Human rights expert decries U.S. response to genocide

March 12, 2002 8:17 p.m.

Speaking to a capacity audience at the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs Tuesday, Harvard University lecturer Samantha Power related a hair-raising account of the startling absence of American response to the 1994 genocide in Rwanda.

"We didn't stop genocide because we didn't want to," Power asserted. "We wanted genocide stopped, of course, but we didn't want to undertake that which would have been required to stop it."

Power insisted the U.S. has justified its lack of intervention in genocide situations with two platitudes: 'we didn't know,' and 'we couldn't have done much about it if we had known.' Power rejects these excuses.

Officials, said Power, "see no costs to standing by, and enormous costs to standing up and delivering messages no one wants to hear." She said this reticence to take the political risks necessary to intervene early has meant the deaths of hundreds of thousands of innocent victims, from Germany to Rwanda to Kosovo. And history seems to only repeat itself. "Because the lives of these people aren't weighted very heavily in the political calculus the equation comes out the same way again and again," said Power.

Power's talk was based on the Rwanda chapter of her recent book, "A Problem from Hell: American Bystanders in the Age of Genocide," which details American responses - or lack thereof - to cases of genocide, from the Holocaust to the former Yugoslavia. Power chose to focus on the Rwandan case in her lecture; however, she reminded the audience, "the U.S. response to most of these cases was all systems shut down."

One of Power's most poignant points was the complete lack of heed that apparently was paid by the U.S. to blatant warning signs in Rwanda that genocide was imminent. She said the commander of the U.N. peacekeeping forces in Rwanda had information, as early as four months before the killing began, that should have stirred the U.S. government into action. However, when Congress learned that the Rwandan militia was capable of exterminating 1,000 people every 20 minutes and that primary targets in the coming uprising were to be international peacekeepers, they began pulling their forces out of Rwanda rather than sending in the reinforcements necessary to meet the burgeoning need. "This was one of the most graphic warnings you could get," said Power, "but it was still not heeded."

The fear of becoming involved in another international peacekeeping disaster like that which had occurred in Somalia just the year before was a large factor in the U.S. decision to steer clear of the situation in Rwanda, said Power, and the government chose its words cautiously to avoid being forced to intervene. Power cited an internal memo from a U.S. general that read, "Be careful. The legal department at State was worried about this yesterday. If we use the word 'genocide,' we'll actually have to do something."

Power also laid some of the blame for the lackluster response on the "society-wide silence" in the U.S. that accompanied the issue whenever it was raised. Rwanda had never before been on the public radar screen, and few members of the press were focusing on the situation as it unfolded. The result, said Power, was that the U.S. government hid behind public apathy to justify its noninterventionist stance.

Power, who covered conflicts in the former Yugoslavia as a reporter for U.S. News and World Report and The Economist, is a lecturer in public policy and executive director of the Carr Center for Human Rights at Harvard's John F. Kennedy School of Government.

Contact: Marilyn Marks (609) 258-3601