Who Knew What? An investigation in to what was known about the Rwandan Genocide

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Genocide memorial, Rwanda

‘’Things whose existence is not morally comprehensible cannot exist’’

– Primo Levi, Beyond Judgement, 1987

In 1994, the fastest and most efficient mass killing since the dropping of the nuclear bombs unfolded over 100 days in the small central African nation of Rwanda. 800,000-1,000,000 people were brutally killed, most with machetes and clubs. It was not high tech by any means, but it was organised, planned and conceived in advance. Bill Clinton who was US President at the time has previously stated people such as himself in high ranking positions in the US and UN administrations did not know about the nature and scale of the conflict. By drawing evidence from declassified intelligence cables from the time, the realistic truth of Clintons claim will be put to the test.

January-April 1994: The precursor to genocide

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Rwanda: Its size did not limit its horror

Rwanda, like many nations all around the world, has many strong divisions within its population. Sometimes these divisions are religious such as those seen in Northern Ireland. In Rwanda the division that was used to distinguish between those to be killed and those to live was ethnic; the Hutu and the Tutsi people were to find themselves in conflict and 96% of those killed in the coming months would be Tutsi in origin.

The country in previous years was under a peace treaty known as the ‘Arusha Accords’ which the USA helped to negotiate. In April of 1994, Hutu rebels shot down a plane which was carrying the Rwandan President, Mr Habyarimana. This moment in time would prove to be the catalyst for one of the most violent chapters in modern history.

The early evidence: Alarming in hindsight

It was a piece of intelligence from as early as 11 January 1994 that gives the first indication of what was known about the situation in Rwanda. The leader of UN forces in Rwanda Maj. Gen. Dallaire sent information to the UN headquarters in New York making clear reference to the severity of the situation. He stated that an informant had “trained 1700 men in military camps” and he had “been ordered to register all Tutsi in Kigali”. The informant at the time believed this was “for their extermination…in 20 minutes his personnel could kill up to 1000 Tutsi”. This information was sent to the head of the UN Peacekeeping operations in New York as well as the military advisor to the UN Secretary General.

Officials within the US administration also had explicit evidence at their disposal. On April 11 1994 the Department of Defense issued a memorandum which said “civilians will increasingly be drawn in to the conflict” and that “it is highly likely that inter-tribal killings will spread” and “unless both sides can be convinced to return to the peace process, a massive (hundreds of thousands of deaths) bloodbath will ensue’’.

April-June: As the killings continue, so does the information

In May, the bloodshed was continuing and by this stage it was in the public eye as journalists provided some limited information. It was clear that the US administration knew the nature of the conflict as a legal analysis in May shows that they chose to not call it genocide as it may prompt them to act. It was not until June when the US Secretary of State Christopher Warren authorised the use of the phrase genocide to be used in public statements.

Did Clinton know?

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US President Bill Clinton: Is it really plausible he had no idea?

The President and top US officials all received a daily intelligence briefing with issues from around the world. These have not been released from the time so it cannot be 100% conclusively shown that Bill Clinton knew the specifics. Despite this, the CIA and National Security Advisor compile a Daily Intelligence briefing which through history has contained similar if not identical information to that of the Presidential Daily Intelligence briefing. These reports first used the phrase genocide on April 23 and five days later also reported claims by the Red Cross that “100,000 to 500,000” people may have been killed in the countries “ethnic bloodletting”.

Therefore, what these documents show is that it was almost certain that the President did in fact have in his possession the information about the nature and scale of the situation in Rwanda.

Lack of knowledge or blissful ignorance?

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‘The Clinton Apology’ (further reading)

While these are only fragments of an extensive collection of documents that have been analysed and collated (see further reading) it provides an overview of the nature of the evidence that was circulating at the time of the events in Rwanda. The information here as well as in the other documents make for at times alarming reading when pondering if enough was known to prevent the killings. When administration insiders such as Barnett (2003) place the intelligence in to its operational context, it becomes clear that those in high ranking positions did know what was happening, both the nature and the scale. It would appear then that the claims by Bill Clinton, while acknowledging his own personal regret, are perhaps still about polishing history when saying he did not know, when it appears almost certain he did.

Further Reading

Please note, the intelligence cables and documents presented were obtained by the National Security Archive through various freedom of information requests and have been obtained from the National Security Archive website, 2012. The most specific ones have been itemised below and can all be obtained at http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/NSAEBB/NSAEBB117/index.htm from the National Security Archives

Barnett M., Eyewitness to Genocide: Rwanda and the United Nations, Cornell University Press, 2003 pp. 2

Bushnell P., Death of Rwandan and Burundian Presidents in Plane Crash Outside Kigali, Bureau of African Affairs, April 6, 1994.

Clinton, B. Speech given in Rwanda ‘Clinton Apology’, Rwanda, March 1998 sourced from; Power, S. The Atlantic, September 2001

Dallaire R, , Request for Protection for Informant, United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda January 11, 1994.

Defense Intelligence Report, Rwanda: The Rwandan Patriotic Front’s Offensive, May 9, 1994

Defense Intelligence Report, Rwanda: The Rwandan Patriotic Front’s Offensive, May 9, 1994

Ferroggiaro, W. Editor National Security Archives, August 20 2001

[Lt Col] Harvin., Talking Points On Rwanda/Burundi, April 11, 1994

Intra Agency Discussion Paper, no single author, Discussion Paper Rwanda, May 1, 1994

Mujawamariya M., Dear Mr President, April 21 1994

The White House, Statement by the Press Secretary, April 22, 1994.

National Intelligence Daily, 23 April 1994

National Intelligence Daily, 28 April 1994

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6 comments on “Who Knew What? An investigation in to what was known about the Rwandan Genocide

  1. jamesvilimaa says:

    These types of articles always make me quite sad. Very nicely written, easily accessible further readings which shed enormous amounts of information to back up your claims. Upon a brief look into a few of the documents, notably the The Rwandan Patriotic Front’s Offensive, and the Request for Protection for Informant, i can clearly state that Clinton new about the genocide. Nice clear chronological narration made this article very nice to read, and your information appears very well researched. Many of these type of works fall into a heavy ‘blame game’ style of narration, however your verse credits your objective nature as do your evidence based arguments. A pleasure to read, and a very interesting topic i now know a little more about thanks to you. Cheers.

  2. Kate Fullagar says:

    I agree with James – very well transformed, Andrew.

  3. ali aziz says:

    Well written. I think America’s slow action towards Rwanda was related to the foreign policy of Clinton administration after two major crises. The first one of course was the Gulf War and its consequences on America’s image worldwide. The second one was the heavy casualties of the American army in Somalia in Battle of Mogadishu in 1993. Beside this, Rwanda was not an interesting place for America and the Western countries in general. Probably this was the reason of this unbelievable mass killing of people which is certainly a genocide one. But it is forgotten due to insufficient global interests in that poor place.

  4. danmcgowan123 says:

    Your post was very well set out and I found it very interesting.

    “It was clear that the US administration knew the nature of the conflict as a legal analysis in May shows that they chose to not call it genocide as it may prompt them to act.” This bit in particular got my attention. The fact that they knew what was happening and not only did not act but avoided practices that would have forced them to act is appalling.
    But to not get bogged down in a “blame game” as James said really gives credit to you. I think that I would struggle to right objectively when faced with all these facts.

  5. Thanks for the feedback. You’re right, exploring the reasons would be an entirely different issue. There were plenty of other documents which made for interesting reading. One of the ways the Hutus’ spread the word/violence was through radio. The US State Dept. responded to a suggestion from a human rights group to deploy a radio jammer but they didn’t because it was seen as too expensive and they wanted to remain neutral for any possible peace talks. The objectivity wasn’t as hard as I’d expected, perhaps because in all the readings beforehand I had read so much and perhaps accepted it so was in part motivated to just write something that clearly put it all together to show how/why they knew what they did.

  6. georgibrady says:

    Issues like this always drive me crazy. It also leads me to wonder how many other significant events did the US government know about, yet failed to act on? Within that however, it could also be questioned whether or not they purely turned a blind eye to the situation in Rwanda because of the United States’ reputation of getting involved where it isn’t entirely necessary.
    Either way, I hadn’t even heard of the situation in Rwanda until I read your post. Your introduction sucked me right in and it’s such an interesting topic. I find it so interesting that Clinton was not authorized to call the situation a genocide at first for fear that they would have to get involved. This definitely reflects cowardice or lack of responsibility for a country that prides itself on its global responsibility.

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