Exclusive: Rwanda Revisited

Former President Clinton said he never knew the extent of suffering during Rwanda's genocide. But America's diplomats on the ground knew exactly what was happening -- and they told Washington.


On March 25, 1998, President Bill Clinton expressed regret for failing to halt genocide in Rwanda, saying that he didn’t "fully appreciate the depth and the speed with which [Rwandans] were being engulfed by this unimaginable terror."

On March 25, 1998, President Bill Clinton expressed regret for failing to halt genocide in Rwanda, saying that he didn’t “fully appreciate the depth and the speed with which [Rwandans] were being engulfed by this unimaginable terror.”

But U.S. officials in Rwanda had been warned more than a year before the 1994 slaughter began that Hutu extremists were contemplating the extermination of ethnic Tutsis, according to a review panel’s newly released transcript and declassified State Department documents obtained by Foreign Policy from the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum.

An August 1992 diplomatic cable to Washington, written by Joyce Leader, the U.S. Embassy’s deputy chief of mission in Kigali, cited warnings that Hutu extremists with links to Rwanda’s ruling party were believed to be advocating the extermination of ethnic Tutsis. On the morning the killing began in April 1994, there was little doubt about what was happening in Rwanda.

“We had a very good sense of what was taking place,” Leader told an unprecedented 2014 gathering of former Rwandan officials and international policymakers who managed the response to the world’s worst mass murder since the Holocaust. “It was clear that a systematic killing of Tutsi was taking place in neighborhoods.”

Senior ethnic Hutu officials who favored reconciling with Tutsi rebels refused to join forces with the extremists carrying out the genocide and were also hunted down and murdered, she said.

Leader’s cable was part of the discussion of a three-day review last year sponsored by the Holocaust Museum’s Center for the Prevention of Genocide and The Hague Institute for Global Justice. A transcript of the review’s findings — which runs more than 240 pages long, plus a 32-page executive summary — was provided to FP ahead of its public release at 11am on Monday, April 6, the 21st anniversary of the start of the Rwandan genocide.

The event provided an extraordinary opportunity for 40 key players and observers to review the missteps. They included former Rwandan government and rebel officials; Belgian, French Rwandan, and U.N. diplomats and peacekeepers; aid workers, journalists, scholars, and Security Council ambassadors. U.S. officials who were directly involved in the United States delivered a detailed insider account of the American response.

Clinton’s envoys in Rwanda were clear-eyed about the nature of what was unfolding in the hours and days following the April 6, 1994, shoot-down of a plane carrying Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana and his Burundian counterpart, according to the review’s transcript. That set the stage for the mass slaughter of nearly a million ethnic Tutsi Rwandans, and some moderate Hutus, by extremists among the country’s majority-Hutu population.

As the killing began, terrified Rwandans fled their homes for safety, to the grounds of U.S. Ambassador David Rawson’s residence. At one stage, a small child seeking protection in the ambassador’s backyard was shot and killed, Leader recalled.

She also warned her neighbor, Rwandan Prime Minister Agathe Uwilingiyimana, who wanted to seek refuge at the American diplomat’s home, to steer clear for fear that the Presidential Guard, who were implicated in the killing, would come looking for her there. Uwilingiyimana was murdered a day after the killing began.

The 2014 discussions, which took place from June 1 through June 3, tracked the doomed Rwandan peace process, known as the Arusha Accords, which were signed in 1993 and were designed to end civil war between a Hutu-dominated government and a Tutsi-led insurgency based out of Uganda.

The attendees identified plenty of culprits: Extremists within the Hutu-led government who sought to sabotage peace efforts. Rwandan rebels who launched a massive offensive in northern Rwanda a year before the genocide, swelling the ranks of Rwanda’s community of displaced and providing a breeding ground for radicalized recruits who carried out ethnic slaughter of Tutsis. International diplomats who clung to false hopes that a doomed peace process could reverse Rwanda’s slide from a civil war.

Even the very notion of democracy came up for criticism, with Leader noting that “we need to acknowledge the link between violence and promotion of change, or democracy and peace in the case of Rwanda. We should acknowledge the negative consequences that result in some cases from the promotion of democratization.”

Britain’s then-U.N. ambassador, David Hannay, broke the failure into two parts: what he called “sins of commission” and “sins of omission.”

“The sins of commission were mainly the work of the Rwandans themselves,” he said.

“It is true that we were abandoned. But we abandoned our people, and massacred our own people,” Jean-Marie Vianney Ndagijimana, Rwanda’s ambassador to Paris during the genocide, said during the review. “Primary responsibility for the genocide, and the crimes that accompanied it, must be borne by us, Rwandans. We must accept that fact before we make accusations against the international community.”

The indifference of outside powers, particularly the United States, was a central theme of the talks.

A lot of the criticism centered on the fact that the U.N. and other world powers failed to respond to a clear warning, issued in January 1994, that a plan for the extermination of the Tutsi was underway.

The contents of that cable, drafted by the U.N.’s Canadian force commander, Lt. Gen. Roméo Dallaire, were never shared with the U.N. Security Council.

But the U.N.’s top officials in Rwanda shared the cable’s contents with representatives of the United States, Britain, and Belgium.

“I never knew about the genocide fax. I am not sure my colleagues in the African affairs bureau knew about it,” said John Shattuck, the then-U.S. assistant secretary of state for labor, human rights, and democracy. “Had this fax become more widely known in the U.S. government, it would have provided ammunition for those who were trying to resist” efforts to constrain U.N. peacekeeping.

“I do think the genocide fax could have made a difference to those like myself who were trying to impact on the debate,” he added.

But Dallaire, who attended the conference, cut Shattuck off.

“I must rebut rapidly. President Clinton did not want to know,” he said. “I hold Clinton accountable. He can excuse himself as much as he wants to the Rwandans, but he established a policy that he did not want to know.”

Former Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Prudence Bushnell reinforced the view that top policymakers in the Clinton administration paid little attention to events in Rwanda leading up to the genocide.

“I was way down the totem pole and I had responsibility for the Rwanda portfolio,” she recalled. “That shows you how important it was in the U.S. government.”

Indeed, there had been other warnings that had been ignored or missed. As far back as August 1992, Leader wrote a cable to Washington citing local concerns that an extremist political party linked to President Habyarimana was pursuing a “Ku Klux Klan-like approach to ethnic relations” that was “widely interpreted as a call for the extermination of Tutsis.”

In August 1993, Bacre Waly Ndiaye, a U.N. human rights researcher from Senegal, produced a troubling report about the prospects of genocide. And on Feb. 25, 1994, following a visit to Rwanda by Belgian Foreign Minister Willy Claes, the Belgian Foreign Ministry sent instructions to its United Nations envoy to explore how to strengthen the U.N. peacekeeping mission.

That document cited the “possibility of genocide in Rwanda…. It will be inacceptable for Belgians to be passive witnesses to genocide in Rwanda.”

On April 6, the day the Rwandan and Burundian leaders’ plane was shot down, French President François Mitterrand walked into the office of his foreign affairs advisor, Hubert Védrine, and asked: “Have you heard? It is terrible. They are going to massacre each other.”

U.N. officials and diplomats in New York said at the review that they were unaware of the reports. Iqbal Riza, a retired U.N. official who oversaw Rwanda for the U.N. Department of Peacekeeping, and Colin Keating, a New Zealand diplomat who served as the president of the U.N. Security Council, said they were unaware of the Ndiaye report.

The U.N. Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali, meanwhile, never provided the U.N. Security Council with a briefing of Dallaire’s troubling cable.

The backdrop for America’s lack of interest in Rwanda went back to the end of the Cold War, when then-Secretary of State James Baker sought cuts in the State Department to fund the establishment of more than a dozen new embassies in the former Soviet Union, Bushnell recalled. The Africa bureau in the State Department saw its budget shrink. Clinton also showed little interest in Africa.

“Early in the Clinton term, I was not able to get a new, democratically elected president in Africa, a former human rights activist, to see the president because, I was told, ‘President Clinton would find him boring,’” Bushnell said.

The one initiative that sought considerable engagement was Somalia, where President George H.W. Bush had authorized the deployment of U.S. Marines to pave the way for a massive humanitarian relief effort. Clinton inherited the operation, which gradually entangled American military forces in a war with Somali militia challenging the international presence.

The Oct. 3, 1993, the deaths of 18 U.S. soldiers in a botched raid in Mogadishu put the Clinton administration on the defensive, and cooled the Pentagon’s attitude toward U.N. peacekeeping.

As the genocide unfolded in Rwanda six months later, the White House was finalizing a presidential directive, known as PDD-25, which placed severe constraints on the conditions required for U.S. support for peacekeeping missions. President Clinton, meanwhile, was preoccupied with producing a health care bill and upcoming midterm congressional elections — and was determined to keep America out of any foreign military entanglements, said Shattuck.

“It was effectively a straitjacket for U.S. decision-making, vis-a-vis various kinds of peacekeeping operations,” said Shattuck. “In a sense, PDD-25 was the U.S. equivalent of the withdrawal of Belgian forces after the killing of the peacekeepers, in the sense that it gave a ‘green light’ to the genocide planners.”

Even after the killing began, the White House was focused more on getting Americans and the U.N. out of Rwanda than coming to the aid of Rwanda’s victims.

Thomas S. Blanton, the director of the National Security Archives, who moderated the 2014 discussion, said that a review of declassified State Department cables and logs of a task force set up to handle the crisis showed that 80 percent of the discussion in the United States concerned the evacuation of American citizens.

Most of the remaining 20 percent was about convincing the warring parties to abide by a cease-fire and resume talks on a power-sharing agreement, Blanton said.

The White House focus on protecting civilians was largely limited to one individual, a Rwandan human rights activist named Monique Mujawamariya, who had met with President Clinton in the White House in December 1993, several months before the genocide began.

“Oh my god, all hell is breaking loose, and I am getting phone calls, ‘Where’s Monique?’” Bushnell recalled. “The greatest pressure from the White House during the entire Rwandan affair was finding Monique.” Mujawamariya fled Kigali in one of the last flights by foreigners out of the country.

The U.S. military, meanwhile, showed little interest.

The Defense Department “did not want to spend money,” Bushnell recalled. “I used to call them the ‘nowhere, no how, no way, and not with our toys’ boys.”

“Boy, oh boy, did the shooting down of the plane on April 6 and the withdrawal of the Belgians give us the excuse we needed to pull the plug,” she said. “It was an unfortunate period in my government’s history. I regret it greatly, as I think all of us do.”

The U.N. peacekeeping mission was woefully unprepared for the violence, and Rwandan government troops killed 10 Belgian peacekeepers.

During an initial visit to Rwanda in August 1993, Dallaire had recommended a force of 8,000 peacekeepers to oversee a tenuous peace process. The U.N. peacekeeping department shrunk that number down to 5,000, before the U.N. Security Council cut it in half, leaving a force of about 2,400 on the ground when the violence started.

“I was instructed that this mission had to be on the cheap,” Dallaire recalled. “The Americans had not paid [their U.N. dues], there was no money, and nobody was particularly interested in the mission to start with.”

When the genocide began, the United States launched a diplomatic campaign aimed at bringing the U.N. peacekeepers home. Initially, Washington sought to shutter the mission entirely. On April 15, 1994, Edward Walker Jr., then the U.S. deputy permanent representative to the U.N., relayed instructions from Washington to withdraw the entire U.N. mission.

But later that day, Nigerian U.N. Ambassador Ibrahim Gambari and Hannay, the British U.N. envoy, convinced Walker’s boss, then-U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. Madeleine Albright, to change her position.

“You simply cannot do that,” Hannay recalled telling Albright. “The idea that we should simply withdraw the troops and leave these people to be murdered was not right. It won’t do.”

Albright agreed, and called Richard Clarke, the senior director on the U.S. National Security Council, to change her instructions. The United States reversed itself. On April 20, the council adopted a resolution providing a minimal presence of 270 peacekeepers.

Inside Rwanda, the United States, France, and Belgium were fielding desperate appeals from Rwandans to maintain a diplomatic presence there. Dallaire said more than 1,000 elite foreign troops were mobilized to evacuate foreigners from Rwanda during the genocide. He appealed to Belgian and French commanders “to modify their orders to let me establish a force that would stop the massacres of threatened people, particularly in Kigali.”

“The answer was a categorical no,” Dallaire said.

Védrine, Mitterrand’s foreign affairs advisor, said he was unaware of Dallaire’s request, and “in hindsight, perhaps we can say this was a huge pity.” In late June, France ultimately did send troops into Rwanda in an intervention mission that undoubtedly saved lives. But it also faced criticism for protecting the fleeing forces of the Rwandan army, a longtime ally whose most extremist elements orchestrated the killings.

The Pentagon explored plans to set up a peacekeeping force outside of Rwanda, to protect refugees crossing the border. The proposal was dismissed by other Security Council members as a “joke,” recalled Hannay, noting that people were being killed inside Rwanda.

Col. Leonidas Rusatira, the head of the military college in Rwanda, appealed to U.S. and European diplomats to stay. “He said our presence would help calm the situation,” Leader recalled. “I had to be very firm and say, ‘These are our orders, we are leaving, please help us get out safely.’”

Back in Washington, Bushnell said she heard that U.S. Marines who were stationed in Burundi were eager to enter Rwanda to help evacuate Americans.

“They wanted to go, but I was on the phone with my colleagues, saying, ‘No, no, no, no, do not leave the airport in Burundi,’” Bushnell said. “The last thing I wanted was somebody in Burundi shooting down an American helicopter.”

Instead, she arranged the Americans’ evacuation by land across the border.

“I do not apologize for that. The first obligation of a government is to its citizens,” Bushnell said.

“We were terrified of what was going to happen to our citizenry and so indeed we went into action,” she said. “…We had no concept that we would not be going back and not helping. I regret my government’s actions with regards to the citizens of Rwanda. I do not regret my government’s actions with regards to the citizens of the United States.”

Gen. Henry Anyidoho, a Ghanaian officer who served as the second-highest ranking U.N.  peacekeeper in Rwanda, said the diplomatic community’s departure from Rwanda “affected us very badly.”

“They left too early,” Anyidoho said. “Once the killers knew there was no referee, they had a free hand to do whatever they wanted. We were overwhelmed by the effort of saving lives.”

“We felt abandoned,” Anyidoho said.

The 2014 review, which was organized with the help of the National Security Archives, was modeled on the group’s oral history series, which has previously brought key figures like former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert McNamara, Cuban leader Fidel Castro, and Russian generals to discuss the Cuban Missile Crisis.

The new documents add to a collection of more than 20,000 declassified U.S., U.N., French, and Belgian cables about the Rwandan genocide. Additionally, the group plans to publish declassified cables from the White House in the coming days.

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

Colum Lynch was a staff writer at Foreign Policy between 2010 and 2022. Twitter: @columlynch

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