Rwanda: The great powers colluded in the genocide

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The British press has not been shy about revealing the responsibility of French imperialism for the massacre in Rwanda in 1994; a number of articles appeared in the aftermath of the killing, pointing out that France armed and trained the government death-squads. But it has taken rather longer for Britain's complicity in the genocide to rise to the surface. Two recent books provide a good deal of information about what really happened ten years ago: Conspiracy to Murder: the Rwandan Genocide by Linda Malvern, a journalist who specialises in this story and is undoubtedly knowledgeable about the details; and, as part of a wider expose of Britain's "real role in the world", Web of Deceit by Mark Curtis.

According to Malvern's presentation, "What we do know now it that a corrupt, vicious and violent oligarchy in Rwanda planned and perpetrated the crime of genocide, testing the UN each step of the way."

It is curious that she maintains that the Hutu bourgeoisie which perpetrated the massacre were 'testing' the UN, since she shows quite effectively that the US, Britain and France in particular did not want to stop the massacre. As Malvern puts it herself: "However, the continuing human rights abuses in Rwanda were of little concern in the Security Council, where the French, playing their own secret game, gave confidential assurances to Council members that the parties in Rwanda were committed to peace. Representatives from the UK and the US were reluctant about the creation of a mission to Rwanda. There were simply too many UN operations - with 17 missions and 80,000 peacekeepers worldwide."

It is hardly likely that the US and British position was really based on the idea that UN forces were overstretched. They always find the resources when they want to intervene militarily, whether or not it is under UN auspices - as in Kosovo, Afghanistan and Iraq. It is interesting that Malvern takes the explanations for their actions at face value, while the French are reported as playing a "secret game" (not so secret if it is reported in the Guardian, one might think). Malvern's views on the other foreigners involved are equally caustic: "The Belgians were the only European nation to provide peacekeepers for the [UN] mission but they were ill-disciplined and racist."

The fact that the UN did send a very small peacekeeping mission at all in 1994 Malvern explains as a compromise between the reservations of the British and US about over-commitment of UN resources and "ethical considerations". She acknowledges that sending such a small force effectively gave a signal to the Hutu leadership that they could pursue their plans for the massacre with impunity.

Although he relies a great deal on Malvern for her expertise in this subject area, Curtis nonetheless gives a rather more dynamic picture of this business of giving a signal for the pogrom to take place: "After the killings began in early April, the UN Security Council, instead of beefing up its peace mission in the country and giving it a stronger mandate to intervene, decided to reduce the troop presence from 2,500 to 270. This decision sent a green light to those who had planned the genocide showing that the UN would not intervene."

Curtis has this to say about the next steps: "By May 1994, with certainly tens of thousands and perhaps hundreds of thousands already dead, there was another UN proposal - to despatch 5,500 troops to help stop the massacres. This deployment was delayed by pressure, mainly from the US ambassador, but with strong support from Britain. Dallaire [the Belgian general in charge of the 270 troops already there] believes that if these troops had been speedily deployed, tens of thousands of more lives could have been saved. But the US and Britain argued that before these troops went in, there needed to be a ceasefire in Rwanda, a quite insane suggestion given that one side was massacring innocent civilians� Britain and the US also refused to provide the military airlift capability for the African states who were offering troops for this force. Eventually� Britain offered a measly fifty trucks� Britain also went out of its way to ensure that the UN did not use the word 'genocide' to describe the slaughter. Accepting that genocide was occurring would have obliged states to 'prevent and punish' those guilty under the terms of the Geneva Convention. In late April 1994, Britain, along with the US and China, secured a Security Council resolution that rejected the use of the term 'genocide'. This resolution was drafted by the British." (p359)

Clearly then, the US and Britain were not merely standing by passively in relation to the massacre, but were quite content for it to occur. And the reason?

We cannot be sure, of course, about the exact calculations and conversations that took place in the corridors of power at the time. What we do know is that Britain and the US were (and still are) both pursuing a policy of taking every opportunity to undermine French influence throughout the African continent, particularly in the central African region. We also know that to counter France's backing for the Hutu government, the US and Britain supported the Tutsi-based Rwandan Patriotic Front which did in fact fight its way to power in the wake of the bloodbath. The question is posed: why didn't the Americans and British push to intervene on behalf of the RPF earlier, to ensure its victory? We can only assume that they opposed a UN intervention because, given France's direct presence in the area, this would have been essentially a French operation, and this would have allowed the French to shore up the Hutu government or at least prevent the RPF from making a clean sweep. And in fact when the French did intervene at the end of the genocide their main activity was precisely to give shelter to the remnants of the Hutu death-squads (see this month's other web special, 'The crimes of French imperialism'). The US and Britain obviously preferred to allow the Hutu bourgeoisie to collapse in its own murderous frenzy, taking hundreds of thousands of innocents with it, than to allow their French rivals to gain the upper hand in the region.

The facts of French, American and British cynicism over Rwanda are amply demonstrated by both Malvern and Curtis. But, since neither of them are marxists and revolutionaries, what they cannot show is why these inhuman calculations are neither abnormal, nor the product of negligence, but expressions of the real morality of the imperialist ruling class in all countries.

Hardin, 1/5/04.