by Rakiya Omaar and Alex de Waal

Refugees from Rwanda in  Goma, Zaire, 1994

Ayear ago, Rwanda did not figure on the horizon of U.S. foreign policy; strategic and commercial interests in the little central African country were insignificant. No State Department mandarin had made a career out of shining at the Rwanda desk; no diplomat savored a posting to Kigali. It is questionable even whether the U.S. ever had a "policy" toward Rwanda.

On April 6, 1994, Hutu extremists unleashed a genocide in which perhaps 800,000 people were murdered in one hundred days. Before, during, and after the meticulously planned slaughter, actions by the U.S. government were a highly significant factor in the unfolding of events. And the effects of those actions were almost universally malign.

The U.S. Ambassador to Rwanda, David Rawson, played a key role. In the absence of higher directives, the positions taken by this single man came to have a grossly disproportionate impact. The sympathy and support he showed for former President Juvenal Habyarimana and his coterie of extremists was no accident. They reflect the way a num ber of European organizations-primarily Belgian Catholic groups- played a similar game, with even more disastrous consequences.

The genocidal maniacs who ruled Rwanda chose an opportune moment to launch their "final solution." In April, powerful individuals in the U.S. government were actively rewriting the rules of international politics. They implemented changes that went beyond merely revising the ground rules for peacekeeping so that the dispatch of United Nations troops to the world's trouble spots would be almost impossible. They knowingly stood by while genocide occurred. By this inaction, they systematically began to unravel the great achievements of humanitarian law of this century--most of them gained in the period 1945-51 by men and women driven by the visceral shock of Auschwitz and Dresden. The genocide in Rwanda-one of the greatest crimes against humanity in the second half of the twentieth century-was an ironically opportune moment for these revisionists to stake their claim.

Rwanda is a tiny country of only 26,000 square kilometers (about the size of Maryland) but a pre-genocide population of seven million. Known as "the land of a thousand hills," it has a balmy climate with excellent soil. In the late 1980s, one of Africa's most promising economies began to slide, accompanied by authoritarian politics. President Habyarimana, avowing a policy of ethnic "balance" that supposedly allotted school places and jobs according to the national ration of 85 percent Hutu and 15 percent Tutsi, was in fact a Hutu supremacist who reserved the spoils of Rwanda's wealth for his own family.

In 1990, Rwandan exiles in neighboring Uganda formed the Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF) and invaded, plunging the country into civil war and a vicious cycle of human rights abuse. By 1992, there had been several large-scale massacres, and political assassinations were commonplace. International investigations concluded that responsibility lay in the president's office. But in mid-1993, it seemed as though an internationally mediated peace agreement would bring the country back from the brink. The government, the RPF, and civil opposition parties (almost all of the latter Hutu-led) signed a set of Ac cords in Arusha, Tanzania, that appeared to provide a model for transition to democracy.

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