The Rwandan genocide began in April of 1994 and left around 800,000 civilians, largely of the Tutsi ethnic group, slaughtered in a mere 100 days. Ethnic tensions between the Hutus and the Tutsis began in the early 20th century when Tutsis were put in roles of power and responsibility by the Germans, their first colonizers. The Belgians assumed power over Rwanda after World War One and assigned leadership positions to Tutsis despite the fact they constituted only around 10 percent of the population, whereas the Hutus who composed around 90 percent held few important positions. Eventually, the Hutus were put in charge of the new Rwandan government after raising tensions to the point where Belgium faced a potential revolution. The hostility between the Hutus and Tutsis continued for decades after this. Rwanda was one of the poorest countries in Africa so foreign powers, particularly the U.S., didn’t see much to exploit within the country. If Rwanda had possessed oil or another sought-after natural resource, foreign powers may have taken action to prevent the atrocities from occurring. Instead, world superpowers, especially the United States and the United Nations, sat idly and for a while, refused to officially recognize that a genocide was occurring. Many important political leaders were well informed about the events happening in Rwanda leading up to the genocide itself and actively chose to not intervene. Human rights organizations were pushing ex-President Bill Clinton to keep 2,500 troops on the ground but despite the efforts of these such organizations, Clinton and other foreign powers (including French leaders) decided to not do anything. At the end of the day, international organizations couldn’t do anything to stop the slaughter from occurring and the real power holders and decision makers were states who were only looking out for their national interests.
As far back as August 1993, the United Nations Human Rights investigator claimed there was a potential genocide in the making, but this important preliminary information was ignored by the UN Security Council. All that was done was the placing of UN peacekeeping troops on the border of Rwanda and Uganda to monitor the transportation of weapons. The UN Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR) had a very limited presence throughout the genocide and was not authorized to take any action. In January of 1994 Romeo Dallaire, who led the UN Peacekeeping Mission in Rwanda, warned of a potential genocide but this information never made it to the Security Council and was virtually ignored by individuals who did receive it (Winfield, 1999). This ?peacekeeping’ organization was not doing anything to actively ease tensions in Rwanda. The United Nations lacked resources and will-power to launch yet another peacekeeping mission and the failure of this international organization would have dire consequences. Within the first two weeks of the genocide, around 30,000 people were killed (mainly Tutsi) and yet the international community refused to acknowledge the events as a genocide. In addition, a resolution in December of 1948 to protect against genocidal atrocities such as the Holocaust, was virtually ignored as the UN quietly removed peacekeeping troops on the ground, leaving hundreds of thousands of Tutsis to the hands of Hutu extremists. The abandoning of Rwanda in the face of extreme ethnic violence only proves that international agreements and resolutions are essentially useless when states interests are not aligned with those documents.
The early 1990s came with multiple failed peacekeeping missions for the U.S., including the deaths of 18 U.S. Rangers in Mogadishu, Somalia, which cast the shadow of Somalia over subsequent potential peacekeeping opportunities. This incident hardened the U.S.’s stance to protect their nationals and diplomats within Rwanda. Ex-President Bill Clinton even claimed that the U.S. had to stop placing the agenda of the UN before the interests of the US (Maritz, 2012). The U.S. was not the only country to withdraw their personnel from the country; Belgium had removed their troops after the killing of ten Belge soldiers and had requested that the U.S. remove their troops as well to ?save face’ in a way. In fact, Samantha Power, former U.S. Ambassador to the UN (2013-2017), had claimed that Belgium did not want to leave ignominiously, by itself (Lynch, 2015). Both Belgium and the United States were acting out of state interest, not moral or ethical principles when they advocated for the withdrawal of their troops and diplomats. With the removal of Belgian and U.S. troops, the United Nations was the last front for Tutsis and unfortunately, the United Nations was unable to act to prevent the killings.
The United States, being a world superpower, influenced the actions of other states as well. By officially declaring the slaughter as a genocide as early as possible, the U.S. and other countries could have forced the United Nations to take action in accordance with the 1948 Genocide Convention, created specifically to handle challenges such as the violence and tension in Rwanda. However, world superpowers had little national interest at stake due to the fact that Rwanda didn’t offer appealing options to exploit and therefore remaining in Rwanda offered nothing for the U.S. and many other countries to gain. As stated previously, if Rwanda had offered some valuable natural resource such as oil, intervention by other countries might have been possible and concrete steps might have actually been taken. Additionally, while Rwanda was under Belge rule, French was the most widely spoken language. If the genocide had occurred during the time where Rwanda was a distinct francophone country, it would have looked immoral if French or Belgium didn’t intervene but the timing of the genocide ensured that France and Belgium had nothing to lose by not intervening. In addition to the lack of natural resources that made peacekeeping efforts in Rwanda undesirable, the U.S. Congress had serious financial constraints that didn’t allow it to act based on moral principle. The U.S. actively decided not to engage with peacekeeping efforts to protect its financial status. With little financial incentive to keep troops in Rwanda, the United States scaled down their troops from 2,500 to a mere 270. Because power is scarce, world powers, such as the U.S., take on leading roles in international politics which makes weaker and smaller states unlikely to take a stance on important issues because they know nothing will advance without the leading role of a greater power. This inaction in the Rwandan genocide by the United States made it unlikely that any smaller states would voluntarily get involved.
The Rwandan genocide was a terrible part of our world history and there were many opportunities to intervene and potentially stop the genocide from happening. Unfortunately, international organizations like the United Nations were unable to mobilize resources and marshal enough support within member states to successfully intervene. States interests were the main reasons why there was hardly any international concern at the beginning of the slaughter. Media coverage and public knowledge of the events occurring in Rwanda were extremely limited therefore political powers around the world didn’t have to worry about public opinion influencing actions taken. Human rights groups were well aware of the terrible things happening in Rwanda but could do nothing to stop them without the support from states that acknowledged these events constituted a genocide, rather than a civil war, where there is no incentive for outside countries to get involved. Eventually, the United Nations was authorized to deploy 5,000 peacekeeping troops and the Rwanda Patriotic Front took over the Hutu extremists effectively ending the genocide after 100 days. Rwanda is now committed to reconciliation and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR) was created to prosecute individuals involved in the genocide and was even the first institution to consider rape as a means perpetrate genocide. Although the genocide remains a lingering memory of the horrors caused by ethnic conflict, it is also a reminder that international organizations exert little influence over state actions when states interests are not invested in the event or situation and have no incentive to act out of moral principle.
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