Book Review: Eyewitness to a Genocide Part 1

The United Nations and Rwanda

By Michael Barnett

A couple weeks ago we were having a discussion at Balloon Juice about when and if military interventions were a good idea.  Though I respect Soonergrunt, I took issue with his assertion that Rwanda wasn’t worth intervening in.  Of course, I don’t really know a ton about Rwanda, but when it comes to genocide, how much do you need to know, right?  I mean, if people are being killed for their race/ethnicity, that’s wrong, and the only moral thing to do is whatever you can to make it stop.

That being said, I don’t actually know some important details- could we have actually stopped the genocide there?  What kind of effort would it have taken?  I remembered this book was sitting on my shelf.  I decided to read it.  Better to know a little about what I’m talking about than pretty much nothing.

The book isn’t about the genocide itself.  There’s no description of the actual genocide itself.  Instead this book concerns itself with how the international community ignored the genocide and who should bear the blame for that.

One fact of the worst crime against humanity that took place during my lifetime was that other than a handful of people no one was wasn’t Rwandan did anything.  The genocide was over when the RPF- the Rwandan Tutsi Rebel army- arrived in Kigali and stopped it.  Only a tiny UN force acting against orders did anything.

Michael Barnett was a part of the UN when it happened.  The book is part of his coming to terms with that organization’s inaction.

There aren’t a ton of heroes in the book.  After the signing of the Arusha Accords, the UN sent in a small peacekeeping force to oversee the establishment of a transitional government that would include both Tutsis and Hutus.  The UN, embarrassed by failure in Somalia, could only put together a small force headed up by Romeo Dallaire, a Canadian Lieutenant-General.

The force was hopelessly underfunded, had very limited supplies, and was poorly trained.  It had no mandate to do anything beyond stand and watch.  Barnett argues that this emboldened the Interahamwe- the group that would commit the worst of the massacres- by tipping them off that the international community was not serious.

Romeo may be the only real hero (outside of native Rwandans) in the book.  Being on the ground, he saw what was going on firsthand, and sent regular reports to the UN.  His small force was able to save the lives of an estimated 32,000 people.

His reports detailing plans for ethnic cleansing were not passed on to the Security Council.  Barnett believes that UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali deliberately did not pass them along.  Barnett speculates that Boutros-Ghali was opposed to intervention.

As was just about everyone else.  Other than the Czech Republic and New Zealand, no country was arguing for intervention in Rwanda, even after the collapse of the Arusha Accords.  It wasn’t until the full extent of the crimes taking place there became known that a real push was made to end them.  By then it was too late.

So why wasn’t there a push to intervene?  The United States had just evacuated its force from Somalia, was still involved in Bosnia and President Clinton wasn’t willing to battle with a Republican Congress for an intervention in an African country with no perceived strategic value.

France, for very dubious reasons was actively involved in aiding the government in Rwanda.  At best it was willfully ignoring reports of genocide.  At worst it knew and didn’t care.  France even helped certain members of the Rwandan government that were suspected of genocide to escape the country.

Other members of the security council chose to do nothing for the usual reasons- Britain and Russia didn’t have the means, China didn’t want to invite criticism of its own humans rights violations.




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