How Did 'Never Again' Become Just Words?
Why did Washington do nothing?
It was not our finest hour -- and we need, 10 years later, to admit it
OP-ED: By Richard Holbrooke, former US Ambassador to the UN
The Washington Post, Washington, D.C., Sunday, April 4, 2004; Page B02
Last December I stood on a nearly finished terrace outside Kigali, the
capital of Rwanda, and gazed out over a field that held the remains of some
250,000 victims of the worst genocide since World War II. The scene was
vastly different from what I had seen on my first visit four years earlier.
Then, this same site had been nothing but a tract of mud thickly planted
with crooked wooden crosses. Survivors of Rwanda's genocide had talked to
us, sorrowfully, recalling April 1994 and their desperate pleas to the
United Nations peacekeeping force not to withdraw, not to allow the murders
that were about to take place.
Now the muddy field is green, and slopes gently toward the river, the same
river where the bodies were once piled several feet deep. In the small
museum, photographs and rows of skulls -- eerily reminiscent of the Tuol
Sleng prison in Cambodia -- chill the visitor into stunned, stricken
What happened in Rwanda -- as in Auschwitz, Babi Yar, Tuol Sleng and
Srebrenica -- cannot be fully explained in words. It is unfathomable on so
many levels, a horror we want to convince ourselves is beyond human
capacity, despite all the evidence of history. Indeed, this week, on the
10th anniversary of the genocide, the memorial that has been built on that
Rwandan killing field will be dedicated, and dignitaries will come from all
over the world and vow, just as they did after Auschwitz, never to let it
The catchphrase for the Rwandas and Bosnias of the world, as with the
Holocaust itself, is always the same: Never again. Yet time after time, it
does happen again. Of course, the specific circumstances always differ; each
time they are described as unique. Each time we are told of "ancient tribal"
or "ethnic" hatreds; each time there is international "compassion fatigue";
each time there is a demand for an "exit strategy" rather than a "success
But there is one underlying constant: the failure of the world to recognize
and confront the evil that is occurring, and to deny it the chance to
unleash its full fury. This is both a failure of will and a failure of
courage -- a deliberate shrinking from a reality too horrifying to
contemplate, but one that can only be changed if it is, in fact, deeply
contemplated, faced directly and stared down.
Rwanda victimes of 1994 genocide buried at Nyaza cemetary outside Kigali
(Click on image to enlarge it)
The lesson of each genocide is the same: The killing really takes off only
after the murderers see that the world, and especially the United States, is
not going to care or react. That was the lesson of Bosnia, of East Timor, of
Angola and of Rwanda. More recently, it was the lesson of Liberia, where the
killing and destruction last summer could have been ended earlier if the
Bush administration had sent U.S. Marines, waiting on ships just off the
coast, into Monrovia. But it didn't, and once again, an avoidable tragedy
continued, with 12-year-old child soldiers slaughtering innocents in the
Yes, what happened in Rwanda is difficult to explain. But as living
witnesses, we must try. Let me start with the unavoidable truth: Rwanda's
genocide, or at least much of it, might have been avoided had the world
acted. But as the slaughter started, and after the gruesome killing of 10
U.N. peacekeepers from Belgium, the U.N. Security Council instructed its
undermanned and overwhelmed peacekeeping forces in Rwanda to withdraw,
ignoring the U.N. commander's request for reinforcements. Some Tutsi who saw
clearly what would happen famously wrote a letter that included the line,
"We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families."
At least 800,000 people were slaughtered in about three months, a faster
rate of killing than even during the Holocaust. The international media, to
the extent that it covered the event at all, reported it primarily as an
outbreak of crazed African tribal butchery. Of course, this coverage, with
its racist subtext, was not true. The genocide was planned, and the deaths
were almost all those of one ethnic group, the Tutsis. Lists of victims had
been drawn up well in advance and broadcast on the radio, name by name,
even license plate by license plate.
Had the Security Council agreed to the U.N. commander's request and sent
more troops, I believe, as do most other observers, that at least half the
deaths, if not more, could have been prevented. Instead, when the United
Nations withdrew, the genocide exploded.
But -- I must stress this point -- the U.N. withdrawal was not determined by
something abstract called "the United Nations." That organization is nothing
more than the sum of its members. And in this case, this meant the 15
members of the Security Council; above all, the five permanent members --
the United States, Great Britain, France, Russia and China -- and, even more
centrally, the United States, France and Britain. It was not "the U.N." --
that tall building on New York's East River, overflowing with diplomatic
talk -- that decided to pull out. No. It was the leading nations of the
world, speaking through their ambassadors in New York.
I write today as a private citizen, but also as a former member of President
Bill Clinton's Cabinet, who was proud and honored to serve in his
administration. As ambassador to Germany in April 1994, I was involved in
different issues, but I share President Clinton's publicly stated
acknowledgment that what happened here was in part an American failure. As
he said when he made the first of two visits to Kigali on March 25, 1998,
"It may seem strange to you here . . . but all over the world there were
people like me sitting in offices, day after day after day, who did not
fully appreciate the depth and the speed with which you were being engulfed
by this unimaginable terror."
Details matter here. On April 15, 1994, in the Security Council, the United
States demanded a full U.N. withdrawal. We even opposed helping other
nations who might have intervened, and deleted the use of the word
"genocide" from the U.N.'s statements. In fact, only the French did
intervene eventually, in a limited way. Had we shown a willingness to
airlift even a relatively small contingent of American troops into Rwanda,
others would have definitely followed, and the Security Council would have
passed the necessary authorizing resolutions. Our troops were in Germany,
ready and available. The U.S. Air Force knew the area and its airfields well
from its relief operations.
Why did Washington do nothing? The answer lies primarily in events outside
Rwanda. The United States was reeling from the "Black Hawk Down" disaster in
Somalia only six months earlier. American troops had just left that country;
Congress would have opposed any new American intervention in Africa. The
United Nations was discredited by its actions regarding Bosnia and Somalia;
it had lost its will under a confused and beleaguered secretary-general.
Bosnia itself was at the height of a war that seemed far worse (although in
the end its death toll was a "mere" 300,000) and was receiving much more
Inside the administration, and in a Congress that was virtually isolationist
in regard to Africa, there was no stomach for even a limited intervention --
and who could assure the American public, so much more skeptical of
intervention in 1994 than since 9/11, that it really would be limited? It
was not our finest hour -- and we need, 10 years later, to admit it.
So Rwanda fell to its near-death. Then, and only then, did the rest of the
world realize the historic enormity of what had happened. It took the
actions of the Tutsi military commander, Paul Kagame, to finally stop the
genocide -- and today, he is the president of Rwanda. Since then, progress
has been made in reconciliation between Hutus and Tutsis, but the danger, in
both Rwanda and neighboring Burundi, is far from gone.
Will it always take a 9/11 to mobilize our nation? No one can doubt now that
action in Afghanistan against the Taliban and Osama bin Laden before 9/11
would have been justified and might even have thwarted the horrors at home.
But such action would not have had much support in the United States before
Sept. 11, 2001. Perhaps 9/11 will be seen as a wake-up call for actions that
go beyond the war on terrorism. But our failure to act in Liberia last year
was a depressing reminder that "Never again" is more a slogan than a policy
for our nation.
It is not easy to solve one of the nation's, and the world's, most complex
questions: when and how to intervene in situations that do not involve our
immediate national security. Each crisis of the post-Cold War era tells a
different story. Bosnia and East Timor were, after appallingly slow starts,
relative successes; that is, the wars are over -- with no American or NATO
casualties. Kosovo and Afghanistan are still works in progress. Iraq is
unique, and, at present, an increasingly ominous mess. Liberia and Angola
and Sierra Leone are improving, though not yet enough. Sudan remains a
But one thing is certain: There will be other Bosnias and Rwandas and
Afghanistans -- as well as, regrettably, terrorism -- in our lives. How we
respond to them will determine not only the fate of millions, but our own
future as Americans and the kind of world we live in.
We must learn from the errors that allowed Rwanda to take place. Let us pray
that there truly never will be a need for yet another memorial, somewhere as
yet undetermined, to remember another horror that has not yet occurred.
Richard Holbrooke is former U.S. ambassador to the United Nations. This
article is adapted from a speech he delivered at the Genocide Memorial Site
in Rwanda . [Author's e-mail: email@example.com]
The Washington Post, Sunday, April 4, 2004
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