REVIEW: Article

Remarks at the Genocide Memorial in Kigali, Rwanda

We meet today in a place that, like Auschwitz, Babi Yar, Tuol Sleng, Lidice and Srebrenica, cannot be fully explained with words. But as living witnesses, we must try. History confers on its survivors a responsibility to remember, to seek understanding—and to  prevent the next Rwanda, the next Bosnia, the next genocide.

It is with this in mind, and with the greatest humility, that, at the request of our delegation leader, Secretary of Health and Human Services Tommy Thompson, I offer a few comments about what happened here, why it should not have happened, and how the world might prevent future tragedies of such scope.

Let me start with the unavoidable truth:  the genocide, or at least much of it, might have been avoided had the world acted. But in April 1994, as the slaughter started, the United Nations (UN) Security Council instructed its undermanned and overwhelmed peacekeeping operation in Rwanda to withdraw, and ignored the UN commander’s request for reinforcements. This was done after the gruesome killing of ten UN peacekeepers from Belgium by the gathering storm of Hutu killers that were to become known as genocidaires. Some Tutsi who saw clearly what would happen sent the UN commander, Canadian General Romeo Dallaire, a letter that said, famously, “We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families.” (This sentence later became the title of a superb book by Philip Gourewitch, one of two essential books—the other is Samantha Power’s A Problem from Hell—on this subject.).

The people who wrote that letter lie buried here on this hill, along with as many as 250,000 others. At least 800,000 people were slaughtered in Rwanda in about three months, a faster rate of killing than even the Holocaust. The international press, to the extent 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, name by name, were drawn up well in advance, and broadcast on the radio, name by name, even license plate by license plate. 

The costs of this tragedy are still with us today—political, economic and psychological. The aftereffects of the genocide have been felt ever since, not only here, but also in neighboring Congo, and the threat of renewed ethnic killing remains, especially next door in fragile Burundi. In other words, the threat of more bloodshed in this neighborhood remains high.

I mentioned earlier the role of the UN Security Council in this tragedy. Had the Security Council agreed to General Dallaire’s request and sent more troops—not many, but heavily armed and with “Chapter VII” authority to use force as necessary, I believe, as do most other observers, that at least half the deaths—if not more—could have been prevented.  Instead, whenever the UN withdrew, the killings, the genocide exploded.

But—I must stress this point—the UN withdrawal was not determined by something abstract called “the UN.”  That organization is nothing more—or less—than the sum of its members. And in this case, this meant the 15 members of the UN Security Council; above all, the five permanent members—the United States (US), Great Britain, France, Russia and China—and even more centrally, the US, France and Britain. It was not “the UN”—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 speak today as a private citizen, but also as a former member of President Clinton’s cabinet who was proud and honored to serve in his administration. As Ambassador to Germany, I was involved in different issues in April 1994, but I share President Clinton’s publicly stated acknowledgment that what happened here was in part an American failure. As he said, movingly, when he made the first of his 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 US demanded a full UN withdrawal. We even opposed helping other nations who might have intervened, and deleted the use of the word “genocide” from the UN’s statements. In fact, only the French did intervene eventually, in a limited way, and without us. Had we shown a willingness to airlift even a relatively small contingent of American troops to 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 US 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 US was reeling from the “Black Hawk Down” disaster in Somalia only six months earlier. American troops had just left Somalia. The American Congress would have opposed any new American intervention in Africa. The UN was discredited by Bosnia and Somalia. 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 Bosnia was receiving much more media attention; after all, it was in Europe, a more strategic area for the US (although there as well the US response was still passive in 1994).

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 September 11, that it would really be limited? It was not our finest hour—and we need, as we meet on this once-bloodied ground, 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, much progress has been made in reconciliation between Hutus and Tutsis. That Secretary Thompson’s exceptional delegation comes here today to address HIV/AIDS—in my view, the greatest social crisis, indeed, much more than a health issue—instead of the tragedy of 1994 already speaks volumes about Rwanda’s progress, although the AIDS issue is a genuine problem here, and growing.

But it is fitting and necessary that we begin our trip here. We could not do otherwise. We stand on hallowed ground, where blood ran like a swollen river only nine years ago. This land was a muddy field filled with crooked wooden crosses when I first came here exactly four years ago this week. It will henceforth rank with the most important memorials to human madness and evil in the world.

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 strategy.” And each time we see a similar lesson; 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 Rwanda. More recently, it is the lesson of Liberia, where the killing and destruction could have been ended earlier if the United States had lived up to its noble rhetoric and sent those US Marines, waiting on ships just off the coast, to Monrovia. But they didn’t, and once again, an avoidable tragedy continued, with 12-year-old child soldiers slaughtering innocents in the streets.

Will it always take a September 11 to mobilize our nation? No one can doubt now that action in Afghanistan against the Taliban and Osama bin Laden before September 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 US before September 11, 2001. Perhaps September 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 this year—an intervention that would have been relatively inexpensive; after all, the 2,000 Marines were already just off the coast, and the danger to US troops would have been very low, especially compared to Iraq and Afghanistan—the failure to act in Liberia is a depressing reminder that, “Never again” is more a slogan than a real policy for our nation.

We are not here today 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 and with no American or North Atlantic Treaty Organization casualties. Kosovo and Afghanistan are still works in progress. Iraq is unique. Sudan and Liberia and Angola and Sierre Leone are improving, but not yet enough. But one thing is certain: there will be other Bosnias and Rwandas and Afghanistans in our lives. How we respond to them will determine not only the fate of millions, but our own future as Americans in the world we live in.

And so, let us close by remembering what happened here. Let us learn from the errors that allowed this to take place. Let us pray that we never have to visit another such memorial, as yet unbuilt, to remember another horror that has not yet happened.*

* Editor’s Note: Ambassador Holbrooke delivered these remarks on December 2, 2003.

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Permanent Representative of the United States to the United Nations, 1999-2001;
United States Ambassador to Germany, 1993-1994;
Assistant Secretary of State for European and Canadian Affairs, 1994-1996