GOVERNMENTS, UNLIKE individuals, rarely engage in an examination of conscience or ask themselves what they might do in the future to prevent a repetition of their worst sins.
In ethical terms, few failures of American leadership in recent years have been as disgraceful as the Clinton administration's refusal to take meaningful actions while it was still possible to stop the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. While top policy makers were marshaling bureaucratic reasons to ignore unmistakable reports about the genocide after it began on April 6, 1994, 800,000 people, nearly all from the Tutsi ethnic group, were being exterminated with clubs, machetes, and small arms.
This genocide could have been halted in its early stages. Because the killers were mostly untrained, lightly armed militiamen taking orders from Hutu extemists in the central government, the international community needed only to muster several thousand well-armed professional soldiers to act not as passive peacekeepers but as aggressive enforcers of peace - and preventers of genocide.
The United Nations, misled by the United States, did exactly the opposite. The small, incompetent UN peacekeeping force that had been inside Rwanda when the slaughter began was withdrawn after a handful of Belgian soldiers were murdered for that very purpose by the Hutu regime. Then President Clinton and his secretary of state, Warren Christopher, deliberately avoided calling the Rwandan genocide by its proper name out of fear that acknowledging the truth would oblige the administration, in accordance with the 1948 Genocide Convention, to intervene and save lives.
Because so many lives could have been saved with so little effort and because the parochial Washington barriers to intervention in a future genocide are still in place, it is crucial to understand why, a half-century after the Nazi Holocaust, American officials chose to avert their gaze from another genocide.
This is the question asked and answered in a must-read article in the September issue of The Atlantic Monthly by Samantha Power, executive director of the Carr Center for Human Rights Policy at Harvard. What Power finds in extensive interviews with the principals and a scrutiny of documents from the time is that the 800,000 people were allowed to perish unnecessarily in Rwanda not because the government's decision-making system failed but because it worked only too well.
Fear of repeating the calamity of a failed intervention in Somalia, the Pentagon's distaste for peacekeeping missions, Clinton's political cowardice, and a diplomatic fixation on peace processes for their own sake - these were among the structural causes of official American indifference to genocide. These failings must be understood and corrected so they will not produce the same moral blindness when the next genocide begins.
© Copyright 2001 Globe Newspaper Company