In a now famous speech that he delivered in 1998 in the city of Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, William Jefferson Clinton uttered the words that I have chosen to use as the title for this week’s post. He used these words in a section of a speech where he apologised to the Rwandan people for the failings of the world political system to prevent the most intensive killing of human beings to take place within the 20th century. The 20th century no less that saw the building of Auschwitz, and therefore barring events that history had no way to accurately record the Rwandan genocide was the most intensive slaughter of human life ever to take place.
The reason that I have decided to highlight these choice words from that speech and to discuss that speech at all is that I, and many other commentators besides me are concerned that we are seeing a pattern of disregard for human suffering emerge, in both the discourse of governments and the media, which is almost identical in nature to that which preceded the crisis in East Africa. The crisis I refer to in this case is that of the Rohingya Muslims of Myanmar who are currently the victims of what can only be termed ethnic cleansing and it is my lasting concern that without a greater deal of awareness in the wider world that they will in time face the same fate as the Armenians, Jews, Romani and Tutsis who survived the early attempts at persecuting them only to die in the more systematic slaughters visited upon their houses. I will start by discussing the Rwandan genocide and the reasons that I believe it was widely ignored at the time despite the scale of the loss of life. I will then compare this to situation that is currently emerging in Myanmar and in all likelihood show that for many of the same reasons this story is being consistently under-reported in the media and left unspoken in political debate despite attempts to increase awareness of these massacres by online movement, Anonymous.
The year is 1994, the world is in the throes of post cold war uncertainty and it is in the climate that the travesty that was the worlds response to the genocide in Rwanda takes place. In light of the worlds hideous failure to respond, many politicians who might have been implicated as having in some way and in some cases knowingly abetted the crime of mass murder rushed to offer justifications for their governments lack of involvement. I will now list some of the common ideas (I have taken my initial cues for some of these from Black Star Journal who can be found here) that were bandied about in the aftermath as justification for sitting on the side lines watching mass murder take place, and then I will separately argue that every justification offers is based upon false premises and therefore demonstrates the clear responsibility of the international community in failing to prevent the genocide:
- The war that preceded the genocide and the genocide itself were based on “ancient ethnic rivalries” meaning that intervention was pointless as the violence would only flare up again in the future.
- The genocide was spontaneous so that even if we had intervened nothing could have been done to prevent the killings.
- The US administration at the time did not know fully what was going on in Rwanda.
- Atrocities were committed by both sides in the conflict.
- The UN was present and failed to prevent events from taking place.
Each one of these attempts to cover the tracks of those who neglected to involve themselves is a flawed reason which does not hold up to any great degree of scrutiny and I will now demonstrate statement by statement where the flaws in reasoning lie.
The first statement that was also the primary excuse offered for non-intervention during this crisis is seemingly a go-to statement for western nations to dismiss crises in the third world that were not directly related to their strategic interests. There are several inherent flaws with the argument that what we saw in Rwanda was the culmination of centuries of ethnic hatred. Perhaps most troubling is that this excuse had already been used to try and justify the lack of western intervention in the Balkans crisis that also saw ethnic cleansing and war crimes committed, but in time the pro-intervention camp gained some traction and UN forces intervened in an attempt to prevent wider scale genocide from taking place in spite of the “ancient” nature of the hatred that was being acted upon. In this case that the charge can be ignored in a European case but is the main reason for not intervening in Africa which speaks volumes about the the racist double standards of western geopolitics. Another issue with this contention is also that it is patently false. While it is true that during the genocide Rwanda was polarised along ethnic lines, the notion that such divisions in the country were centuries old carries about as much weight in educated circles as the notion that the Turin Shroud is anything other than a hoax. The divisions between Hutus and Tutsis in Rwanda and neighbouring Burundi were much more issues of class than they ever were issues of race or ethnicity. This idea however was bound to be hidden in plain sight amongst coverage as the truth would have revealed that the root cause of this division of Rwanda along ethnic lines was actually Belgian colonists who had used this idea as a tactic of divide and rule 100 years previously.
The second statement that the genocide was a spontaneous act and that nothing could’ve been done to prevent the killings is a weak attempt at covering ones tracks at best as there is actually a wealth of evidence that demonstrates the level of premeditation that was involved in these genocidal massacres. Take for example the fact that certain state owned newspapers were openly advocating the killing of Tutsis for years prior the events of 1994. In fact the merchants of such anti-Tutsi propaganda were so well prepared that they even had time to switch their messages of hatred for the Tutsi to the radio in an attempt to negate the illiteracy in the country. Further evidence of the premeditated nature of the massacres would include the handing out of ID cards to identify who was a Hutu and who was a Tutsi, the importation from China of over 500,000 machetes (the main weapon of mobs during the genocide) after a peace deal had been signed in 1993 and perhaps mostly clearly of all the open discussion by members of the Rwandan cabinet government of an idea to get rid of all Tutsis in an attempt to rid Rwanda of its problems.
The next statement that was offered as an excuse for the lack of western intervention was that the US administration (as the worlds lasting superpower at the time) did not know what was going on in Rwanda at the time which is to infer that therefore the administration can hardly be blamed for not intervening as it did not know such events were taking place. Were this actually the case then we would have to begrudgingly accept this excuse. Its not the case though, there is documented evidence that was reported by elements within the media that the US administration WAS in possession of clear evidence of the events taking place in Rwanda and simply chose to do nothing. As Brian at the Black Star Journal points out one Australian newspaper has shown that elements within the US government knew enough to use the G word within 16 days of the start of the crisis in Rwanda and also evidence exists that all members of Clinton’s administration were briefed on the situation daily so the charge that they did not know what was going on in the country is absolutely farcical.
The penultimate reason that I want to discuss that was genuinely offered for the lack of intervention in the Rwandan crisis was that both sides had committed atrocities. Also true, but then so what ? Am I genuinely supposed to believe that if I kill one person and my neighbour kills one hundred people that because we both committed the crime of murder that we both are unworthy of prosecution as we are as bad as each other? I wouldn’t expect leniency if I was to ever find myself in such a situation but I would expect a far greater effort to be expending in stopping the greater criminal than the lesser one. What is true in instances of petty crime arguably also holds true in the case of genocide when the scale of the atrocities is comparable to the hypothetical I just presented the reader with. This same type of moral equivalence had been used to try and justify inaction in the Balkans but rightfully had been ignored so why should such a pathetic excuse be acceptable the second time round when again there was clear evidence that one party was disproportionately responsible for atrocities. unless of course those advocating for action felt that the lives of Europeans held a greater intrinsic value
Listed last but by no means any less important than the other justifications is the idea that because the UN had failed so would anyone else have failed to protect Rwandans in their place. The key flaw with such a concept is the assumption that the UN forces were in a place, politically or militarily to prevent the genocide when the peace keeping force in the country had been reduced drastically despite the request of their commander Romeo Dallaire to double the existing force. The truth of the matter is that the UN forces were in a position to do something but due to the machinations of the Security Council were prevented from their duties which puts the lie to the notion that if the UN were unable then no-one could have prevented the genocide when the truth of the matter is that it is precisely because of its international character that the UN could not intervene and that a somewhat disinterested party such as the US was much better suited for the same job.
We can see then at this juncture then that every justification that was offered for the shameful indifference of both western governments and western media was based on falsehoods and arguably mask far more sinister truths. That the governments of the west, primarily the US but also France and the UK chose to not do anything to help is a troubling fact. The fact that these powers chose not to help in an African conflict which ultimately claimed far more lives but deployed forces to prevent smaller scale massacres in Europe as I have already suggested demonstrates a callous disregard for the lives of non-Europeans which I believe cuts to the heart of why the world sat by and watched Rwanda burn. Another worrying connection between both Rwanda and the Balkans and also an earlier US intervention in Somalia which many cite as part of the reason that Clinton decided to not involve the US in Rwanda was that the public’s sympathies for the people of Rwanda had been exhausted by the crisis in the former Yugoslavia and Somalia and so the impetus to intervene in Rwanda was sufficiently drained.
The current situation in Myanmar bears a striking similarity to that which emerged in Rwanda all those years ago for the two reasons I have highlighted above. Firstly I believe an aspect that has caused a significant lack of interest in and the under-reporting of the Rohingya crisis is the ongoing crisis in the wider Middle East region. the media and governments are locked into discussing the crisis which has slowly unfolded over the course of the last two years and it is because of this I feel that, willingly or unwillingly I am not sure, there is a subsequent lack of interest in regaling famously fickle TV audiences with yet another story of an impending humanitarian disaster. In saying this, I am not for one single moment suggesting that the lives of Syrians, Libyans and Egyptians dying on daily basis are any less worthy that those of the Rohingya Muslims being slaughtered on a daily basis in Myanmar. All I intend in highlighting this is to draw attention to another atrocity taking place, as if Rwanda has taught me anything it is what governments can get up to in the shadows when the glare of the media and the world is trained elsewhere.
The other way in which there is a noticeable similarity between the cases of Rwanda in 1994 and Myanmar in 2013 is that as I have already pointed out above is that I believe there is a greater urge on the part of governments and the media to intervene in humanitarian crises when the victims are fortunate enough in this case to have been born with an ideal amount of melanin in their skin, finding them similar in looks to westerners. In the case of Rwanda in sub-Saharan Africa the lack of ethnic similarity between audiences for the potential messages of intervention and the the black African victims was striking and I believe that this same dynamic is part of the reason why, some might say morally compromised, audiences are more receptive now to images of suffering Syrian children than they are to identical images of Rohingya children whose facial features are decidedly more Asiatic than they are Caucasoid. While this bias may prove to be a deeply held unconscious view it is still worth highlighting as it does clearly affect the way in which we view the world.
Also problematic is that anyone of the excuses that were offered for the lack of intervention in Rwanda 19 years ago could quite conceivably be used again in the case of Myanmar to cover the backs of those who have a responsibility as our elected leaders to deal with issues we as constituents feel matter and yet are declining to discuss said issues. If the world continues to ignore the slowly unfolding crisis in Myanmar, which as things stand it is perfectly equipped to do, it would cause no surprise for me to find out that events similar to Rwanda are taking place in the current day and age.
In highlighting the striking similarities between the cases of Rwandan Tutsis and Myanmar’s Rohingya I hope if nothing else that I along with Anonymous have helped to illuminate that the situation is critical right now and that every effort to raise awareness and provoke action is important as otherwise there is a serious risk of this crisis escalating while the media and governments fiddle and say that they didn’t know what was going on in the country or that intervening in pointless as the conflict is the result of ancient hatreds and means that the conflict is inevitable. I hope that we will not see such a day ever happen but it is our responsibility to do all in power to prevent it if we are able, as Desmond Tutu once said when discussing such matters “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor”. It is the awareness and actions of concerned citizens that will help us to fulfil the promise of never again that is often uttered when discussing genocide.
Disclaimer – Throughout this article I have chosen to use the name Myanmar (pronounced ‘mee-an-ma’) for the country that many others have chosen to call Burma in their respective discussions of this topic. My reason for choosing to continue using the name Myanmar instead is firstly that the name Burma itself is a troubling relic of the colonial history of the country. Secondly the reason many have chosen to continue using the name Burma is that Aung San Suu Kyi, a famous Burmese politician who has long opposed the military dictatorship that rules the country does not recognise the legitimacy of those who changed the countries name to Myanmar, however I am unwilling to hold Suu Kyi’s opinions as the legitimate source on the issue when she has consistently weaselled around the issue of the continuing slaughter of Muslim minority groups in the country now that she has been removed from house arrest. Hardly the doyenne of South-East Asian political reform that see is often portrayed as in the same media that sees no moral issues in promoting for military intervention in Syria or Libya to save lives but is unwilling when it comes to somewhere where the people look more Asiatic or African.