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Refusing to Call It Genocide: Documents Show Clinton Administration Ignored Mass Killings in Rwanda

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Declassified U.S. documents show the Clinton administration refused to label the 1994 mass killings in Rwanda as a genocide. One State Department document read: “Be careful … Genocide finding could commit U.S.G. to actually 'do something.'” At a press briefing in 1994, Reuters correspondent Alan Elsner asked: “How many acts of genocide does it take to make genocide?” State Department spokesperson Christine Shelley responded, “Alan, that’s just not a question that I’m in a position to answer.” Samantha Power, who is now the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, described the U.S. inaction in her 2001 article, “Bystanders to Genocide.” She wrote, “The United States did much more than fail to send troops. It led a successful effort to remove most of the UN peacekeepers who were already in Rwanda. It aggressively worked to block the subsequent authorization of UN reinforcements.” We speak to Emily Willard of the National Security Archive, and University of Wisconsin, Madison, Professor Scott Straus, author of “The Order of Genocide: Race, Power, and War in Rwanda.”

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: This is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. I’m Amy Goodman. We continue our coverage of the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide. We go first to Washington, D.C., where we’re joined by Emily Willard. She’s a research associate at the National Security Archive. The organization is running the Rwanda 20 Years Later project, which is part of its broader Genocide Prevention Project. Willard and her team are utilizing formerly classified documents released by the Defense Intelligence Agency to help bring accountability for the atrocity.

Welcome to Democracy Now!, Emily. Start off by telling us what you have—what you feel is the most important of the documents you have released.

EMILY WILLARD: I think one of the most important documents that we’ve released is, over the years, we’ve—one of the key documents shows the U.S.'s and the international community's failure to intervene in Rwanda when the genocide was already occurring. There’s a Department of Defense memo sent to the National Security Council. It’s a one-page, three-paragraph memo, clearly saying that there’s an idea that the United States could jam the radios, the national radio program in Rwanda that were inciting the massacres. And this document clearly says that a decision was made that it would be ineffective and too expensive to jam the radios, and that it would be cheaper for the United States and more efficient to follow up after the violence had ended with aid support. So this clearly shows U.S. apprehension in getting militarily involved and, you know, going for the after-the-fact relief. However, key documents—

AMY GOODMAN: I mean, the key—the key point here, for people who aren’t familiar with this, is the role of the radio in the genocide, the incitement to kill Tutsis, calling them, most famously, “cockroaches.”

EMILY WILLARD: Yes, yes. And while this document is certainly key—and we’ve had this one for a while—the remaining key documents that really will tell the behind-the-scenes about how some of these key decisions were made are still classified. And they’re bogged down in the declassification process. So, unfortunately, some of the very key documents that we really need as an international community to understand how these key decisions were made are still not available to the public. And we’re in the process of working with the government to get them declassified, but, unfortunately, those key behind-the-scenes conversations are not available to the public.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to go to some of the clips of U.S. officials. The United States government carefully avoided using the word “genocide” to describe what was happening in Rwanda. This is a clip from the PBS Frontline documentary Ghosts of Rwanda. It begins a State Department briefing, April 28th, 1994.

REPORTER 1: —comment on that, or a view as to whether or not what is happening could be genocide?

CHRISTINE SHELLEY: Well, as I think you know, the use of the term “genocide” has a very precise legal meaning, although it’s not strictly a legal determination. There are—there are other factors in there, as well. When—in looking at a situation to make a determination about that, before we begin to use that term, we have to know as much as possible about the facts of the situation.

REPORTER 2: Just out of curiosity, given that so many people say that there is genocide underway, or something that strongly resembles it, why wouldn’t this convention be invoked?

MADELEINE ALBRIGHT: Well, I think, as you know, this becomes a legal definitional thing, unfortunately, in terms of—as horrendous as all these things are, there becomes a definitional question.

AMY GOODMAN: Madeleine Albright, then-secretary of state, speaking in ’94. Seven weeks into the genocide, then-President Bill Clinton restated U.S. policy on intervening in foreign conflicts.

PRESIDENT BILL CLINTON: The end of the superpower standoff lifted the lid from a cauldron of long-simmering hatreds. Now the entire global terrain is bloody with such conflicts, from Rwanda to Georgia. Whether we get involved in any of the world’s ethnic conflicts, in the end, must depend on the cumulative weight of the American interests at stake.

AMY GOODMAN: That was President Clinton. During a press conference in June ’94, Reuters correspondent Alan Elsner questioned State Department spokesperson Christine Shelley on how she would describe the events taking place in Rwanda.

CHRISTINE SHELLEY: We have every reason to believe that acts of genocide have occurred.

ALAN ELSNER: How many acts of genocide does it take to make genocide?

CHRISTINE SHELLEY: Alan, that’s just not a question that I’m in a position to answer.

ALAN ELSNER: Is it true that the—that you have specific guidance not use the word “genocide” in isolation, but always to preface it with this—this word, “acts of”?

CHRISTINE SHELLEY: I have guidance, which—to which I—which I try to use as best as I can. I’m not—I have—there are formulations that we are using that we are trying to be consistent in our use of.

AMY GOODMAN: That was the State Department spokesperson, Christine Shelley, being questioned by the Reuters correspondent, Alan Elsner. Scott Straus is also with us now, in addition to Emily Willard. Scott Straus is professor of political science and international studies at UW-Madison. He has written several books on Rwanda, including The Order of Genocide: Race, Power, and War in Rwanda. Professor Straus, the significance of the U.S. response at the time, not willing to call what was happening a genocide?

SCOTT STRAUS: Well, the U.S. was one of the key actors at the time. And, you know, the policy was clearly not to get involved in Rwanda. But the U.S.—and as the leading actor on the international stage at that time, the U.S.'s actions were critical. But the U.S. wasn't acting alone. I mean, Britain and Belgium at that time and within the bureaucracy of the United Nations, there was a real reluctance to get involved.

AMY GOODMAN: And France, as well, of course, leading to the fight that’s happening today with the delegation, the high-level delegation, pulling out of the genocide commemorations because of Kagame saying that the French were responsible.

SCOTT STRAUS: Yeah, the French had a much more controversial history with Rwanda, both before the genocide and even during the genocide. France was the leading ally of the regime in Rwanda, the regime that ultimately orchestrated the genocide. So the controversy is really: How much did they know? When did they know? Were they—some people accuse them of being involved in the preparations for genocide. I think that goes too far. But nonetheless, they were—they were the main ally of the regime that orchestrated genocide, and so that’s one of the reasons why their role has been so controversial in this particular history.

AMY GOODMAN: In 2001, Samantha Power, now the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, wrote an article in The Atlantic magazine called “Bystanders to Genocide.” In it, she wrote, quote, “the United States did much more than fail to send troops. It led a successful effort to remove most of the UN peacekeepers who were already in Rwanda. It aggressively worked to block the subsequent authorization of UN reinforcements. … The United States in fact did virtually nothing 'to try to limit what occurred.' … In order not to appreciate that genocide or something close to it was under way, U.S. officials had to ignore public reports and internal intelligence and debate,” she wrote. At the time, she was founding executive director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard University’s Kennedy School of Government, now, of course, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, and she is leading the U.S. delegation at the Rwandan commemorations. Emily Willard, the significance of this and the documents that you have that are the underlying documents to the kind of statements you were hearing from President Clinton to Madeleine Albright, then the secretary of state?

EMILY WILLARD: Yes, the debate around whether or not the genocide had actually occurred was very clear right after the plane was shot down and the violence started. There was a debate going on with the Department of State. And at the end of—it wasn’t until the end of April that it was declared publicly that acts of genocide had occurred, and then not until the beginning of May that the secretary of state came out and said that a genocide had occurred. And you see in the documents, the reporting within the State Department, a very clear hesitation to not overestimate the number of people who were being killed. And actually, very interestingly, as the process of getting the documents declassified, there are examples where the United States, in the documents, says, “We’re not sure if, you know, 500,000, it is an exaggeration.” And in the first release of the document that—that sentence was redacted, because even after the genocide happened, there’s still a hesitation to be clear and open about what the intelligence was and how those—that analysis of the intelligence was handled.

AMY GOODMAN: And the Dallaire fax, the significance of this, Professor Straus, if you could comment on this, the head of the U.N. peacekeepers writing to the United Nations that a genocide was about to take place?

SCOTT STRAUS: So I think that, you know, people have gone back and looked, and there have been clear warnings that something really terrible was happening, including the possibility of genocide or extermination. And the significance of the January memo that Dallaire wrote was a clear warning to United Nations headquarters in New York that there were efforts to train militia, that there was stockpiling of weapons, there was a clear warning that there was going to be significant violence against Tutsi civilians, even possibility of extermination. And Dallaire was essentially requesting some type of authorization to be aggressive in uncovering those stockpiles of weapons and so forth. And the U.N. headquarters was essentially risk-averse, said, “Don’t do it. You know, don’t get involved.” And so, this was a real early warning, a chance that something could have happened before the genocide started in April, and the decision was not to do something. So I think the significance is a refusal to act on early warning and really ignoring the possibility that something really awful could happen in Rwanda.

AMY GOODMAN: And, Emily Willard, how unusual it is that you cannot get these documents declassified from 20 years ago?

EMILY WILLARD: That’s definitely a concern, because, especially with presidential records, 12 years after the president leaves office, there should be an increased access to the information. And those 20 years expired last January. So we’re still—it is very concerning that we’re still having a hard time getting especially the behind-the-scenes—

AMY GOODMAN: You’re talking about President Clinton.

EMILY WILLARD: —deliberative information. Yes, president—the presidential records from the National Security Council, where a lot of these decisions were likely made. So, it is concerning because, you know, 20 years after the fact, especially that the documents and the information is about a genocide—

AMY GOODMAN: We’re going to have to leave it there. Emily Willard, thanks so much for being with us, and Professor Scott Straus of University of Wisconsin.

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