Ten years after the slaughter the Clinton administration ignored
May 7, 2004 | Page 8
BETWEEN EARLY April and mid-July 1994, at least 800,000 members of Rwanda's minority Tutsi group were brutally murdered by the majority Hutus. The massacres only came to an end when the Tutsi-led Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF), backed by Uganda, overthrew the Hutu regime. According to Alain Destexhe, former secretary general of Doctors Without Borders, the events in Rwanda rank with the extermination of Jews and Gypsies by the Nazis as one of the most terrible examples of genocide in the 20th century. On this tragedy's 10th anniversary, PHIL GASPER looks at its root causes--and the role of Western imperialism in precipitating the slaughter.
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IT'S IMPOSSIBLE not to be stunned by the ferocity and the extent of the carnage in Rwanda. Fergal Keane, a journalist who was there during the killings, describes "a nightmare zone where my capacity to understand, much less rationalize, was overwhelmed."
According to the New York Times, the events in Rwanda were "mindless tribal violence." But the idea that Africa is a continent of ancient tribal rivalries ready to burst out at the slightest provocation is a racist myth.
Most tribal antagonisms in Africa go back only as far as the period of European colonization in the late 19th century, when the colonialists' use of divide-and-rule tactics to control their huge territories. Before colonialism, the Rwandan population consisted mainly of land cultivators, the Hutus, and cattle herders, the Tutsis.
There was a degree of Tutsi privilege, because cattle were the main form of marketable wealth, but Hutus and Tutsis had the same religion, language, food and art, and there was no systematic conflict between the two groups. In fact, since the key was possession of cattle, people could switch groups.
Everything changed under colonial rule. Germany controlled the area from 1890 and used a section of Tutsi chiefs to act in their interests. After the First World War, Belgium became the colonial power. The Belgians used racist pseudo-science to concoct ethnic and tribal myths that claimed the Tutsis and Hutus were fundamentally different.
Tutsis were elevated to a position of dominance. Identity cards were introduced which forced people to have a clear group identity, and the ability to switch groups ended. Belgium used the Tutsis to rule Rwanda for almost the whole colonial period, but in the 1950s, they switched sides and began favoring the majority Hutus.
This led to sharp conflicts, and in the late 1950s and early 1960s, after Rwanda became independent under a Hutu government, about 150,000 Tutsis were forced into exile. In 1973, a Hutu general named Habyarimana took power in a military coup, but although he was a brutal leader who scapegoated Tutsis, there was no mass slaughter.
Between 1973 and 1977, the price of coffee--Rwanda's main export--rose on the world commodity market, and there was little ethnic tension in the country. But in the 1980s, world coffee prices fell sharply. At the same time, the price of tin, Rwanda's other key export, fell so much that tin mining in Rwanda was halted.
In the ensuing economic crisis, the state budget was slashed by 40 percent. The situation was worsened by the International Monetary Fund, which insisted that Rwanda implement a neoliberal "structural adjustment program" in 1990. The crisis was met by a wave of rural rebellions in which Hutu and Tutsi peasants united to oppose the government's policies.
At the same time, the Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF), based among Tutsi exiles, attempted an invasion of the country. In response, the Hutu ruling class used relentless radio propaganda to whip up hatred of the Tutsis.
The most extreme elements within the government and the army began planning to massacre Tutsis. Habyarimana, who had been forced by international pressure to negotiate with the RPF, came to be regarded as too moderate. On April 6, 1994, the plane carrying him and the president of neighboring Burundi back from a negotiating session in Tanzania was shot down.
The Hutu government blamed the RPF, but it was almost certainly the work of Hutu extremists. Whoever was responsible, this was the signal for the Hutu rulers to begin the orchestrated slaughter of Tutsis.
Large numbers of ordinary Hutus took part in the killings, often for fear that they would be killed themselves if they did not participate. Some, though, gave shelter to their Tutsi neighbors, despite the risk. But Western governments, led by the U.S., simply ignored what was taking place.
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LAST MONTH, the Washington Post published an article by former President Bill Clinton, reflecting on the Rwandan genocide. "It is important to remember the horrors of that period with clarity and honesty, both to benefit from the lessons learned and to honor the memory of those who perished," Clinton wrote.
But Clinton's comments exhibited neither clarity nor honesty. He quoted part of an apology he made on a 1998 visit to Rwanda. "We did not act quickly enough after the killing began...We did not immediately call these crimes by their rightful name: genocide."
Clinton carefully refrained from repeating his earlier explanation for this inaction: "All over the world, there were people like me sitting in offices who did not fully appreciate the depth and speed with which you were being engulfed by this unimaginable terror."
In fact, Clinton's excuse was an outright lie. According to a July 2000 report by an international panel set up by the Organization for African Unity, "The facts show...that the American government knew precisely what was happening."
This verdict was confirmed just days before Clinton's Washington Post op-ed appeared, when the independent National Security Archive (NSA) obtained copies of recently declassified U.S. government intelligence reports from 1994. "[D]iplomats, intelligence agencies, defense and military officials--even aid workers--provided timely information up the chain to President Clinton and his top advisors," NSA fellow William Ferroggiaro told reporters. "That the Clinton administration decided against intervention at any level was not for lack of knowledge of what was happening in Rwanda."
As early as April 23, a National Intelligence Daily (NID) memo, distributed to hundreds of top government officials including the president, called the Rwanda massacres "genocide." But in public, U.S. officials refused to use the word "genocide," since under the 1948 Genocide Convention, this would have required them to take steps to prevent what was happening.
A May 1 Pentagon document warned, "Be careful. Legal at State was worried about this yesterday--genocide finding could commit USG [the U.S. government] to 'do something.'" As the slaughter continued, a White House source told the New York Times that Rwanda "has no ties to the U.S.--and no oil or other resources that would make American intervention worth the cost."
It was not until June 10--more than two months after the mass killings had begun--that U.S. Secretary of State Warren Christopher finally admitted that "genocide" was "the operative term, from a legal standpoint." But the U.S. government continued to give diplomatic recognition to the Hutu government that was orchestrating the massacres, until it was overthrown.
Not only was the Clinton administration not interested in intervening, it blocked international intervention. The U.S. ambassador to the United Nations (UN), Madeleine Albright, pressured other countries to withdraw the small UN peacekeeping force already in Rwanda and opposed attempts to authorize a bigger intervention.
The only Western country to directly intervene was France--and it did so on the side of the Hutu government, fearing that an RPF victory would threaten its interests in the region.
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THE ROOTS of the Rwanda genocide lie in the country's colonial legacy, the workings of the world market, massive poverty, class divisions within Rwandan society, and the cynical indifference of Western ruling classes.
Africa has enormous natural wealth. If it were fairly distributed, the conditions that led to the genocide would never have arisen, and the continent's massive poverty could be ended. But Africa remains trapped in an imperialist vice.
Direct colonial rule has ended, but Western ruling classes use their economic and military dominance to suck out billions of dollars in debt repayments every year. The events of 10 years ago are a horrific example of the barbarism that international capitalism will continue to create until it is finally replaced.