On April 6, 1994, the plane carrying the presidents of Rwanda (Juvenal Habyarimana) and neighboring Burundi (Cyprien Ntayamira) was shot down as it approached Rwanda’s main airport at Kigali. Responsibility for shooting down the plane was never definitively determined. What is known is that Rwanda, divided between its majority Hutu and minority Tutsi, was already vulnerable to civil war. The assassination of the two presidents was the spark that ignited one of the worst cases of bloodshed since the end of World War II. As Hutu, inflamed by calls to avenge the president, who was himself a Hutu, began to seek out and kill Tutsis, the international community found itself with a dilemma. Coming so soon after the debacle in Somalia that resulted from the U.N.- sanctioned intervention there to quell fighting and deliver food to starving Somalis, the international community, and especially the United States, was extremely reluctant to get involved in yet another bloody African war.
While the international community debated what, if anything, to do, rampaging Hutu tribesmen proceeded to slaughter every Tutsi they could find as well as moderate Hutus. An indication of the dangers involved in intervening in the fighting was the murder of ten Belgian soldiers serving in Rwanda with the U.N. In a mere 100 days of fighting, 800,000 Rwandans, mostly Tutsis, had been slaughtered.
Did the international community fail by not intervening in Rwanda? Canadian General Romeo Dallaire was the commander of U.N. peacekeeping troops in Rwanda when the fighting broke out. In his memoir of this period, Shake Hands With The Devil, Dallaire offered the following thoughts:
“How do we pick and choose where to get involved? Canada and other peacekeeping nations have become accustomed to acting if, and only if, international public opinion will support them - a dangerous path that leads to a moral relativism in which a country risks losing sight of the difference between good and evil, a concept that some players on the international stage view as outmoded. Some governments regard the use of force itself as the greatest evil. Others define "good" as the pursuit of human rights and will opt to employ force when human rights are violated. As the nineties drew to a close and the new millennium dawned with no sign of an end to these ugly little wars, it was as if each troubling conflict we were faced with had to pass the test of whether we could "care" about it or "identify" with the victims before we'd get involved.”
Dallaire’s observations are similar to those in the U.S. The conflict in Rwanda broke out so fast and the bulk of the killing occurred with such rapidity that foreign intervention on a scale sufficient to end the killing would not have been easy. Add the protracted debates regarding the morality and practicality of intervening in every war that breaks out, and the recent experience in Somalia, and it is understandable that no country was keen on sending more troops to Rwanda. That said, the case can be made that the world failed Rwanda by doing nothing in the face of the worst case of genocide since Cambodia in the late 1970s. More could, and should have been done to support General Dallaire’s beleaguered peacekeeping force. The few countries with the means to have done so, however, were morally and militarily exhausted, and the administration of President Clinton was not interested in yet another costly foreign adventure.