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Note: This document is from the archive of the Africa Policy E-Journal, published by the Africa Policy Information Center (APIC) from 1995 to 2001 and by Africa Action from 2001 to 2003. APIC was merged into Africa Action in 2001. Please note that many outdated links in this archived document may not work.

Rwanda: Bystanders to Genocide

Rwanda: Bystanders to Genocide
Date distributed (ymd): 010904
Document reposted by APIC

Africa Policy Electronic Distribution List: an information service provided by AFRICA ACTION (incorporating the Africa Policy Information Center, The Africa Fund, and the American Committee on Africa). Find more information for action for Africa at

+++++++++++++++++++++Document Profile+++++++++++++++++++++

Region: Central Africa
Issue Areas: +US policy focus+ +political/rights+


This posting contains (1) excerpts from a briefing on newly released documents showing the U.S. role in blocking international action against the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, and (2) brief quotes from a new 18,000 word article based on these documents and additional interviews.

The systematic indifference to African lives revealed by the documents, as well as the fact that there has still been no official U.S. investigation of responsibility for U.S. actions and inactions at the time, are a revealing commentary on the continuity of structural racism embedded in U.S. foreign policy making.

Links to other references on international complicity in allowing the genocide to proceed, including the official UN, OAU, Belgian and French reports, can be found at:

See also the comprehensive international"Rwanda: Lessons Learned" report at and the Human Rights Watch report "Leave None to Tell the Story" at:

Excerpts from several of these reports previously reposted can be found through the search at

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Evidence of Inaction

A National Security Archive Briefing Book

Edited by William Ferroggiaro

August 20, 2001

Contact: William Ferroggiaro
(202) 994-7045;

[links to PDF versions of all documents, with full source information, are available through this URL.]

Today the National Security Archive publishes on the World Wide Web sixteen declassified US government documents detailing how US policymakers chose to be "bystanders" during the genocide that decimated Rwanda in 1994. The documents include those cited in the new investigative account, "Bystanders to Genocide: Why the United States Let the Rwandan Tragedy Happen", by Samantha Power, in the September 2001 issue of The Atlantic Monthly. [The full article is available at: See also brief excerpts below]

Power's account is the result of a three-year investigation involving more than 60 interviews of US policymakers and scores of interviews with Rwandan, European and United Nations officials. It also draws on hundreds of pages of recently declassified US government documentation obtained under the US Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) by the National Security Archive's William Ferroggiaro. The documents demonstrate what US officials knew about the genocide, what options were considered, and how and why they chose to avoid intervening in the slaughter.

The documents published today show that:

  • Contrary to later public statements, the US lobbied the UN for a total withdrawal of UN forces in Rwanda in April 1994;
  • Secretary of State Warren Christopher did not authorize officials to use the term "genocide" until May 21, and even then, US officials waited another three weeks before using the term in public;
  • Bureaucratic infighting slowed the US response to the genocide;
  • The US refused to "jam" extremist radio broadcasts inciting the killing because of costs and concern with international law;
  • US officials knew exactly who was leading the genocide, and actually spoke with those leaders to urge an end to the violence.

August 20, 2001

On April 6, 1994, Rwandan President Juvenal Habyarimana's personal plane, a gift from French president Francois Mitterand, was shot down as it returned to Rwanda, killing Habyarimana, Burundian president Cyprien Ntarymira, and members of their entourages. The two presidents were returning from Tanzania, where they'd met with regional leaders concerning events in Burundi. Habyarimana himself was pressed to implement the power-sharing Arusha Accord his government had concluded with the rebel Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) in August 1993, which capped three years of war, cease-fires and negotiations. To do so, however, would mean the effective end of his 20-year, one-party rule over Rwandan politics and society. Extremists in the military and government bitterly opposed the accord; they are the likely culprits in his assassination. Within an hour of the plane crash, the Presidential Guard, elements of the Rwandan armed forces (FAR) and extremist militia (Interahamwe and Impuzamugambi) set up roadblocks and barricades and began the organized slaughter, starting in the capital Kigali, of nearly one million Rwandans in 100 days time. Their first targets were those most likely to resist the plan of genocide: the opposition Prime Minister, the president of the constitutional court, priests, leaders of the Liberal Party and Social Democratic Party, the Information Minister, and tellingly, the negotiator of the Arusha Accord. Those who hesitated to join the campaign, such as the governor of a southern province, were quickly removed from positions of influence or killed. As a US intelligence analyst noted in late April,

"The plan appears to have been to wipe out any RPF ally or potential ally, and thus raise the costs and limit the possibility of an RPF/Tutsi takeover No end to the unprecedented bloodshed is yet in sight." (US Department of State, Bureau of Intelligence and Research, Intelligence Assessment, "Roots of the Violence in Rwanda", April 29, 1994)

As the killing intensified, the international community deserted Rwanda. Western nations landed troops in Rwanda or Burundi in the first week to evacuate their citizens, did so, and left. The UN mission (UNAMIR), created in October 1993 to keep the peace and assist the governmental transition in Rwanda, sought to intervene between the killers and civilians. It also tried to mediate between the RPF and the Rwandan army after the RPF struck from Rwanda to protect Tutsi and rescue their battalion encamped in Kigali as part of the Accord. On April 21, 1994, the United Nations Security Council, at the behest of the United States which had no troops in Rwanda Belgium, and others, voted to withdraw all but a remnant of UNAMIR. The Security Council took this vote and others concerning Rwanda even as the representative of the genocidal regime sat amongst them as a non-permanent member. After human rights, media, and diplomatic reports of the carnage mounted, the UN met and debated and finally arrived at a compromise response on May 16. UNAMIR II, as it was to be known, would be a more robust force of 5,500 troops. Again, however, the world failed to deliver, as the full complement of troops and materiel would not arrive in Rwanda until months after the genocide ended. Faced with the UN's delay, but also concerned about its image as a former patron and arms supplier of the Habyarimana regime, France announced on June 15 that it would intervene to stop the killing. In a June 22 vote, the UN Security Council gave its blessing to this intervention; that same day, French troops entered Rwanda from Zaire. While intending a wider intervention, confronted with the RPF's rapid advance across Rwanda, the French set up a "humanitarian zone" in the southwest corner of Rwanda. Their intervention succeeded in saving tens of thousands of Tutsi lives; it also facilitated the safe exit of many of the genocide's plotters, who were allies of the French.

On July 4, the RPF took the capital, Kigali; two weeks later, it announced a new government comprised of RPF leaders and ministers previously selected for the transition government called for in the Arusha Accord. With the RPF's takeover, and with the encouragement of extremist radio, Rwandans implicated in the slaughter, their relatives and those who feared the arrival of the RPF, fled to neighboring countries. In the end, the extremists killed nearly one million Rwandans, approximately one-tenth of the population. Were it not for the RPF's military prowess, the genocide would have continued.

Despite overwhelming evidence of genocide and knowledge as to its perpetrators, United States officials decided against taking a leading role in confronting the slaughter in Rwanda. Rather, US officials confined themselves to public statements, diplomatic demarches, initiatives for a ceasefire, and attempts to contact both the interim government perpetrating the killing and the RPF. The US did use its influence, however, at the United Nations, but did so to discourage a robust UN response (Document 4 and Document 13). In late July, however, with the evidence of genocide littering the ground in Rwanda, the US did launch substantial operations again, in a supporting role to assist humanitarian relief efforts for those displaced by the genocide.

Document 1

Facsimile from Maj. Gen. Romeo Dallaire, Force Commander, United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda, to Maj. Gen. Maurice Baril, United Nations Department of Peacekeeping Operations, "Request for Protection for Informant", January 11, 1994.

In this notorious "genocide fax" (originally published in The New Yorker), Gen. Dallaire warns UN peacekeeping officials Maj. Gen. Maurice Baril, the military adviser to Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, and Kofi Annan, who at the time was Under Secretary General for PKO (peacekeeping operations) and is now UN Secretary General of the existence of arms caches, a plot to assassinate Belgian UN peacekeepers and Rwandan members of parliament, and the existence of lists of Tutsis to be killed. Dallaire informs New York of his intention to raid the caches, but foreshadowing later developments, Annan and DPKO official Iqbal Riza refuse the request, citing UNAMIR's limited mandate. Instead, they order Dallaire to apprise the president of Rwanda of the informant's allegations, despite the fact that the arms caches and assassination plan are the work of those close to the president. On April 7, the day after the shoot down of the President's plane, members of the Presidential Guard carry out this plan, torturing, killing, and mutilating 10 Belgian soldiers in the UN contingent protecting the Prime Minister, who was also their target. As foreseen by the plan's authors, Belgium quickly withdrew their contingent from UNAMIR, breaking the backbone of the force. Within two weeks, the UN Security Council voted to reduce UNAMIR to a token presence, removing the last impediment to the slaughter.

Document 4

US Department of State, cable number 099440, to US Mission to the United Nations, New York, "Talking Points for UNAMIR Withdrawal", April 15, 1994. Confidential.

This telegram forwards Department of State guidance to the US Mission to the UN in New York instructing US diplomats there that "the international community must give highest priority to full, orderly withdrawal of all UNAMIR personnel as soon as possible." Advising that this withdrawal does not require a UN Security Council resolution which would have likely focused international criticism the Department instructs the mission "that we will oppose any effort at this time to preserve a UNAMIR presence in Rwanda." April 15 was the first of two days of UN Security Council debate on next steps in Rwanda for which the Rwandan ambassador was present and about which he reported back to the interim government in Rwanda. Over that same weekend, aware the UN Security Council was in retreat, the interim Council of Ministers, the genocide's architects, met in Kigali and decided to take the program of extermination to the rest of the country.

Document 6

Discussion Paper, Office of the Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense for Middle East/Africa Region, Department of Defense, May 1, 1994. Secret.

A product of an intra-agency process comprised of working level Pentagon action officers with expertise in African affairs, humanitarian and refugee affairs, public affairs, and special operations, and also officials of the Joint Staff's Strategic Plans and Policy division, this memo for the record provides an inside glimpse at the various goals, options and tactics discussed at a meeting of officials charged with day-to-day responsibility for the Rwanda crisis. It is filled with cautions against the US becoming committed to action. Genocide comes up in the discussion: "Be Careful. Legal at State was worried about this yesterday Genocide finding could commit USG to "do something".

Document 13

US Department of State, cable number 127262, to US Mission to the United Nations, New York, "Rwanda: Security Council Discussions", May 13, 1994. Confidential.

Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Peter Tarnoff and senior officials, including the Director of the Joint Staff, drafted and approved this cable delivering instructions to the US Mission in New York for Security Council debate over replenishing UNAMIR. With much of the killing completed and most of the remaining armed forces fleeing the RPF's countrywide advance, US officials argue against a UN plan for a robust effort launched into Kigali to protect surviving Rwandans, rescue others, and deliver assistance. Such a plan, "in current circumstances, would require a Chapter VII mandate", and the US "is not prepared at this point to lift heavy equipment and troops into Kigali". It is however, willing to consider its own plan, "outside-in", by which protective zones would be established on Rwanda's borders. Even this plan, however, is likely to be "an active protection operation requiring the use of lethal force." As for the several thousand Rwandans in Kigali under deteriorating UN protection, "we recommend that these ad hoc protective efforts should continue until a suitable alternative arrangement can be ensured." Even when a plan for 5,500 troops with a protection mandate is finally approved on May 17, the troops would not all be in place until September, two months after the RPF captures the country and one month after Gen. Dallaire completed his service in Rwanda.

Document 14

Action memorandum from Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs George E. Moose, Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor John Shattuck, Assistant Secretary of State for International Organization Affairs Douglas J. Bennet, and Department of State Legal Adviser Conrad K. Harper, through Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Peter Tarnoff and Under Secretary of State for Global Affairs Tim Wirth, to Secretary of State Warren Christopher, "Has Genocide Occurred in Rwanda?", May 21, 1994. Secret.

The internal debate over whether genocide was occurring in Rwanda in 1994 and US officials' use of the term began nearly as soon as the killing began. Nevertheless, Department of State officials refrained from characterizing it as such for weeks. While on June 10 Secretary of State Warren Christopher finally publicly called the Rwandan slaughter "genocide", on May 21 he had authorized Department officials "in light of the stark facts in Rwanda" to use the formulation "acts of genocide have occurred" and authorized delegations to agree to resolutions using various formulations of the term. The memo argues for consistency with the use of the term with relation to Bosnia. A previous memo dated May 16, sought approval to use the term "genocide has occurred", but this formulation didn't hold. ...

Document 15

Memorandum from Assistant Secretary for Intelligence and Research Toby T. Gati to Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs George Moose and Department of State Legal Adviser Conrad Harper, "Rwanda Geneva Convention Violations", circa May 18, 1994. Secret/ORCON (originator controlled).

This intelligence analysis, prepared for Secretary Christopher's decision as to use of the genocide label, finds "substantial, circumstantial evidence implicating senior Rwandan government and military officials in the widespread, systematic killing" of Tutsis and moderate Hutus. The RPF, "unlike government forces", "does not appear to have committed Geneva Convention defined genocidal atrocities." The analysts report that between "200,000 to 500,000" are dead. ...

Bystanders to Genocide by Samantha Power
(The Atlantic Monthly, September 2001)

"So far people have explained the U.S. failure to respond to the Rwandan genocide by claiming that the United States didn't know what was happening, that it knew but didn't care, or that regardless of what it knew there was nothing useful to be done. ... This material [declassified documents, interviews] provides a clearer picture than was previously possible of the interplay among people, motives, and events. It reveals that the U.S. government knew enough about the genocide early on to save lives, but passed up countless opportunities to intervene."

"In reality the United States did much more than fail to send troops. It led a successful effort to remove most of the UN peacekeepers who were already in Rwanda. It aggressively worked to block the subsequent authorization of UN reinforcements. It refused to use its technology to jam radio broadcasts that were a crucial instrument in the coordination and perpetuation of the genocide. And even as, on average, 8,000 Rwandans were being butchered each day, U.S. officials shunned the term 'genocide,' for fear of being obliged to act. ... Indeed, staying out of Rwanda was an explicit U.S. policy objective."

"In order not to appreciate that genocide or something close to it was under way, U.S. officials had to ignore public reports and internal intelligence and debate."

"In the three days during which some 4,000 foreigners were evacuated, about 20,000 Rwandans were killed. After the American evacuees were safely out and the U.S. embassy had been closed, Bill and Hillary Clinton visited the people who had manned the emergency-operations room at the State Department and offered congratulations on a 'job well done.'"

"Once the Americans had been evacuated, Rwanda largely dropped off the radar of most senior Clinton Administration officials. ...Cabinet-level officials focused on crises elsewhere [such as Haiti and Bosnia].... Throughout the U.S. government Africa specialists had the least clout of all regional specialists and the smallest chance of effecting policy outcomes. In contrast, those with the most pull in the bureaucracy had never visited Rwanda or met any Rwandans. ... During the entire three months of the genocide Clinton never assembled his top policy advisers to discuss the killings. Anthony Lake likewise never gathered the "principals" - the Cabinet-level members of the foreign-policy team. Rwanda was never thought to warrant its own top-level meeting. "

"Because this is a story of nondecisions and bureaucratic business as usual, few Americans are haunted by the memory of what they did in response to genocide in Rwanda. Most senior officials remember only fleeting encounters with the topic while the killings were taking place. The more reflective among them puzzle occasionally over how developments that cast the darkest shadow over the Clinton Administration's foreign-policy record could have barely registered at the time. But most say they have not talked in any detail among themselves about the events .... Requests for a congressional investigation have gone ignored."

This material is being reposted for wider distribution by Africa Action (incorporating the Africa Policy Information Center, The Africa Fund, and the American Committee on Africa). Africa Action's information services provide accessible information and analysis in order to promote U.S. and international policies toward Africa that advance economic, political and social justice and the full spectrum of human rights.

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