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The United States' Role In The 1994 Rwandan Genocide

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The United States’ involvement, or lack thereof, in the Rwandan genocide of 1994 has been a topic of much public interest and research in the last two and a half decade since the genocide. The United States is faulted for not only having failed to act appropriately to prevent the genocide, but also having failed to intervene accordingly and having misrepresented what was transpiring in the media. As a result, there have been insignificant to no bilateral relations between the two countries ever since. While president Paul Kagame of Rwanda has never shown resentment towards the United States for this betrayal as he did with France by cutting diplomatic ties and removing French as the official language, a policy that addresses the issue and devises a way forward between the two countries would be beneficial to both parties. There should be a policy that creates a task force that monitors ethnic tension and conflict in the entire East African region, an area prone to violence and conflict. This policy would not only mend the relationship between the two countries but also be a safeguard against future violence.

In 1994, ethnic Tutsis and a considerable number of Hutus in the East African country of Rwanda were massacred over 100 days in what is considered “the fastest, most efficient killing spree of the twentieth century” (Wertheim 152). The killings began on April 6th, 1994 when President Juvenal Habyarimana’s private plane was shot out of the sky, killing him. No later than fourteen hours after his assassination, Prime Minister Agathe Uwilingiyimana and her husband were assassinated, marking the official start of the genocide. In the following hundred days, ethnic Tutsis in the capital of Kigali and surrounding regions were massacred, including men, women, and children. Hutus considered to be moderate and those who were affiliated with Tutsis were also killed. The massacres were orchestrated in an incredibly sophisticated way, with propaganda news and radio shows convincing ordinary Hutus that were otherwise not radicalized to kill their Tutsi neighbors by spreading vitriol, hate, and using divisive language, among numerous other plans and tactics. By the end of the genocide around mid-July, the country had rid itself of nearly all Tutsis, with the death toll surpassing 800,000.

At the beginning of the 1990s, the United States had a strong intervention policy, and was involved quite heavily in humanitarian efforts around the world. “The practice of wielding force primarily to stop slaughter dates to the nineteenth century if not earlier” (Wertheim 150). The prevailing belief was that the United States was not only capable, but willing to intervene on issues of genocide and ethnic conflict. Wertheim describes those who supported this policy as human interventionists. Their focus during the time period directly preceding that of the Rwandan Genocide was how genocidal regimes and regimes that promoted ethnic cleansing and devastating mass murders could be eliminated altogether. This made the United States’ lack of involvement in the Rwandan Genocide stand out. The evident lack of motivation and will to even discuss what options may be possible to stop the genocide was a stark contrast to their policy of interventionism and humanitarianism. “This is the outcome that needs explanation: not some deliberative decision against intervention, but the fact that intervention was scarcely contemplated.” (Wertheim 153). The main reason Wertheim cites for this is a lack of motivation. The United States had engaged in efforts similar to this before but was not yet prepared for a policy through which they would always be willing to help and intervene. This is also why while other governing bodies did intervene and act, President Clinton did not even have an official meeting with his Cabinet on the possibility of intervening (Wertheim 153). Furthermore, they avoided the topic altogether. It is no secret that the US avoided the term ‘genocide’ while these events were happening and did little in the way of acknowledging that there was a major issue in the region (Bushnell 159). Using the word ‘genocide’ would have put pressure on them from the media and surrounding countries to intervene, which they had no intention of doing.

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The US media, specifically the New York Times, is faulted for having been complicit in the denial of these events as well. As the “Representation or Misrepresentation? The New York Times’ Framing of the 1994 Rwanda Genocide” article cites, the NYT was at the time and still is one of the most recognized and reputable newspapers. It arguably led the way in how the genocide was being framed and led the conversation about the events. It is why their participation in denying and ignoring the suffering of thousands of people had strong consequences. The major issue was that the NYT failed to properly convey to readers the background information that led to this, relying rather on common Western stereotypes of Africa as a guide. They minimalized why the killings were happening and in which fashion they were being organized, attributing the events to tribalism and tribal conflict. In doing so, they painted a picture of just another African country in turmoil like all the rest. The message conveyed was essentially this was indistinguishable from other conflicts and was thus not important enough to attempt to fix or resolve. Through this, they made their readers indifferent to the plight of the people in Rwanda that were being massacred. The word genocide did not even come up that often, being replaced for “tribal slaughter” “tribal warfare”, “mayhem”, and etc. (Chari 341). Another quote in which the article conveys that is “There were nearly no mentions of genocide in the covering of these events in US newspapers, and the New York Times specifically has been criticized for having distorted the events and presented them without proper context” (Chari 333).

In the following two and a half decades since the genocide, relations have mainly only been small business deals. Rwanda is arguably one of the most technologically advanced countries on the continent, and one of the easiest countries in the world to do business with. In the years since the genocide, president Kagame has moved the country forward with a surge of tourism that has increased investments, an increase in international business such as the Marriott and a Volkswagen plant, and etc. As it stands with Trump’s administration, however, business deals and trades between the two countries are limited. Per the Rwandan Embassy for the US, The US invests in a small list of Rwanda businesses, and exports few products. It imports even less products. Bush’s administration was a stark contrast to Clinton’s. He gave millions in aid to help Rwandan soldiers that were monitoring the conflicts of Darfur and stated that there should be some lesson learned from the events of 1994. Still, however, there were no concrete plans to help rebuild Rwanda or even amend for what happened. Same for Obama. Were there to be a policy that addresses and attempts to fix the wrongs committed by the US in the genocide, there could be an even stronger relationship.

While he and other foreign policy leaders of his administration may have expressed remorse, different policies should be considered that address what should happen and how to move forward will move the two countries forward. The first policy option is one that focuses on strengthening the United States’ academic research and knowledge of ethnic tension and ethnic conflict in East Africa. Between the Hutus and Tutsis alone, just two tribes out of thousands in East Africa, there have been dozens of killings and murders since the early 70s. An in-depth understanding of colonial rule’s impact on these tensions and how the State Department can address them would be beneficial in case there were to be another large-scale massacre. The potential issue with this is that research would not be enough to motivate people to act in these circumstances. An in-depth understanding of the issue will not necessarily lead to action. The New York Times led other major news sources in the irresponsible framing of the genocide and did the same thing Clinton’s administration did, which was covering up the issue and minimalize it. The second policy option would be one that demands responsibility from American media sources to abstain from racist and outdated tropes of the continent and conduct actual research into conflicts. The policy would prohibit articles that are written with insufficient research and those who trivialize issues, leading to indifference to the topic from viewers. While ideal, this policy pushes to restrict what media can and cannot do, which goes against the first amendment. It would need to be carefully crafted so as to still allow media sources to have freedom. The third option would be the creation of a special task force, perhaps one that works in tandem with other UN programs in the region, that monitors ethnic violence and tension in the region. These areas would include countries in East Africa that have suffered the worst of casualties due to tension, including Somalia, Ethiopia, Burundi, and Rwanda. This policy also has potential for issues. For one, there could be conflict if the East African Community decries it as paternalistic and refuses to cooperate. While the first and third policy options seem feasible, the second one pushes against freedom of the press, one of our first amendment rights. The best policy would be the task force. East Africa is an ethnic tension hot spot. In Burundi, Rwanda’s southern neighbor that also shares its language, Tutsis have been targeted for small-scale assaults and a few murders since 2015, when president Pierre Nkurunziza elected himself for an unconstitutional third term. This policy would closely monitor issues such as this to ensure that there is not a second Rwanda genocide, or a second Mogadishu. This will significantly improve the relationship between the two countries and address the wrongdoings.

In conclusion, the United States government and media failed to act with urgency and motivation in response to the Rwandan Genocide of 1994, a genocide that killed more than 800,000 people. Clinton’s administration has admitted to this error, and there is significant proof that the New York times wrote multiple articles between the start of the conflict that April to the end of that year that trivialized what transpired and made readers indifferent to these issues. One could argue that aid to the country was significantly affected because of those two things. A policy that addresses the wrongdoing in writing and creates a special taskforce that deals with ethnic tension in the region could impact the relationship between the two countries and mend wounds. Additionally, this taskforce would serve to prevent any repeated mass casualties such as this genocide.

Works Cited

  1. Wertheim, Stephen. “A Solution from Hell: The United States and the rise of humanitarian interventionism, 1991-2003.” Journal of Genocide Research. Sep-Dec2010, Vol. 12 Issue 3/4, p149-172.
  2. Bushnell, Prudence. “Leadership and Policy-making: Lessons from the U.S. Government.” Brown Journal of World Affairs. Spring/Summer2019, Vol. 25 Issue 2, p159-167.
  3. Chari, Tendai. ‘Representation or Misrepresentation? The New York Times’ Framing of the 1994 Rwanda Genocide.” African Identities. Nov2010, Vol. 8 Issue 4, p333-349.
  4. “The Embassy.” The Embassy of the Republic of Rwanda- USA,
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