-on-the-ground military operations with huge operational challenges and the certainty that sooner or later the body bags would be arriving.

With the benefit of hindsight, was that a cardinal error? Yes. Certainly from a humanitarian point of view.

But the deeper question remains unsolved. While 'we' (as the world) have more or less established that it is legal (in international law) to intervene when actors (state or otherwise) commit genocide or other large-scale 'crimes against humanity,' there is much less clarity on who then gets to do the dirty work.

Should we always expect American soldiers to risk their lives in such situations? And the US to pay the bill? If tomorrow, the situation in (say) Myanmar were to deteriorate a lot, and we would see Rwanda-like horrors being committed in a civil war there, are we going to see Chinese boots on the ground there as part of a peacekeeping mission? And if not, is the fault of the US again then?
andypl
This generation of HKers never take responsibility for anything, ie whether its the mainland tourists issues or the pollution issues or their own unmatched social inequality issues, its always someone elses fault. they always look for someone else to take reponsibility, it is the true servant's mentality. So do not blame poor Alex here for being so close minded and simplistic in his analysis of cultures he does not understand, he is after all, just a HKer living in a bubble where they have no reponsibility to anyone other than themselves, and often times,, do not even accept that responsibility. They are expert whiners, complainers, and blamers. The previous generations built HK into a great city. What is this current generation composed of ? What has it built ? I guess its obvious to all.
pslhk
Truth about Africa is hard to discover
If my memory from speed-reading is correct
in Black Hawk Down, US force moved in
at the request of K Annan
but in the ex UN GS’ autobiography
he was unaware of the operation
-
In any event, the operation fully demonstrated US priorities
So AL is right that the US should and is to be blamed
-
For the cultural core of western democracy
as it has been manifest in Africa
heed the misdeeds of US and the British
for the latter refer to Imperial Reckoning
by Caroline Elkins
and contrast that with how Chengho
in China’s glorious imperial past
toured Africa and invited Africans to China
as guests to enjoy China’s hospitality
dunndavid
Sure, go ahead and blame the U.S. for the Rwanda genocide. Are you know ready to say that it was a good thing for the U.S. to go into Iraq and end the Saddam Hussein regime, what with the rape rooms and gassing it's own people in Basra and the Kurdish area? What about Afghanistan? Are you okay with the U.S. intervening to stop the harboring of Al Qaida and overthrowing the mysogenist Taliban regime? Let's be consistent here. You can't be against the U.S. as human civilization's policeman, but than for or against intervention only with the 20/20 hindsight.
alexloscmp
1) There is no contradiction. The UN genocide convention unambiguously sanctions the use of outside force to stop an ongoing genocide, even if it means intervening in a sovereign state. impala is right in this regard. There were no conventional sanctions in the case of Iraq and Afghanistan. The US did it because it could. There is a strong case to be, and has been, made that both invasions were against international law.
2) No 20/20 hindsight was needed. In addition to Human Rights Watch, select Africa specialists inside the US government and the UN commander on the ground, Roméo Dallaire, were already calling the killings “crimes against humanity” and “genocide” from early to mid-April. The US actively discouraged its own officials and other countries from using the G-word. That was most unforgivable.
Alex Lo
Masako Owada
The United States shouldn't take any blame over the Rwandan genocide but it must take the blame for the genocide of millions of Iraqis, Vietnamese etc. because of the US illegal wars in Iraq, Vietnam etc.
wailunscmp
It's very hard for die hard democrats to accept that their hero, Bill Clinton, failed miserably in rwanda. The US had nothing to do with the genocide in Rwanda but Clinton could have acted and reduced the carnage. Instead, he chose to do nothing. Clinotn himself publicly admitted a few years ago that Rwanda that was his greatest regret as President. Alex Lo is spot on in this regard. This is not US bashing; many in the US blamed him for his inaction. In his political astute mind, nobody in the US or West give a damn about Rwanda or conflicts in Africa
mercedes2233
Come on, there are differences. It is trigger-happy in events that is not its business, like the Middle East, Korea and Vietnam. Its intervention in Rwanda would have prevented the massacre of up to a million Tutsi people by the Hutu tribes. And its entry into WWII helped the allies defeat aggressors. I believe that Clinton himself later apologized to the Rwandans for not assisting. Why the US, you ask? Because it acts as the world's policeman whether or not it is wanted, and is busy with intrigue anyway like paying the Dalai Lama and a movement to free Tibet from China. But why raise the issue of Rwanda 20 years after the event? This is so not newsworthy now.
321manu
First of all, there is no such thing as "international law". Inter-nation interactions are bound by treaties, where such exist. And that's it. Even the UN doesn't represent an international legal body of any form. A "UN-sanctioned" action simply means there was majority and/or consensus will. There is no stated or implied legal jurisdiction.
THe US can be criticized for its Iraq incursion not because it was legal or illegal (again, there is no such thing) but because there was no UN consensus, so the US was acting without de facto international approval.
Similarly, while there is a UN genocide convention, there was no security council resolution for increased military intervention in Rwanda at the time. IE, there was no international approval. THe convention ALLOWS use of force, but the convention does not DEMAND it in any given scenario.
To criticize the US in one instance for NOT acting in the absence of international approval, AND to criticize for US FOR acting in another in the absence of international approval, shows a complete lack of principles. It's one or the other. Can't have your cake and eat it too.
HK_eh!
this reminds me of the spiderman movie "with great power, comes great responsibility".
the reality is America acts in its own interest, while portraying and wanting the world to see it as the "world's poiceman" and superpower, it only acts in self interest, ie, oil, other vested benefits.
there was no benefit and all risk to get involved in Rwanda.
so we should not blame USA for acting in it's self interest, blame your/ourselves for believing America is .... Spiderman.

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