The Design of Absent Crisis: The Clinton Administration on the 1994 Rwandan Genocide

By Lauren Young
2010, Vol. 2 No. 04 | pg. 3/3 |

Throughout American intervention negotiations, the case of Rwanda was inarguably straightforward, with confidential assessments by the State Department, each pointing toward a more direct situation of genocide everyday. One of the most frightening aspects of the Rwandan genocide, and certainly one that contributed to the staggering speed of deaths (between six and seven people were killed every minute amounting to a total between eight thousand and ten thousand seven hundred and ten people massacred each day) (Jared, 2007, 14), was the broadcast of the names, neighborhoods, and oftentimes home or office addresses of the Hutus’ Tutsi targets by Radio des Mille Collines (RTLM).5 Additionally, the addresses of common neighborhood community centers that were known to be hiding places were broadcast as radio announcers encouraged the Hutu militias to “exterminate all of the cockroaches.”

From his post on the ground in Kigali, Dallaire emphasized the need to cut off this communication. Most of the killers traveled in bands, and nearly all had access to a radio, if not one belonging to them, although many did. Without the propaganda spewed by RTLM radio, some, if not all, of the killers’ access to their victims would be curtailed. Such an operation, however, required the full cooperation of the United States. Tony Marley, the United States Military Liaison who had been overseeing the implementation process of the Arusha Accords, proposed three strategies. The United States could destroy the antenna at RTLM headquarters in Kigali, transmit “counter broadcasts” to urge attackers to stop the genocide, or, the most compelling option, “block” the RTLM broadcasts through the use of the United States’ Air Force Commando Solo Airplane (Power, 2001, 20).

The options, while promising, presented the American armed forced with a clear conflict between the measures potentially taken to aid a foreign populace, and its own Constitutional values of free speech. However, such values could logically be suspended in the interest of the United States interfering in the face of such widespread human suffering. Pentagon officials concluded such measures, particularly “jamming the airwaves” were costly and ineffective, chiefly since they could be seen as unwarranted intervention in a foreign “conflict”---and one in which the United States possessed absolutely no tangible interest. The President was never consulted through the duration of these meetings; nor is it entirely clear that he was made aware of their having taken place.

Clinton and his administration’s hesitancy to label the conflict in Rwanda as “genocide,” while perhaps morally difficult to understand, and in its aftermath a seemingly politically inept move for its inane portrayal of the administration’s foreign policy strategy that resulted, does not in fact originate from a point of great political quandary. In the latter part of April, and the early days of May 1994, the use of what many in the administration dubbed “the g word” was expressly forbidden. The politics of the situation were relatively simple. Were the administration to recognize the conflict in Rwanda as, in fact, no conflict at all, but rather that the victims whose bodies flashed across the evening news were members of a particular “ national [or] ethnical group;” and that the killings had been committed with an “intent to destroy [the group] in whole or in part” this would be admitting to the occurrence of the precise legal definition of genocide playing out before them.

For the sake of American interests, or rather lack of interest, intervening in a conflict where no visible national interests were present depended upon the United States policy of non-recognition of the genocide in Rwanda. The Clinton administration felt that formally admitting genocide was taking place would require them to act under the 1948 Genocide Convention. Although the convention “condemns” genocide, it does not specifically require action upon the recognition of genocide by a country. Yet, with the United States’ poor attempts at intervention in Haiti and Somalia in the recent memory of the public-----and key decision makers in Washington-----it would be difficult, not to mention a potential public relations mess, for the world’s sole superpower to justify a refusal to intervene in a conflict in which it recognized a gross violation of human rights out of selfish interest.

However, as the May 21st meeting of the United Nations Human Rights Commission loomed forward, Secretary of State Warren Christopher was under increasing pressure to outline the terms of the United States’ stance on exactly what was occurring in Rwanda. The American diplomats involved in the commission report, particularly representative Geraldine Ferraro, needed guidance on whether to join a resolution by the United Nations stating that genocide had, in fact, occurred (Power, 2001, 14). Christopher instructed the delegation to,

"Agree to a resolution that states that ‘acts of genocide’ have occurred in Rwanda or that ‘genocide has occurred in Rwanda…formulation that suggests…some, but not all of the killings in Rwanda are genocide…are authorized. Delegation is not authorized to agree the characterization of any specific incident as genocide or…agree to any formulation that indicates that all killings in Rwanda are genocide" (Power, 2001, 14-15).

This memo, denying the United States Human Rights Commission the authority to “characterize “any specific incident as genocide in Rwanda” would constitute the United States first, and for a time only, recognition that any activities qualifying as genocide were taking place in Rwanda. Such confused instructions by higher authorities could no doubt be the result of a lacking sense of direction from the highest source of influence in the administration; the President himself.

Through the first month of the Rwanda conflict, Clinton had maintained an almost crafted distance from the situation, rarely taking meetings with Christopher, or National Security Advisor Lake. However, as the situation continued to intensify, and the media’s coverage of Rwanda became increasingly informed, supplied with photographs and eyewitness testimonies of those, or family members of, Rwandans desperate to escape, pressure increased upon the White House to do something about the atrocities taking place.

In lieu of crafting a policy, other than that of avoidance, as the true dimensions the crisis playing out in Rwanda came to light, the United States continued to avoid overuse of “genocide rhetoric” for worry of being pulled into an intervention situation it perceived there would be no way to reasonably escape. Indeed, the members of the United Nations Human Rights Commission were not authorized to publicly use the term “genocide,” even in the terms outlined by the Christopher memo until three weeks after the Committee had met. So worried was the Clinton administration over the potential use of the word genocide, that for the first four weeks of the slaughter, the systematic nature of the killings as broadcast over radio, and the mentality of the killers, was never once brought up in the Security Council for discussion of any great length. “As a result, there was an implied assumption that only a large and dramatic intervention would be of any use and such an intervention, in light of Somalia, [it] was simply out of the question” (Glanville, 2006, 196).

With this in mind, the administration avoided the use of the language of genocide, should any official recognition by the United States warrant action by itself or the United Nations, and thus force Clinton and his foreign policy team to deploy American troops, spend American dollars, and potentially lose more American lives in a conflict in which it could neither demonstrate, nor see, any interest for the United States. On March 25, 1998, nearly four years after the killings erupted in Rwanda, President Clinton told a group of survivors, “It may seem strange to you…but all over the world there were people like me sitting in offices who did not fully appreciate the depth and speed with which you were being engulfed by this unimaginable terror” (Sebarenzi, 2009, 130). Whether Clinton’s personal lack of appreciation stemmed from convenience or truly resulted from the shuffling of information within the various levels of his administration can be decided only as further history of American intelligence on the genocide continues to emerge.

Despite the attempts that would later be made by the United States, and President Clinton during his remaining tenure to rectify the situation in Rwanda, by the time Tutsi Rebel forces, the RPF (Rwandan Patriotic Front) would capture Kigali on July 4, 1994, the damage was already done. Estimates for those killed in the Rwandan genocide span from eight hundred thousand to one million lives lost. In the West, the figure is generally accepted to be approximately eight hundred thousand; either scope is staggering for the mere one hundred days the conflict lasted, and in a nation of just ten million people. As the slaughter carried on through the summer, the Clinton administration refused to budge from its predetermined position as an outlier to assist a country with little hope of saving itself before it was too late for hundreds of thousands of it citizens. As a result of earlier foreign policy struggles in Somalia, and Haiti, the Clinton administration’s policy toward Rwanda was rendered non-existent out of fear these prior mistakes would haunt them. Instead, however, the Clinton administration’s failure to stop the tragedies in Rwanda became the third, and arguably most lasting, foreign policy failure during his first term of office, and according to Clinton himself, “one of the greatest regrets” of his entire Presidency (Clinton, 2004,593).


Albright, Madeline. Madame Secretary. Miramax Books, New York, NY 2003.

Amanpour, Christine. “Looking Back at Rwanda’s Genocide.”

Bee, Elle. “Clinton’s Black Hawk History-On Somalia, the Ex President is as Mendacious as Ever.” The Wall Street Journal, August 6, 2002. (Smith College November 13, 2009).

Burkhalter, Holly J. “The Question of Genocide, The Clinton Administration and Rwanda.” World Policy Journal, Volume 11, 1994.

Cohen, Jared. One Hundred Days of Silence. Romhan and Littlefield Publishers, Inc. Landham, MD, 2007.

Fisher, Ian. “Hutu and Tutsi Ask: Is a Unified Rwanda Possible?” The New York Times, April 6, 1999. http:///

Freedberg, Jean. Telephone Interview. November 10, 2009.

Glanville, Luke. “Rwanda Reconsidered: A Study of Norm Violation.” Journal of Contemporary African Studies, 24ed., May 2, 2006.

Gourevitch, Philip. We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families. Picador, New York, NY, 1998.

Harris, John F. The Survivor. Random House, New York, NY, 2005.

Heinze, Eric, A. “The Rhetoric of Genocide in U.S. Foreign Policy: Rwanda and Darfur Compared.” Political Science Quarterly, Volume 122, November 3, 2007.

Melvern, LR. A People Betrayed: The Role of the West In Rwanda’s Genocide. Zed Books, London, United Kingdom, 2004.

Office of the Press Secretary, The White House. “Statement By the Press Secretary: President Clinton Signs New Peacekeeping Policy.” May 5, 1994.

Power, Samantha. “Bystanders to Genocide.” The Atlantic. September 2001.

Rauch, Jonathan. “Now Is the Time to Tel the Truth About Rwanda.” National Journal, Volume 33, Issue 16.

Scheffer, David. “War Crimes and the Clinton Administration.” Social Research, Volume 69, Number 4, winter 2002.

Schlesinger, Stephen. “The End of Idealism, Foreign Policy in the Clinton Years.” World Policy Journal.” Winter 1998-1999.

Sebarenzi, Joseph. God Sleeps In Rwanda. Atria Books, New York, NY, 2009.

Weiner, Tim. “Clinton In Africa: The Blood Bath; Critics Say U.S. Ignored CIA Warnings of Genocide In Rwanda.” The New York Times, March 26, 1998.…ngs-genocide-rwanda.html?scp=6&sc=Rwandan+Genocide+Clinton&st=ny.

Wilkins, Carl. Filmed Interview. United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

The White House, Office of the Press Secretary. “Statement by the Press Secretary, President Clinton Signs New Peacekeeping Policy.” The White House, Washington, DC, May 5, 1994. http://www/

Encyclopedia of Nations.


  1. There is strong debate among scholars as to whether the Hutu and the Tutsi actually constitute two distinct “ethnic groups” versus separate castes within the Rwandan class system. However, for the sake of simplicity and the limited focus within this piece on Rwanda’s history, the Hutu and the Tutsi will be referred to as separate “ethnic groups” throughout with the presumption that their identities as respective members of groups sharing a unique heritage and experience within Rwandan history is a sufficient qualifier.
  2. European scientists of the day put an exceptional emphasis on the size of noses. The measurement of a Rwandan’s “nasal index” was though to be one of the most accurate ways of determining whether one was Hutu or Tutsi. “The median Tutsi nose was found to be about two and a half millimeters loner and nearly five millimeters narrower than the median Hutu nose” (Gourevitch, 1998, 56).
  3. During the Rwandan Civil War, Uganda became a common destination for Tutsi refugees seeking political asylum, as well as the chance to organize with the National Resistance Movement in opposition to the “Hutu Power” ideology.
  4. For these purposes, interests may be understood to include economic stake in the success of a nation, or loyalty that stemmed from the ties of an official diplomatic alliance.
  5. The high illiteracy rate among Rwanda’s population makes radio a favored form of media to this day.

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