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  • Hazel Montgomery-Walsh

Could the U.S. Have Prevented Death during the Rwandan Genocide?



What should we have done differently?


In the months and years leading up to the Rwandan genocide, imminent danger was clear. However, the United States failed to act. At the onset of genocide in 1994, diplomacy and peace talks were long overdue, and military intervention was essential. The U.S. could and should have taken swift multilateral action involving a military invasion and capitulation of the Interhamwe militias responsible for killing Tutsis and moderate Hutus. This article explores alternative policies that could have lessened the impacts of the genocide, and hones in on multilateral cooperation as the strongest option. The first option is that the U.S. could have unilaterally invaded Rwanda. The second option is an intervention by the members of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC). The third option is an invasion by the armed forces in nations surrounding Rwanda. Even so, the U.S. was too consumed by the Somalia heuristic* and failed to prevent deaths during the genocide.



What was the Context of the U.S. Rwanda Relations?


Following the failed intervention in Somalia in 1993, the U.S. was weary of sending its troops into military combat. During the Somalia crisis, U.S. policymakers underestimated the force size necessary to protect aid workers, leading to the brutal killing of U.S. troops. This failure should have supported a larger military intervention in Rwanda to avoid repeated mistakes. Despite false media portraying the conflict as two-sided, ethnic violence had plagued Rwanda for years. Belgium’s colonization interrupted the previously peaceful coexistence of the Tutsi and Hutu in Rwanda and was perpetuated by the Arusha Peace Accords. At the time, the U.S. Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) had alluded to increasing attacks on civilians. Lastly, President Habyarma’s death should have signaled to the international community that violence could escalate as the Hutu pin blame for his death on the Tutsi. Despite signs, U.S. officials ignored the warnings and claimed that progress could not be made in the region.


Option 1: Unilateral Intervention


The U.S. could have unilaterally invaded Rwanda. It was morally obligated to lend its aid due to its failure to support demobilization under the Arusha Peace Accords. This, along with the inability to maintain cease-fires, only exacerbated the conflict. Though the U.S. could not have fully prevented the genocide, if it had provided a division of 15,000 troops and 27,000 tons of equipment within 40 days, it could have prevented the killing of up to 125,000 Tutsi and moderate Hutu. U.S. forces could have defended against attacks on Tutsi groups and, in doing so, allowed non-governmental organizations (NGOs) to provide aid. Working independently from international organizations would have avoided the bureaucratic red tape of a multinational force, with other members of such groups likely to veto intervention. In the post-war era, the U.S. was more capable than ever of maintaining its place on the global stage even if it were to act out of UN approval precedent for invasions.


Even so, the U.S. would have had to airlift all of its military assets into Rwanda, which is a landlocked country. This would have required air bases in other nations, calling for international cooperation. Additionally, lacking an understanding of the ethnic conflict in regions of Africa, U.S. forces would have faced challenges in dealing with machete combat, local culture, and language. As such, it would have been blindly invading a country with mass force–that is, if it could even airlift all of its resources to Kigali in the first place.


Option 2: Multilateral Intervention


The issues of unilateral intervention point to multilateral solutions. A multilateral intervention by member states of the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) would allow for swift mobilization of military resources and open up refueling territories in Greece and Kenya, which are closer in proximity to Rwanda. Since this option was not putting U.S. troops in as much danger, it would have likely also garnered public support.


However, a successful intervention has to be both big enough and fast enough. A multilateral intervention would not have been fast, if approved at all. Military intervention by members of the UNSC would have required a unanimous ruling by the permanent five–even if the UNSC’s members eventually approved intervention, after weeks of negotiation, tens of thousands of Rwandans would likely have already been killed. In the case of genocide, speed is everything, and the UNSC haden’t even officially termed the current situation a “genocide”. The U.S. was the only nation with the time and power to address the Rwandan genocide.


Option 3: Regional Intervention


The U.S. could have also empowered African nations such as Tanzania and Zaire to invade Rwanda. Zaire had a responsibility to act as it originally worked with France to support the now genocidal regime against the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). The Organization of African Unity (OAU), spearheaded by Tanzania, had showcased steady support for international cooperatives, including upholding the implementation of the Arusha Peace Accords, hosting cease-fire agreements, and facilitating peace talks. The Secretary-General of OAU, Salim A. Salim had even supported a larger OAU military but never received adequate funding from the United Nations (UN). Regional nations could have acted as both a refuge and an intervenor, obviating the need for the international community to operate in unfamiliar territory.

However, the U.S. had not put in the time nor effort necessary to understand the ongoing issues in Africa; a continent with more armed conflicts than any other. The risk of letting arms get into the hands of political elites of ill intent was significant, and the U.S. already had a history of selling weapons to undemocratic regimes that ended up committing human rights abuses. Without an in-depth understanding of the conflicts, the U.S. would have risked perpetuating unknown crises in the region.


Best Option - What We Should Have Done.


The U.S. should have acted multilaterally with a select group including Belgium, France, and Greece, to intervene in Rwanda. In its historical effort to prevent the spread of communism, the U.S. had turned a blind eye to the salience of politics in Africa and the era of decolonization. The U.S., Belgium, and France all contributed to the perpetuation of ethnic conflict and had a duty to undo their wrongs in Rwanda. Belgium colonized Rwanda, leading to the initial ethnic conflict between the Hutu and Tutsi; France promoted the genocidal capabilities of Rwanda’s military; and the U.S. forced swift adoption of the Arusha Peace Accords without consideration of the consequences. By establishing staging areas in France, Belgium, and Greece, U.S. forces could have effectively utilized their military strength by having access to logistical centers for equipment and personnel. Based on the theory that an overconfidence in small-force intervention led to the failure in Somalia, this multilateral coalition could have had the military strength to be successful and prevent the death of hundreds of thousands of innocent Rwandan people.



*The “Somalia heuristic” is a term that I use for acting in fear of what occurred in Somalia in 1993, one year before the Rwandan genocide.


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