Philip Gourevitch Interview: Conversations with History; Institute of International Studies, UC Berkeley

Writing and Reporting the Story of a Genocide: Conversation with Philip Gourevitch; 2/11/00 by Harry Kreisler.
Photo by Jane Scherr

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Rwanda and the International Response

Going back to the Holocaust Museum, this monument to "never again" had been created, but then the international community and the United States did nothing [in Rwanda]. There was evidence that something was about to happen, there were warnings from the general in charge of the small UN contingent there. Why did the international community, which had the responsibility of carrying this humanitarian mantle of "never again," let this happen?

Because they didn't mean it.

What they said?

They meant it. They meant it in spirit, but in reality, the fundamental lesson of Rwanda is that we are not serious about genocide prevention elsewhere. The whole premise of the Genocide Convention, which was written in 1948 as a response to the Holocaust through the UN, says that nations will now act not in self interest, not out of strategic necessity, but to prevent and punish genocide -- implying that one would actually launch armies to stop killing inside sovereign states. It has simply not ever happened before in history.

World War II, in people's fantasies, was fought to stop the Holocaust, but it's not true. World War II was fought to stop fascist aggression and to defend national interests on a massive scale. It's a good cause. It's not an insult to World War II to say it, but we did not go other there to save the Jews, nor did Europeans fight to save the Jews. In fact there's every evidence that there was the feeling, "Well, you know, that's the right of the Germans to deal with their Jewish problem. What we need to worry about is Germany running over the rest of Europe."

I think that there was a fantasy after that. There was a dream, there was a hope that we would act differently in the future. But we didn't. And when push came to shove, Rwanda was the test, and [in] Rwanda [we] said no, we will not. Unlike Bosnia, where we also disgraced ourselves in terms of the intervention policy of the world community for much of that time, [in Rwanda] we did nothing ever, even in the end we didn't. There was no strategic interest. There was no economic interest. The only claim that Rwanda laid on us was fellow humanity, and that's not enough. It turns out that the lesson of Rwanda is that that is not enough. And it's been borne out consistently every since. We wouldn't go in there today, I guarantee you. As much as Clinton has gone over there and wrung his hands, as much as Madeleine Albright has. Kofi Annan has never apologized. And to me it virtually invalidates his entire career. It's one of the great stains on his career.

Specifically explain that, because you had a piece in the New Yorker about that.

He was the head of peacekeeping operations during this time, and in Rwanda there was a peacekeeping force in the months before the genocide. The commander of that force, the Canadian Major General Roméo Dallaire, warned repeatedly and clearly that preparations for the extermination -- that was the word he was using -- of the Tutsi population were being laid into place by the government and its entourage. And Kofi Annan's peacekeeping office had the attitude, "Eh? Just lay low." They took an extremely casual response to these warnings. They never made a fuss about them, they never blew the trumpet about them, they never drew attention to them. He then proceeded to say, "It's the fault of the member states."

This is part of the whole problem with the security arrangements of the international community, so called, which is that the member states go to the UN and blame the UN for not doing things, and the UN blames the member states for not having empowered them. But the bottom line is that these are career bureaucrats at the UN who could do things or could not do things. And they don't do them. [Annan] went to Rwanda a few years ago, pursued by this story. Clinton had gone and said, this is a disgrace on people like me. Madeline Albright had said it. The French were beginning to start to say things like that. And what did Kofi Annan say? "I have no regrets, the world failed Rwanda." This absolute abdication of personal responsibility makes one feel that the UN is actually a very, very dangerous place because it goes around preaching accountability for heads of state. It goes around claiming that it wants to impose democratic standards, end cycles of impunity, and bring in accountability. And they are more infallible than any other institution on earth in their own eyes. They cannot be wrong. In that case the question is, can they ever be right? If they can't be blamed for anything how could they ever take credit for something? If they are flunkies, let's treat them as flunkies, ignore them and hold them not accountable. And yet they want responsibility and I find that in that drama something terrible was exposed by the Rwandan catastrophe about the feebleness of certain international institutions.

The hypocrisy that you're addressing is based on an ideal that isn't realized yet, one could argue. To the extent that the international community is making promises about external intervention, that is a better thing than having no position at all; but on the other hand, the best would be if they actually acted on those principles.

I would go further. In the intervention debate, I'm a journalist -- obviously, I'm an opinionated journalist to some extent, after I've looked at a situation. One tends to react rather strongly when a lot of people are at risk like this. But I'm not a policymaker. I don't have a 100% position on intervention. I think probably it's true that one has to look at it case by case, and I don't say we should always be intervening every time somebody's getting killed. What I do say is that the most pernicious story of the nineties has been the consistent habit of the United States and its partners in the so-called international community of making false promises of protection and then abandoning endangered peoples to annihilation, when push comes to shove, because we don't mean to stand behind those promises. That's revolting. That's scandalous. It makes me embarrassed, it makes people dead, and it doesn't do anybody any good. And it weakens our word, our word is no good.

If somebody says, you're a lucky man, you're in a UN safe haven, you are about to get killed. It's the most terrifying thing anybody could tell you. If somebody tells you you're in a UN safe haven, run for your life! That's a terrible lesson. So the promise seems to me to be terrible. What happened in Rwanda is here was this UN force, and if you ask Rwandans, "Look, it was obviously getting very, very hairy here in the months before the genocide, why did you stay? You saw it coming didn't you?" Well, nobody saw it coming, they saw things getting very hairy. All of them will say that among other reasons it was because the UN was there.

Now the UN will say, "We never promised to protect them." Well perhaps not, but look at East Timor. What happened in East Timor? We always say, should we intervene? We already intervened. We had the UN in there encouraging people to get involved in a risky political transition, to engage in elections. We were encouraging them to step out on a limb that exposed them to tremendous political danger. We made no provision for their protection, although they seemed to assume it. Look at Srebrenica. That's the story: it's the promise of protection that we don't mean to back up. And it makes us in some way villains in stories where we might be better off saying honestly you'd better fend for yourselves, defend yourselves if you must.

Now another story within your stories is the story of what happened after the genocide and the humanitarian organizations who were ministering to the Hutu refugees who had fled to what was then Zaire. At bottom what you're describing is how humanitarian intervention to save refugees became an operation to build up the remnants of the armies that had actually committed the genocide, with really a lack of self consciousness on the part of most of the idealists and the humanitarians who were there to save people.

Yes, I mean the story of Rwanda as it relates to international interventions and do-gooding is a very dismal story. It reflects very dismally on these institutions. In the aftermath of the genocide, several million Rwandan Hutus, about a million and a half probably all told in the end, settled in refugee camps ringing Rwanda, the largest of them in Zaire. These camps were, from the very start, presided over by the same militias, military and political structures that ran the genocidal regime. They became camps of the genocide. And these armies were never disarmed. These people were never regulated: are they even refugees or are they fugitives? The law that defines a refugee is somebody fleeing political persecution, not legitimate legal prosecution for being a criminal. And yet we were basically, we with our tax dollars I mean ...

We the United States.

We Americans, we Europeans; but being American, my tax dollar. That's one of the reasons it makes one annoyed. We're literally sustaining the single largest collection of war criminals on earth, and helping them rearm, fatten up, train and start to slaughter people again. They began to kill people systematically across Eastern Zaire and they were raiding into Rwanda. They were not unaware, the people who ran these camps. If you talk to them increasingly they will sort of admit to you "it was beyond us and maybe we shouldn't have done that." At the time they knew perfectly well that something was very vulgar and amiss, and very criminal and amiss. But basically there is a way in which these organizations are in business and they justified to themselves a completely untenable position. What was their justification? "Look at all these poor people. If we were to withdraw, these poor people would be lost." And you say, so what happens? Are you going to stay here forever? "Well, no," because of course what happened is in the end they withdrew. So they were saying "We have to stay here to save these people from themselves," i.e. from being in Africa, and in the end what happened was finally the Rwandan government, after two years of warnings, said "We are going to break up these camps because they are getting ready to annihilate us. And they are not refugee camps, they are military bases."

We should explain that the Rwandan government is now controlled by the Tutsis, by the RPF, which came in ...

The Rwandese Patriotic Front, that's right.

And gained control of the government once the Hutus had fled, and are trying to build a state and a community in the aftermath of the genocide.

That's right. They always said that the refugees should come home and be included in society, and the refugee organizations basically refused to believe them, although when people came home they weren't all slaughtered. But [the organizations] said, "Well, we can't let them all go home," and they couldn't figure out how to repatriate them, and of course the people didn't want to [return home]. Why would they want to? They were getting free medical care. The malnutrition rates and health rates and so forth in these refugee camps were closer to those of Switzerland than those of the surrounding neighborhoods of Africa, which did not make them popular amongst the Zairians and Congolese who were living around the camps. They saw these people who had committed crimes in Rwanda suddenly taking over the area. These people were systematically stealing the cattle and defoliating the forests, and so forth, and being fed for free by the world. Well of course it's a good deal.

Now people say, oh how cynical. How can you say that those poor refugees were happier living that way than being at home? Nobody would rather be a refugee. It's not true. I mean it is cynical, but it's a fact. It's not the only place in the world we've seen this. It happened in Afghanistan camps, it happened with the Khmer Rouge in the border camps of Thailand around Cambodia. Refugee camps are fundamentally going to become political organizations, organizing places. [The refugee organizations] broke all the rules of humanitarian law; for instance, refugee camps are not supposed to be established less than fifty miles from the border of the country from which the people fled, for the obvious reason that people who flee countries tend to be opponents at least of the regime, and if you put them right on the border they're dangerous. Where were they? Within a mile or two. You could see them all from Rwanda. And so this terrible situation arose, which meant that, from the moment that I arrived in 1995, there was an inevitable prospect of war. There was a next war. And everybody was waiting for the next war. And these refugee organizations were blindly going on, building up, fattening up, this army of genocide.

This area, and your book conveys this quite powerfully, is a place where humanitarian idealism meets realpolitik in a sense, because in the aftermath of this genocide an all-out war broke out between all the neighboring countries because of the inability to deal with the aftermath of the genocide.

Yes.

And the humanitarians that you've just been characterizing couldn't comprehend that.

They didn't respond. Even if they could comprehend it, it was a very limited set of responses. Humanitarianism generally has professed neutrality. Neutrality in the face of genocide seems to me to be complicity. It's an absurd position. Why would anybody ... what is appealing about neutrality in the face of a genocide? Zero. Yet this was the position. Objectivity is different than neutrality, and objectivity would allow one to say objectively these are war criminals. But neutrality requires you to say, these are war criminals, have a sandwich, have a blanket. Oh, is that a Kalishnikov, please don't show it to me. Oh, you're going to show it to me, please don't shoot me. Oh you shot me, have a sandwich. It was that pathetic. They were being used like the staff at a Mafia hotel.

Next page: Rwanda and Reconstruction

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