March 26, 1998 in Nation/World

U.S. Blocked Help For Rwanda

New York Times
 

Even when it was clear that hundreds of thousands of Rwandan civilians were in mortal danger, the United States stopped the United Nations from taking action that might have saved those lives.

A 2,500-member United Nations force sought authorization under the United Nations charter to stop the killing. The United Nations commander in Rwanda at the time, Canadian Maj. Gen. Romeo Dallaire, said last month that if he had had the mandate, the massacres would have ceased.

Giving Dallaire the authority and the troops that he requested “could have stopped the whole thing,” said Morton Halperin, a National Security Council staff member in 1994,

But the Clinton administration opposed the move. The United Nations had to learn “when to say no,” President Clinton said at the time.

Alison DesForges, author of “The Killing Campaign: The 1994 Genocide in Rwanda,” a Human Rights Watch report to be published next month by Yale University Press, said “the U.S. was the primary stumbling block” to international action to stop the massacres.

Lionel Rosenblatt, president of Refugees International, said: “The ball was not only dropped by the U.S., it was blocked by the U.S.”

Halperin, now senior vice president of the Twentieth Century Fund, a public policy foundation, recalled: “Nobody was really focused on how serious the situation was until things were out of control. People were saying, ‘We’re not willing to make the kind of commitment that would really stop this.’ People concluded, ‘We can’t do anything.”’

After the disastrous 1993 mission in Somalia, the United States was reluctant to become involved in an African nation it did not know well, whose geopolitical importance was small, and whose sufferings were at the time unobserved by television, Halperin said.

“We didn’t really know the nature of the conflict” immediately before it exploded into one of the great man-made disasters of the century, he said. “There weren’t any visuals and there wasn’t a lot of information. The data weren’t on anybody’s screen.”

But the data were there, DesForges said. She said that administration officials ignored clear warnings before before the massacres began on April 6, 1994. Those massacres were mostly committed by Hutu militia against the minority Tutsi tribe and the moderate Hutu opposition.

“They ignored a letter of warning from high military officers in the Rwandan Army in December 1993 about plans for widespread violence,” she said. “They ignored a very explicit telegram of Jan. 11, 1994, sent to the U.N. and the U.S. ambassador from an informant, detailing the preparations of the militias to kill Tutsi. And they ignored a CIA study at the end of January 1994 which suggested that if combat were to begin in Rwanda, that it would include violence against civilians - with a worst-case scenario of the deaths of half a million people.”

On May 3, 1994, while the massacres were raging, President Clinton signed a major foreign policy order, Presidential Decision Directive 25. It narrowly defined the national interest in the fate of a small, faraway, unimportant place like Rwanda, whose collapse would not directly affect the United States or breach international security. The policy blocked the United States from acting to stop the killing.

That month, administration spokesmen were instructed not to use the word “genocide” in referring to Rwanda. The word made it harder for the United States to explain doing nothing. Tuesday, Clinton used the word 11 times.

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