The Twilight Between Knowing and Not Knowing: US Recognition of Genocide

This is the final part of a three-part examination of the failure to recognize genocide in Rwanda. The first part is available here, and the second here.

Since the end of the Cold War the United States had repeatedly demonstrated that it could move the UN to take rapid action, yet in the case of the Rwandan genocide this did not occur.[1] At the height of its unipolar moment, Rwanda demonstrates not that the United States did not know about the genocide, but that a conscious choice was made whereby the prevention of 800,000 deaths in Africa was simply not in its national interest.

The U.S. government chose not to recognize genocide in Rwanda and actively attempted to maintain plausible deniability of its existence. This policy originated well before the genocide occurred. President Obama’s UN ambassador, Samantha Power, describes an incident in late 1993 where a member of the Pentagon’s African Affairs Bureau suggested that Rwanda be added to its list of possible trouble spots. His superiors replied that:

If something happens in Rwanda… we don’t care. Take it off the list. U.S. national interest is not involved and we can’t put all these silly humanitarian issues on lists…just make it go away.[2]

After the genocide began in April 1994, U.S. diplomats focused most of their efforts on re-establishing the Arusha Accords ceasefire in the mistaken belief that the extant civil war and the emergent genocide were synonymous. A Defense memorandum from 11 April posed the question, "Is the USG willing to get involved?" with the answer: "...not inside Rwanda…until peace is restored." However, this same document explicitly recognised that unless the belligerents could be convinced to return to the peace process "a massive (hundreds of thousands of deaths) bloodbath will ensue."[3] Intelligence estimates circulated daily with updated casualty figures,[4] and the embassy in Kigali passed on their concerns about the existence of killing lists.[5] Clearly, evidence of genocide was starting to permeate government reporting, yet no amount of evidence, no matter how powerful, could change the view that preventing mass killings in central Africa—even if they did amount to genocide—was simply not in the U.S. national interest.

Role of the Clinton Administration

U.S. policy during the Rwandan genocide reveals that it was not an important concern of the Clinton Administration, which treated it not as a human rights disaster requiring urgent response, but as a peacekeeping headache to be avoided. This attitude drove the administration’s dealings with the UN. More might have been expected of Clinton’s Presidency. As a presidential candidate in 1992, Clinton attacked the Bush Administration for its passive Bosnia policy, declaring: "If the horror of the Holocaust taught us anything, it is the high cost of remaining silent and paralyzed in the face of genocide."[6] Yet he quickly abandoned this bold anti-genocide rhetoric to fears that a foreign policy misadventure would weaken him politically, jeopardizing his domestic agenda.

Clothes of people killed in the Nyamata Church in Kigali, Rwanda, which has been turned into a memorial. Approximately 10,000 Rwandans seeking refuge from the genocide were killed there in April 1994, and some 50,000 victims of the genocide are buried there. (AFP/CNN)

General Dallaire cites a phone call he received from a U.S. staffer who queried how many people had perished, how many were refugees and how many were internally displaced. The staffer indicated "it would take the deaths of 85,000 Rwandans to justify the risking of one American soldier."[7] The shadow of Somalia hung ominously over Rwanda throughout, causing Clinton to disassociate himself from any image of a more muscular UN. Indeed, it was U.S. influence that forced the UN to screen potential missions so as to pick winners and avoid losers.[8] The US even pushed the UN to withdraw UNAMIR in the middle of the genocide because they did not believe the mission was viable.[9] This game of denial played by the Clinton Administration towards Rwanda was largely due to the normative and policy implications inherent in the UN Genocide Convention. The Convention affirmed that recognising genocide required action to prevent it—a commitment post-Somalia that President Clinton was unwilling to make.[10]

Power argues that the United States is fundamentally slow to muster the imagination needed to reckon with evil, instead assuming that rational actors are incapable of gratuitous violence.

Clinton’s attitude towards the UN can be further traced to an increasingly hostile Senate that was loathe to foot the bill for another peacekeeping mission. This gave him more reason to ignore the genocide because non-recognition ensured that America did not have to fund a response. As a result, the President did not convene a single meeting of his senior foreign policy advisers to discuss options for Rwanda, because in his mind there were none. This attitude was reflected in U.S. Presidential Decision Directive 25[11] which logically spelled out the reasons why further deployments of U.S. troops as peacekeepers needed to be based on clear national interest and UN reform. However, as John Shattuck recalls:

The trajectory of this Presidential Decision Directive, which had been drafted for months, suddenly intersected directly with the cataclysm in Rwanda, and result[ed] in a bureaucratic clampdown on any prospect of US support for that region.[12]

Ultimately, President Clinton’s claim that he was unaware of the genocide seems doubtful given the proliferation of information in the administration’s own documentation.[13] Arguably, the only reason the President was unaware of events in Rwanda was his deliberate desire to remain in the dark, so as to maintain plausible deniability. However, by May 1994 any pretense of plausibility was gone.

U.S. Recognition of Genocide

The fact that the U.S. was fundamentally uninterested in recognizing genocide meant that it was the last power-broker to do so, in public at least. The first mention of genocide in available U.S. documentation is in the Secretary’s Morning Summary of 26 April titled "Rwanda: Genocide and Partition." This previously Top Secret document notes that "at least 100,000 Rwandans have been killed since April 6," and notes "ICRC personnel in country think the toll could be 500,000." Furthermore, it explicitly refers to extremist claims of a "'final solution' to eliminate all Tutsis."[14] This reinforces the view that by late April the U.S. knew exactly what was occurring in Rwanda, but chose to pursue a campaign of deliberate ignorance.[15] Also at this time, senior State Department personnel were being directed to inform the genocidal regime that the U.S. knew about the military and government’s complicity in the massacres and that these constituted "criminal acts of the most heinous nature."[16] Yet despite this backroom maneuvering, there was still no public recognition that genocide was actually occurring.

The administration knew what was occurring in Rwanda but political considerations took precedence over the practical difficulties of intervening in an area where U.S. national interests were not at stake.

By early May 1994, official documents show signs of support for the UN’s desire to convene genocide investigations, yet the recommendations sum up American desire to act: "Be careful. Legal at State was worried about this yesterday—genocide finding could commit USG to actually ‘do something.’”[17] John Shattuck admits he only realized genocide was occurring after he flew over the Kagera River in early May and saw bodies floating like logs. After this experience, he was the first official from any department to describe Rwanda as genocide publicly.[18] Despite this, it took him weeks to convince the Administration to authorize the use of genocide. It was not until mid-May that those in the highest levels were prepared to use the correct terminology, because by then genocide was too self-evident to ignore, and "it was both intellectually and morally dishonest at that stage not to have [done so]."[19] This demonstrates the more general trend that genocide is fundamentally difficult to comprehend until seen through one’s own eyes. Therefore, it can be difficult for detached bureaucrats to determine that genocide is occurring based only on reporting, especially when they already possess an overriding desire not to acknowledge it.

From mid-May genocide is used frequently in documents to describe events in Rwanda. Publicly however, this admission came only in the form of the rather ambiguous term acts of genocide. This seems to have been prompted by the findings of a State Department legal analysis, which concluded in regards to the genocide convention that "there can be little question that the specific listed acts have taken place in Rwanda."[20] This analysis led to a 21 May document from Secretary of State Christopher’s key deputies requesting authorization to use genocide in public correspondence, indicating that Christopher’s subordinates believed it was no longer possible to plausibly deny the existence of genocide. It concluded:

[W]e should send a clear signal that the United States believes that acts of genocide have occurred in Rwanda. If we do not seize the opportunity…our credibility will be undermined [and many] may question how much evidence we can legitimately require before coming to a policy conclusion.[21]

Former Secretary of State Warren Christoper (Department of State Photo)

Warren Christopher finally agreed to let his department use genocide on 24 May. However, the ambiguity persisted until 10 June when, under severe internal and external pressure, he finally conceded that what had occurred in Rwanda was genocide: "If there is any particular magic in calling it genocide [emphasis mine], I have no hesitancy in saying that."[22] This as Michael Barnett has noted, ensured the "United States looked like the dullest and most callous kid in the class."[23]

Why did the US fail to recognize genocide in Rwanda?

The U.S. was inhibited by a self-imposed lack of imagination. A 1995 Human Rights Watch report argues that from an early stage America concentrated solely on the resumption of the civil war without considering the parallel effort of genocide.[24] The U.S. Ambassador to Rwanda, David Rawson, goes as far as to say the U.S. were "naïve policy optimists…looking for the hopeful signs, not the dark signs. In fact, we were looking away from the dark signs."[25] Power argues that the United States is fundamentally slow to muster the imagination needed to reckon with evil, instead assuming that rational actors are incapable of gratuitous violence. However, this supposed lack of psychological preparedness is not an acceptable excuse from mid-April, when the signs of the slaughter became irrefutable. At this point the U.S. progressed from fundamental misunderstanding to deliberate ignorance. Bob Dole summed up America’s attitude when he stated, "I don’t think we have any national interest there…The Americans are out, and as far as I’m concerned that ought to be the end of it."[26] Effectively this was the end of any debate about U.S. involvement. The administration knew what was occurring in Rwanda but political considerations took precedence over the practical difficulties of intervening in an area where US national interests were not at stake.

Members of the U.S. policymaking community like John Shattuck believe the Shadow of Somalia was the most important initial factor in the non-recognition of genocide.

The U.S. spent two months playing diplomatic escape and evasion. Analysts had a reasonable idea that genocide was taking place, even though they probably underestimated the extent of the slaughter. Senior leadership however, whether it was the State Department, the Pentagon or the White House, were totally unwilling to face, let alone deal with the genocide.[27] James Woods was Deputy Assistant Secretary for African Affairs at the Pentagon and is perhaps the most honest voice in the debate about the U.S. role in Rwanda. Woods states clearly that the U.S. maintained a blinkered approach because they wanted to, not because they did not know. Most importantly, he makes the key point that "it’s possible to know without officially knowing."[28]

Members of the U.S. policy-making community like John Shattuck believe the Shadow of Somalia was the most important initial factor in the non-recognition of genocide. He argues that America fundamentally misunderstood Somalia in the first place, but despite this its implications were projected into many other contexts—of which Rwanda was the first and most devastating example.[29] Furthermore, there were concerns about the effect involvement in Rwanda would have on the Democratic vote in upcoming elections if there were U.S. casualties. This situation ensured there was no champion for the Rwandan cause; indeed, it was quite clear that nobody in the administration wanted to understand the situation because it might compel the U.S. to become involved.[30]

Genocide cannot be treated as a run of the mill diplomatic matter that can be solved by commissions and reports.

America’s role in the Rwandan genocide was one of willful omission. While the key arms of government were provided with the information necessary to distinguish genocide, the stated policy was that Rwanda did not affect vital national interests before or even during the genocide, thus it was ignored.[31] American denial and unwillingness to take action had the chilling effect of blocking or denying any action that could arrest the genocide. Indeed, reports from the UN, the African Union, Human Rights Watch, and the French and Belgian legislatures are scathing in their criticism of the obstinate U.S. refusal to recognize the genocide.[32] By marginalizing the massacres in Rwanda and ignoring all the warnings that were presented, America was able to avoid having to call what was occurring by its rightful name—genocide. Therefore, America’s overwhelming influence ensured that any debate on the Rwandan issue was stifled and any enthusiasm to recognize the genocide by the UN was rejected.

Concluding Thoughts

I hope this three-part examination of the Rwandan genocide has exposed the principal constraints on the recognition and prevention of genocide. Initially all involved in Rwanda were slow to muster the necessary imagination to reckon with the evil being perpetrated. Those closest to the massacres were the first to identify that genocide was occurring, while external stakeholders were able to maintain their ignorance because of the lack of graphic imagery. The first people to recognize genocide were those closest to it: NGOs, the UN Assistance Mission for Rwanda and, eventually, the media. As such, if recognition is best addressed from the ground level it is critical the information be understood by key decision-makers swiftly and without censure by intermediaries (bureaucracies). Genocide cannot be treated as a run of the mill diplomatic matter that can be solved by commissions and reports. If any reason exists to suspect that genocide is occurring it must be addressed at the highest levels immediately, because early recognition is the only mechanism to enable potential intervention.

Reunited at last, but too late. Countless women and children fell victim to the ruthless attacks and mass killings. (Borgen Magazine)

Samantha Power has described the resistance to acknowledging the genocide as "the twilight between knowing and not knowing."[33] The genocide was easily discernible from mid-April 1994, yet genocide was not used by those on the ground, at the UN or in the White House until late April. Because recognition and action are inextricably intertwined, it was in the interest of some stakeholders to ignore the genocide by denying its occurrence and disregarding reports from those who were forced to witness it daily. Furthermore, the atrocities being perpetrated remained abstract and remote to most policymakers due to an innate inability to grasp the genocidal intent.[34] Indeed, it was not until May that the international community officially recognized the genocide. A failure of imagination at all levels ensured that reports from survivors and witnesses were unable to make the unbelievable believable, the unimaginable imaginable. But observers must take responsibility for their own incredulity. Just because the stories that emerged from Rwanda were difficult to believe did not mean that they should not have been investigated. The Holocaust should have taught us this lesson. Yet the half-hearted search for certainty led to postponement and paralysis, with those who professed to ‘not knowing’ choosing to do so despite full situational awareness.

International inaction raised questions as to whether the world is singularly unprepared to stop the slaughter of our fellow man if there are no vital national interests at stake.

The international community, of which the UN is just a symbol, failed to move beyond self-interest for the sake of Rwanda. While most nations agreed that something needed to be done, they all provided excuses why they should not be the ones to do it. One of the inescapable conclusions of this study is that the efforts of those on the ground to provide information to the international community were largely annulled by their inability to force the international community to actually acknowledge what was occurring. The tragic reality was that the Western world had become inured to large numbers of deaths in Africa and the international community’s bias towards categorizing Rwanda as nothing more than a civil war was simply recognition that they had no desire to understand or deal with Rwanda’s complex political and social problems.

This failure of the international community to recognise the slaughter of 800,000 people for what it was—genocide—and the failure of the great powers to meet their responsibilities under the UN Charter directly challenged the enlargement of the promised post-Cold War stable global order. International inaction raised questions as to whether the world is singularly unprepared to stop the slaughter of our fellow man if there are no vital national interests at stake. The genocide itself raised disquieting questions about the prevailing norms and rules by which a decentralized international system of nation-states and an emerging international civil society of diverse and disparate groups would be governed in the new millennium—questions that remain unanswered today.[35]

Historians, novelists, journalists, and filmmakers continue to examine the legacy of the Holocaust to draw lessons for the present generation. In the same way, it is important that we continue to examine the implications of the 1994 Rwandan genocide in order to draw out its lessons for the international system going forward.[36] Let us hope that David Kilgour (ex-Secretary of State for Africa) is wrong when he states, "What we seem to have learned about Rwanda is that we have learned nothing about Rwanda."

Mark Gilchrist is a serving Australian Army Officer. The views provided here are his own and do not reflect any official positions.

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[1] Samantha Power, A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, (London: 2003), p. 64.

[2] Ibid, p. 342.

[3] Talking Points on Rwanda/Burundi, Memorandum from Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defence for Middle East/Africa to Under Secretary of Defence for Policy, (11 April 1994). Note: all documents referenced from the period have been drawn from The National Security Archive of The George Washington University

[4] The National Intelligence Daily, was read by hundreds of policymakers 6 days per week, and reports like this should have removed the blinkered attitude towards Rwanda, Humanitarian Disaster Unfolding, NID, (26 April 1994).

[5] PBS Frontline, ‘Interview with Prudence Bushnell’, Ghosts of Rwanda, (30 September 2003).

[6] Robert S. Frey, The Genocidal Temptation: Auschwitz, Hiroshima, Rwanda, and Beyond, (Dallas, 2004), p. 107.

[7] Lt General. Romeo Dallaire with Major Brent Beardsley, Shake Hands with the Devil: The failure of humanity in Rwanda, (Canada, 2003), p. 499.

[8] Michael Barnett, Eyewitness to a Genocide: The United Nations and Rwanda, (London, 2002), p. 47.

[9] Talking Points for UNAMIR Withdrawal, US Department of State cable 099440, to US Mission to the UN, (15 April 1994).

[10] Warwick McFadyen, ‘The Weight’, Age, (23 July 2005).

[11] Signed on 3 May 1994

[12] John Shattuck was U.S. assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor and is the author of Freedom on Fire: Human Rights Wars and America's Response. PBS Frontline, ‘Interview with John Shattuck’, Ghosts of Rwanda, (16 December 2003).

[13] William Ferroggiaro, ‘The US and the Genocide in Rwanda 1994: Evidence of Inaction’, The National Security Archive, (20 Aug, 2001),

[14] Rwanda: Genocide and Partition, SMS, (26 April 1994).

[15] Document devotes three tentative lines to discussion of the genocide and whether or not language supporting an intervention should be used. Clarke Fax/Discussion Paper, (28 April 1994).

[16] DAS Bushnell tells Colonel Bagosora to stop the killings, US Department of State cable 113672, (29 April 1994).

[17] Discussion Paper, Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defence for Middle East/Africa Region, Department of Defence, (1 May 1994).

[18] This occurred on 8 May whilst Shattuck was in Geneva on his trip back from Rwanda and marked the beginning of official, public recognition of genocide. PBS Frontline ‘Interview with John Shattuck’.

[19] PBS Frontline ‘Interview with John Shattuck’.

[20] Draft Legal Analysis, Office of the Legal Adviser Department of State, drafted by Assistant Legal Adviser for African Affairs Joan Donoghue, (16 May 1994).

[21] Has Genocide occurred in Rwanda, Action Memorandum from key Assistant Secretaries to Secretary of State Warren Christopher, (21 May 1994).

[22] Power, A Problem from hell, p. 364.

[23] Barnett, Eyewitness to a Genocide, p. 139.

[24] Human Rights Watch, ‘Rwanda: Human Rights Developments’, Human Rights Watch Publication, (New York, 1995) and Rwanda-Burundi: Presidential deaths likely to renew fighting, National Intelligence Daily Report, CPASNID94-0800CX, (7 April 1994) and UN Security Council Action on Rwanda, Moose/Ward memo to Deputy Secretary, (circa 21 April 1994).

[25] Power, A Problem from hell, p. 347.

[26] Ibid, p. 352.

[27] PBS Frontline, ‘Interview with James Woods’, The Triumph of Evil, (January 1999).

[28] Ibid.

[29] PBS Frontline, ‘Interview with John Shattuck’.

[30] PBS Frontline, ‘Interview with Tony Marley’.

[31] Frey, The Genocidal Temptation, p. 103.

[32] Ibid, p. 111.

[33] Power, A Problem from Hell, p. 505.

[34] Ibid, p. 505.

[35] Edward A. Kolodziej, ‘The Great Powers and Genocide: Lessons from Rwanda’, (Illinois, 2000), p. 1.

[36] Helen M. Hintjens, ‘Explaining the 1994 genocide in Rwanda’, The Journal of Modern African Studies, vol. 37, no. 2, (1999), p. 282.

Header Image: Thousands of abandoned machetes collect at the border of Rwanda and Tanzania, where Hutu refugees fleeing Rwanda are allowed across the border on the condition that they leave behind their weapons. (David Tunley, Getty)