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David Scheffer
David Scheffer occupied a unique insider seat in the U.S. government during the Rwandan genocide in 1994.

Posted April 7, 2004
Scheffer Says U.S. Policymakers Failed to Address Genocide in Rwanda Effectively

U.S. officials failed to save hundreds of thousands of genocide victims in Rwanda in 1994 because they addressed the unconventional crisis through conventional means, said David Scheffer, former U.S. Ambassador at Large for War Crimes Issues, at an April 5 event sponsored by the J.B. Moore Society of International Law and the Human Rights Program. The United Nations is remembering the 10-year anniversary of the tragedy April 7, which they have declared International Day of Reflection on the 1994 Genocide in Rwanda.

“We owe the victims our souls every day,” said Scheffer, who at the time occupied a “unique insider seat” as senior adviser and counsel to Madeleine Albright, who was U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations during President Clinton’s first term. Scheffer read an account of the events as they folded, excerpted from his forthcoming book.

During the second year under their watch, top Rwandan military leaders led the nation’s Hutus to slaughter 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus—8,000 men, women, and children were killed each day. Before it happened, such a “low-tech killing rate” would have seemed “absurd,” Scheffer said. The international response failed because “we responded conventionally to an extraordinarily unconventional crisis.”

Policymakers made the mistake of characterizing the conflict as between two sides, the Hutus and the Tutsis, and focused on forging peace accords, which were “more comprehensible” to diplomats. The massacre began less than a year after the October 1993 killing and mutilation of American soldiers in Somalia, which made Washington wary of rushing into another human rights crisis, he said.

The American, French, and Belgian governments did not take action after Canadian General Romeo Dallaire, head of the U.N. peacekeeping force in Kigale, Rwanda, sent an urgent cable describing the deteriorating situation. Dallaire warned U.N. headquarters that Belgian peacekeepers would be provoked to leave, that Hutus were training to kill Tutsis, and that they had a weapons cache with which to do so. Scheffer said they should have stood behind Dallaire and investigated his claims.

Foreign and U.S. officials also mistakenly assumed that the political assassinations carried out in Rwanda in 1994 would be stopped by the peace accords. By the end of March 1994, the killings were affecting the peace process, but “the focus in Washington and in New York remained on the peace accords.”

The Rwandan militia aimed to force the withdrawal of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR); within a few days of April 6, U.N. officials decided if a ceasefire was not proclaimed, UNAMIR should be withdrawn. The United States had signals from U.N. headquarters that shutting down UNAMIR was the only choice, and voices within the U.S. government said UNAMIR was unequipped to help victims. By April 14, U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan clarified that he at no stage recommended or favored withdrawal of UNAMIR, but did suggest that UNAMIR be temporarily deployed or whittled down to its political element. The next day the United States announced its support of a minimal UNAMIR presence, reducing U.N. personnel there to 70.

“The damage to U.S. credibility . . . [in abandoning Rwandans to genocide] had been done,” Scheffer said.

Many observers have said the killings of U.S. servicemen in Somalia set in motion the use of a set of guidelines for U.S. human rights missions, which ultimately hindered action in Rwanda. Known as PDD 25 after the presidential directive on Reforming Multilateral Peace Operations, the guidelines were determined mostly before Somalia, Scheffer said, and the wording was known by April 1994. He added that those who blame PDD 25 for the situation in Rwanda should recognize the document was essential to get congressional support of any human rights mission, although he said in the early days of implementation it had the perverse effect of straitjacketing officials.

On the ground in Rwanda, hate radio became a critical weapon in support of genocide.

“Hate radio was inciting the population to commit genocide in Rwanda, and they should have found a way to stop it.”

Scheffer said policymakers too often are wedded to intelligence information and allow it to shape their views; intelligence depends heavily on eyewitness reports, and U.S. personnel didn’t enter until early July 1994.

In late April 1994, U.S. policymakers pored over a report claiming there were 100,000 to 300,000 deaths in Rwanda; Scheffer called it the critical moment to describe the atrocities as genocide, but U.S. policymakers did not follow through internally quickly enough to get approval to use the term from Secretary of State Warren Christopher. “We just didn’t get to it,” he said. At the time, their days were filled with meetings on China’s favored-nation status, the problems in Yugoslavia, and the Mid-East peace process.

The United Nations refused to refer to the tragedy as genocide until June 1994, but Christopher authorized using the term publicly on May 21. Unfortunately, Scheffer said, they did not go public with the finding quickly enough, and when they did go public, word of Christopher’s decision didn’t filter through to all State Department employees; their spokesperson muddled a statement to the press, leaving the impression the United States wasn’t doing anything.

Scheffer said although some believe Article 1 of the U.N. Charter obligated the United States to intervene, in fact the treaty only “requires that state parties do something.” Still, he called the U.S. response “pathetic” and said the United States should not let the legal requirements of genocide inhibit it in the future.

Asked whether Rwanda could happen again, Scheffer replied that both Rwanda and Yugoslavia have made an impact on U.S. policymaking and the media; many NGOs also concentrate on atrocities now, so there’s more institutional pressure on the government to respond. However, the Bush administration dissolved the Clinton-created Atrocities Interagency Working Group, which was formed to bring intelligence, political, and military experience to bear in uncovering where the next atrocities might appear on the world stage. The group’s charts of genocide indicators helped predict a widespread massacre in East Timor in 1999 during a September referendum. Although they notified relevant parties, they met a “stone wall” in Jakarta when Indonesia’s leaders refused to allow a preventive international presence in their country. After the killings, a U.N.-authorized multinational force led by Australia and the United States was allowed to enter the country.

“At least we were alerting people and getting this thing out there,” he said. But “if it was Clinton, it was discarded by February of 2001,” despite Scheffer’s strongest recommendation to his successors to keep the program.

Scheffer also pointed out that people are dying at the rate of 1,000 per week in Darfur, Sudan. “It’s happening—and there’s no response.”

He said throughout the Clinton administration, they struggled with strengthening U.N. peacekeeping; although the U.N. Security Council can authorize action in 24 hours, “you essentially have to find a coalition of the willing to do it.” Article 43 of the U.N. Charter says a stand-by force should be available to enforce international peace and security.

“That article has never been implemented; it fell victim to the Cold War”—and to an obsession in the 1990s that no foreigners should lead U.S. troops. But the direction of U.S. policy may be shifting: Scheffer said at a recent meeting he attended, an icon of the Reagan era proposed activating Article 43.

Scheffer said the United States would also be justified in acting unilaterally to address atrocities. He suggested it may be worthwhile to use a concept like “retroactive justification,” wherein if action is needed quickly, such as in Rwanda, the United States can act immediately and make its case later.

While Rwanda is considered a disaster by the international community, the court designed to address atrocities in Sierra Leone has been called a model system by many because it is so widely supported.

“It’s a treaty-based court, and it’s not a U.N.-based court,” he said. The majority of the court is international judges, but Sierra Leone judges are also included.

The Sierra Leone court’s jurisdiction is more limited than that of ad hoc U.N. courts, he said, but the court works well for the situation, and participants are comfortable with its design.
• Reported by M. Wood

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