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David J. Scheffer
Ambassador-at-Large for War Crimes Issues

Remarks at the Conference on Atrocities Prevention and Response
U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum
Washington, DC, October 29, 1999

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Atrocities Prevention: Lessons from Rwanda

Almost 1 year ago, I stood in this auditorium and delivered an address on measures to prevent genocide and other atrocities. The Holocaust Museum had convened a conference on "Genocide and Crimes Against Humanity: Early Warning and Prevention," an important event that foreshadowed what we are trying to accomplish at this conference today.

It was December 10, 1998, and the President had just announced at the White House the establishment of a genocide early warning system in the U.S. Government. It was my job, here at the Holocaust Museum, to explain that the core of the system will be the Atrocities Prevention Interagency Working Group (IWG), which I have the honor to lead. The purpose of the Atrocities Prevention IWG has been to strengthen our capabilities to detect and analyze the warning signs of genocide and other atrocities and to make recommendations for possible countermeasures, including options that might prevent atrocities from erupting or continuing. We are mandated to ensure that atrocities prevention forms an integral part of our overall foreign policy, when there is risk of an atrocities outbreak.

The Atrocities Prevention IWG began to meet last December shortly after the President announced this project. The IWG has benefited from an atrocities watch capability within the intelligence community that seeks to monitor relevant indicators and predict the most vulnerable societies. This includes the War Crimes and Atrocities Analysis Division of the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research. During its 1st year of operation, the Atrocities Prevention IWG has enabled our policy makers to understand better what is occurring at the earliest possible stage and to be better prepared to consider possible responses to stem the tide of killing. Some of the countries we have closely examined are Sierra Leone--shortly after I returned from a trip there in February 1999, right after the Freetown massacres and mutiliations,--the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Indonesia, Burundi, and the Sudan. We also have taken a hard look at the diamond trade in Africa.

The IWG is not batting 1000 on its work product, to no one's surprise. East Timor could serve as an example, and we will be examining for some time the lessons learned from this particular tragedy.

It is the hope of the Atrocities Prevention IWG that we can begin to work with other governments and the NGO community to ensure that information on emerging atrocities is known as quickly as possible so that effective collective responses can be more likely-and rapid.

The non-governmental community has an important role to play in keeping the U.S and other Governments informed. We have benefitted from their experience and observations. The first-hand accounts we heard from representatives of NGOs with people on the ground in East Timor, for example, helped us to shape our response to that crisis.

Last year I spoke here about some important lessons drawn from our experience with genocide. I want to repeat them for this audience:

  • We need to heed the warning signs of genocide and crimes against humanity.

  • Officially-directed massacres of civilians of whatever numbers cannot be tolerated, for the organizers of genocide and crimes against humanity must not believe that more widespread killing will be ignored.

  • "Neutrality" in the face of genocide and crimes against humanity is uncacceptable, and must never be used to cripple or delay our collective response to these mega-crimes.

  • The international community must respond quickly to confront genocide and crimes against humanity when they begin to unfold.

  • The consequences of genocide and crimes against humanity are not only the horrific killings themselves, but the massive refugee flows, economic collapse, and political divisions that tear asunder the societies that fall victim to genocide. The international community will pay a far higher price coping with the aftermath of genocide and crimes against humanity than if it were prepaared to defeat such crimes in their earliest stages.
Rwanda 1994

Though I can only scratch the surface in my remarks this morning, I want to try to address, from a forward-looking perspective, the U.S. response to the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. The United States has been strongly criticized for inaction in the face of the Rwandan genocide of 1994. This trend commenced, ironically, with the very statements acknowledging mistakes that the President and the Secretary of State made in 1997 and 1998.

In a speech in Addis Ababa on December 9, 1997, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright acknowledged that, "We, the international community, should have been more active in the early stages of the atrocities in Rwanda in 1994, and called them what they were--genocide." On March 25, 1998--during the first visit of a U.S. President to Rwanda--President Bill Clinton echoed the Secretary's remarks on the genocide:

"The international community, together with nations in Africa, must bear its share of responsibility for this tragedy, as well. We did not act quickly enough after the killing began. We should not have allowed the refugee camps to become safe havens for the killers. We did not immediately call these crimes by their rightful name: genocide."

The U.S. Government was the first major Western government to admit bluntly, at the highest level, that mistakes were made. We applied common sense, our own knowledge of what had transpired, and the urgent need to address this issue for the benefit of the victims. But let's be fair; the people who participated in shaping the policy are very well-intentioned officials who made some very difficult decisions in an unprecedented crisis. We have learned much from those mistakes, but I would be the last to represent that we have developed a perfect response mechanism to atrocities today. Indeed, the purpose of this conference is to understand how much still needs to be done to improve our collective abilities to stop and prevent atrocities.

Conventional Responses Won't Do

We now know that violent humanitarian catastrophes may require unconventional responses, out-of-the-box policy-making, and a more determined effort to focus political will on the imperatives of human survival. Atrocities, or the imminent unleashing of them, scream out for immediate, imaginative, and bold actions. We have a motto in the Office of War Crimes Issues at the State Department "Timing is everything." That motto is deeply embedded in our minds after years of work demonstrating time and again that unless we act quickly enough to try to head off or end mass killings and wanton destruction, the opportunity is lost. The cost of mopping up will far exceed what would have been required to face down the masters of the killing fields at the earliest possible stage.

The Aursha peace accords had a tight schedule of implementation. But deadlines were missed, prompting calls for speedier implementation. All eyes turned on the how to salvage the peace accords, not on body counts.

Indeed, perhaps the loudest warning signal that went unheeded was the tens of thousands of Tutsis slaughtered in Burundi during a few short weeks in the Fall of 1993. Occurring at the same time as the murder of UN troops-- including 17 U.S. soldiers--in Somalia, the Burundi massacres barely registered in Washington. I have long suspected that the international community's collective gasp of disbelief and detachment from the reality unfolding in Burundi in the wake of the massacres there must have sent a implicit signal to the extremist Hutus in Rwanda that the shooting gallery was open, free of charge.

The killings in Somalia sent shock waves through the entire foreign policy establishment. In the aftermath of the Somalia debacle, both American and international political will to intervene in Africa was evaporating, and the extremists in Rwanda may have suspected as much as 1994 approached.

Violence increased in Rwanda in February 1994. There were several political killings. Each such killing was followed by ethnic massacres--at one point 100 Tutsis were killed. These were warning signs not properly heeded. UN officials and foreign governments misinterpreted the signs and assumed that once the Arusha peace accords were implemented, the killing would stop.

Initial Response

By the end of March 1994, we knew the peace process was being poisoned by the killings and that all efforts to pressure the parties in the conflict to resolve their differences were faltering.

During this time, the Security Council emphasized that support for UNAMIR, the UN peacekeeping force, depended on implementation of the Arusha accords. The UNAMIR mandate's imminent termination was used as leverage on the parties to seek a compromise. Such tactics were viewed as a strong political signal that further delays would not be acceptable.

The lesson learned from the pre-genocide period in Rwanda is that the world focused on the peace accords and missed the real issue, ethnic tension. The militias were getting stronger and more vocal. Newspapers and radio talked about killing Tutsis and UNAMIR soldiers. Rallies held by extremists often went unreported.

Once the genocide erupted, the United States and other governments were seized with the imperative of evacuating their nationals. This objective also dominated UN planning in the weeks ahead. Evacuation is and will remain, for governments and the United Nations, the standard response mode in life-threatening situations. The challenge, however, is how to go immediately beyond the conventional policy of evacuation and determine how also to address the underlying violence that triggers the evacuation.

A Word About Process

The conventional decision-making procedures that unfolded in the Security Council during April and May 1994 were ill-suited for responding to genocide. With each passing day, an average of 8,000 Tutsis were killed (800,000 in 100 days). The inherent delays in getting real action out of the Security Council bore no pragmatic relationship to responding effectively to the genocide. By the time the troops for UNAMIR could be pulled together, there would be few Tutsis left to protect.

We certainly now appreciate that high-level attention to such calamities must begin much sooner, and that is one of the reasons for the establishment of my own office in the State Department and for the creation in December 1998 of the Atrocities Prevention Interagency Working Group.

Use of the "G" Word

Much has been made of our non-use of the word "genocide" during April, May, and part of June 1994 to describe the killings. In fact, the United Nations refused to refer to "genocide" in connection with the events in Rwanda and held to that position until June.

One of the canards of atrocities work is the obsessive interest of some to immediately brand mass killings as "genocide," and to label the U.S. Government as encouraging genocidal behavior when it delays in the use of the term. We recognize that there is a need to make such determinations sooner, but accurately. As I said last year on this stage, we must pay more heed to "crimes against humanity" which can describe a multitude of atrocities, without having to meet the high standard of intent required for the crime of genocide. This game of who pronounces "Genocide" first when atrocities commence is a destructive one.

Then-U.S. Permanent Representative to the United Nations Madeleine Albright pressed at the end of April for the first UN Human Rights High Commissioner, Ayala, to visit Rwanda for a close look at the situation. He undertook that trip within 2 weeks later and reported back additional information of killings and destruction. It was his 1st trip into an atrocity zone.


The Administration's work on a new peacekeeping policy for the U.S. Government was coming to closure in April 1994 and guided U.S. decision-making on the future of UNAMIR. As one of the staff authors of PDD-25, the Presidential Decision Directive on Multilateral Peacekeeping Operations, I was keenly aware of its use during the Rwandan crisis. In addition to the advice being rendered by the UN Secretariat, PDD-25 influenced our initial decision in mid-April to seek a withdrawal of UNAMIR because of its inability to fulfill its mandate. But the factors set forth in PDD-25 also influenced the downsizing, rather than termination, of UNAMIR in late April and then its increase to 5,500 troops in May.

Those who blame PDD-25 for placing too many constraints on U.S. support for multilateral military action, and hence on confronting atrocities, must bear in mind that the document is essential if Congressional support is to be sustained for any UN peacekeeping operations at all. PDD-25 imposes a discipline on decision-making for UN peacekeeping and peace enforcement operations that has considerable merit. One of the main factors weighed in a PDD-25 assessment is U.S. interests, including humanitarian interests. And in the post-Rwanda environment, we are all more sensitive to humanitarian crises and the extent to which they may affect the interests of the United States and of the international community. PDD-25 is not a straightjacket to deny justifiable interventions or preventive measures when the lives of thousands of innocent civilians are at stake. It is, and should continue to be, applied realistically, in light of the circumstances that confront the international community and the besieged civilian population at the time.

Information Flow

Following the closure of the U.S. Embassy in Kigali, events in Rwanda were monitored and analyzed from U.S. Embassies in the neighboring or nearby countries of Burundi, Kenya, Tanzania, Uganda, and Zaire. With the exception of a couple of trips to assess the humanitarian situation, U.S. personnel did not enter Rwanda until July 6-7, after the French-led Operation Turquoise had established a presence. The reality of our work in government is that most of us engaged in work pertinent to the unfolding violence are prohibited from visiting violent situations. I am occasionally thwarted from visiting an area of atrocities because our security regulations prohibit any U.S. officials from being exposed to life-threatening situations. This was especially true with Rwanda in the spring of 1994.

These facts may sound tedious, but we are accustomed--and this is critical-to having our own people on the ground gathering and reporting the facts. This simply was not the case during most of the genocide that swept over Rwanda.

The lesson we have drawn from this, however, is to look to a whole package of sources of information--non-governmental organizations, private sector sources, academics, open-source media, and other governments--that can be drawn upon during life-threatening crises and more generally. We also have begun to contact refugees who would have eye witness accounts that may prove beneficial to piecing together what is happening. During the Kosovo crisis this year, we deployed to the Macedonian border to interview the very first waves of refugees. This gave us access to an enormous amount of valuable information about the crimes being committed inside Kosovo.

Hate Radio

Another critical component to the Rwandan genocide was the use of hate radio to stir up anti-Tutsi anger among the Rwandan population. We need to explore ways to better address how we can shut down such incitement machines.

Competing Priorities

A fundamental lesson we learned from the Rwandan genocide is that we cannot allow other policy priorities and breaking events to distract us from the need to respond swiftly to the outbreak of atrocities. Tough problems can be easily shunted aside by simply pointing to another crisis that more desperately needs U.S. engagement.

Further Lessons

In closing, I submit for your consideration a checklist of lessons learned from our experience with atrocities prevention. The challenge before us is how to operationalize these lessons:

  • Take seriously smaller-scale outbreaks of violence against specific groups.

  • Develop all-source data banks with immediate transmission of information to governments.

  • Walk and chew gum at the same time, i.e., don't let other priorities in foreign policy side-line the atrocities priority.

  • Accelerate decision-making in the UN Security Council on multilateral military operations.

  • Respond to humanitarian imperatives by constituting robust and effective multilateral military operations.

  • Address how to thwart the use of hate media to incite atrocities.

  • Initiate fact-finding and criminal investigations as soon as possible, but examine carefully the timing and scope of accountability.

Recently I visited another massacre site a great distance from here. I have seen more than I wish to remember sometimes. As I was walking near one mass grave, the hard-driving rain forced up a human tooth which stubbed my boot. I stopped and reflected on whose tooth I had just stumbled across. I am weary of coming across the dead. While accountability remains a central concern, we also must do more to prevent this kind of slaughter. That is the purpose of this conference and the work that must follow it. We must do better at prevention, so that such killing fields do not become a permanent feature of the 21st century as they have during the 20th century.

[end of document]

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