The Ghosts of Rwanda and the Responsibility to Protect

This weekend marked the somber anniversary of the beginning of a crime against humanity that continues to haunt a global community that had vowed genocide would never again happen on its watch.

Eighteen years ago, 100 days of terror started in Rwanda when Interahamwe, or Hutu militias, began hunting down minority Tutsis, while Hutus who opposed the slaughter were branded traitors or collaborators. "All Tutsis will perish. They will disappear from the earth," cooed the sinister, incendiary Hutu radio broadcasts that swallowed the airwaves. "Slowly, slowly, slowly, we kill them like rats." That included putting a priority on killing Tutsi children: "When you kill rats, you don't spare the babies," militia leaders said.

In that 100 days, some 800,000 people were killed -- a fifth of Rwanda's population. The landscape was literally littered with bodies hacked to death.

It was not a tragedy that caught the world by surprise. In January 1994, Romeo Dallaire, a Canadian serving as United Nations Force Commander in Rwanda, warned his bosses about a plan fomenting for Tutsi extermination. Kofi Annan, then the director of UN peacekeeping operations, said they wouldn't take any actions that would put the UN in the position of having to use force.

Annan would later say they chose that route because letting the involved parties know that "we are monitoring, we are going to deal with you harshly and we know what you are up to" can be "a very good deterrent."

Dallaire begged for troops to no avail, even though it was a matter of putting soldiers armed with guns and heavy weaponry against men armed with machetes. At one point, he tried negotiating with some of the killers when he noticed blood spots still on the clothes of the Interahamwe leaders.

"All of a sudden, something happened that turned them into non-human things. And I was not talking with humans, I literally was talking with evil. It even became a very difficult ethical problem. Do I actually negotiate with the devil to save people, or do I wipe it out, I shoot the bastards right there?" he said on the PBS "Ghosts of Rwanda" Frontline program.

"My mission failed and hundreds of thousands of people died," said Dallaire, who spiraled into depression and drinking after the genocide. "And that -- I can't find any solace in statements like, 'I did my best.'" He is now a senator from Quebec and advocate to stop similar atrocities.

Calling it "genocide" would have compelled the U.S. to act, so the White House danced around the world as much as possible. "As to the distinctions between the words, we're trying to call what we have seen so far, as best as we can, and based, again, on the evidence -- we have every reason to believe that acts of genocide have occurred," State Department spokeswoman Christine Shelley said on June 10, 1994. "How many acts of genocide does it take to make genocide?" Reuters reporter Alan Elsner famously asked.

"I have phraseology which has been carefully examined," Shelley would say when pressed on the administration's terminology.

The Clinton administration was still stinging from the "Black Hawk Down" deaths in Somalia. Belgium was stinging from the mutilation and murder of 10 of its peacekeepers in Rwanda after a mob tricked them into giving up their weapons, and was lobbying the UN to close the entire operation. Upon hearing that the UN could leave at any time, Rwandans were actually asking peacekeepers to shoot them so they wouldn't face a more painful death by machete.

The Rwandan genocide stands as one of humanity's greatest failings. That massive death toll was preventable.

Former President Bill Clinton told a crowd in Kigali, Rwanda, in 1998 that "we in the United States and the world community did not do as much as we could have and should have done to try to limit what occurred."

"It may seem strange to you here, especially the many of you who lost members of your family, but all over the world there were people like me sitting in offices, day after day after day, who did not fully appreciate the depth and the speed with which you were being engulfed by this unimaginable terror," Clinton said.

However, documents unclassified in 2004 showed that Clinton had decided early on not to intervene and proved that the White House was receiving detailed reports almost daily of the carnage during all three months of the genocide.

The lack of intervention wasn't due to ignorance about what was happening on the ground. Human lives were weighed by strategic value, of which the administration determined that Rwanda had none.

Today, leaders still strike notes tinged with regret for their predecessors' inactions, even though there's little indication national interests would be weighed differently today.

"The United States stands in solidarity with the Rwandan people, and we admire their resilience and the enormous strides they have made in recovering from that unspeakable event," Secretary of State Hillary Clinton said in a statement Saturday. "We will never forget those deplorable days."

"The specter of this slaughter of mothers, fathers, sons, and daughters haunts us still, and reminds the nations of the world of our shared responsibility to do all we can to protect civilians and to ensure that evil of this magnitude never happens again," President Obama said in a Friday statement.

But Rwandan President Paul Kagame struck a different tone over the weekend, accusing Western governments of hypocrisy as 10 leaders of the genocide remain at large.

"As we remember those who were killed, those who killed them are walking free in some capitals of the so-called free world. There's little effort to arrest them and when it happens it's a token meant to blind us and they are released shortly," Kagame said at a commemoration event.

"Yet when terrorist acts are committed to their people, the whole world is mobilized or sometimes forced to search for those criminals to be brought to justice," he added. "It would appear that Rwandan lives or similarly African lives are less valued than their citizens."

What would it be like if social media had existed back then? Would the Hutu leaders become as infamous as most-wanted video star Joseph Kony? Would a groundswell of online outcry have made it impossible for the Clinton White House to quietly turn away the helpless as they did?

Years after the dust has settled but deep scars remain, genocides have come and gone only to produce award-winning movies such as The Killing Fields or Hotel Rwanda. But as we swore never again, what we're reminded with each screening, with each somber documentary, is just how less eager the world is to really do what is necessary to stop genocide.

Various excuses are offered as to why, ranging from isolationist to non-interventionist. Some go with the Clinton-era maxim that holds true in administrations today, that some countries -- and the human lives within -- lack strategic value. Some will bring up cost and the need to focus on domestic issues, though the question of "what will you do to help" is broadly distributed across free nations. Some simply shrug off the deeper conscience of the nation and the responsibility to protect.

We have a UN Human Rights Council tainted by the membership of human-rights abusers. We have a Security Council where authoritarians protect tyrants and successfully block any real action to battle crimes against humanity. We have a public unwilling to buy that a regime's brutality against its people is reason enough for it to go. These are hurdles hard for any country deemed insignificant to overcome, even if armed with social-media public awareness.

We have a regime in Tehran that has threatened the existence of Israel developing its nuclear program at an unchecked clip, and we have wholesale slaughter of Syrians in what is not a sectarian conflict but a unilateral war waged by a dictator against democracy advocates (Bashar al-Assad has always arrested, tortured, and imprisoned dissidents; this time, fearing the groundswell of dissent, he stepped it up to lay entire neighborhoods to waste). Where will we stand in each case as the sand slides through the hourglass?

Rami Nakhla, a political science student at Damascus University who blogged the regime's abuses under the name Malath Aumran and has played a critical role in getting the real reports out of Syria, tweeted some pointed criticism last night. "Hey you #UN, we know that you have the Responsibility to Protect #R2P but we don't know who to hold you accountable … #UN U have the #R2P we should we would we will hold you accountable for this." Now a member of the Syrian National Council, Nakhla posted a gruesome video of a blindfolded man stretched face down on the ground, being beaten and set on fire as blood pours out of his mouth.

Today, a full half of Rwanda's population was born after the 1994 genocide. A country devastated by death has been led out of the darkness and vows "never again" as its economy and industry rebound. Scars include scores of orphans and psychological wounds. The ghosts of Rwanda, however, have settled as a disquieting mist over what's left of the global responsibility to protect.