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Assessment of U.S. Involvement to Counter Hutu Extremists’ Plans for Tutsi Genocide in Early 1994

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Assessment of U.S. Involvement to Counter Hutu Extremists’ Plans for Tutsi Genocide in Early 1994

Scott Martin

This article is published as part of the Small Wars Journal and Divergent Options Writing Contest which runs from March 1, 2019 to May 31, 2019.  More information about the writing contest can be found here.

The U.S. could have countered the genocide the April 1994 genocide in Rwanda. While it is very difficult to envision a scenario whereby the U.S. conducted unilateral military actions once the genocide started, the various indicators prior to that date offered the U.S. the opportunity, working through the United Nations (UN), to act to prevent the genocide before it started. 

Text:  On April 6, 2019, the world reflected on the 25th anniversary of the genocide of 800,000 Tutsi and sympathetic Hutus by Hutu extremists in Rwanda. Since then, many asked the question “Why didn’t someone stop this?” Since 1994, the U.S. expressed remorse at the genocide in Rwanda. Yet in 1994, the U.S. took pains to avoid direct involvement/action in Rwanda. Given a lack of significant geo-political or economic equities and disgusted by the failures of their humanitarian action in Somalia, the U.S. argued they had no role in Rwanda. Yet, with the U.S. taking a remorseful tone with the Rwandan Genocide, it begs the question: What if the U.S. did take action?

There is no shortage of debate on this issue. Some, such as former United Nations (UN) Ambassador Samantha Power, felt that U.S. military involvement, even on a small scale could have reduced if not halted the genocide[1]. Such actions ranged from the deployment of an Army Brigade (overseas or stateside based) to the use of the Air Force’s Commando Solo Electronic Warfare / Information Operations platform. Others, such as scholar Alan Kuperman, note that the U.S. did not have enough confirmation of genocide until April 20, by which time, most of the killing was completed[2]. Thus, the deployment of U.S. forces, in addition to not being in position to significantly impact the genocide, would place undue burdens on the U.S. military, and present America with another unnecessary U.S. humanitarian quagmire.  Subsequent analyses looked at options from the deployment of 5,000-150,000 troops, but a unilateral U.S.-led deployment, no matter the options, is always seen as unlikely, given the lack of bi-partisan political support in Washington D.C.  

Yet, the genocide did not spontaneously start in April 1994. After Rwandan independence in 1961, the long-standing differences between Hutu and Tutsi populations manifested themselves into multiple conflicts. Since 1990, conflict between displaced Tutsi (Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF)) and the Hutu led-military/militia forces plagued the country. Despite international-led efforts to end the warfare, many within the Hutu-dominated government planned for actions to eliminate the Tutsi from Rwanda. The international community had indications of such plans as far back as 1992[3]. From 1990-1993, Hutu militias executed nearly 2000 Tutsi, a preview of Hutu plans[4]. By January 1994, the United Nations Assistance Mission in Rwanda (UNAMIR) received intelligence that the Hutu-led government was actively planning for a mass extermination of all known Tutsi and sympathetic elements within the country. The UNAMIR commander, Canadian General Romeo Dallaire, notified the UN Security Council on 11 January of this development and asked for authorization to deal with this emerging threat[5]. 

It is in this January 1994 scenario that the U.S. could have plausibly acted to counter the genocide, leveraging the UN Security Council to modify and increase the authority and resources of UNAMIR. Instead of working to withdraw forces from Rwanda, the U.S. and the UN Security Council could have reauthorized and increased troop deployments from the 2,500 in country in early 1994[6]. While 5,000 troops (the number requested by Dallaire to aid UNAMIR in 1994) would not be enough to halt a nation-wide genocide if it kicked off, a strong international presence, combined with a public proclamation and demonstration of increasing troop deployments to maintain peace and thwart extremist actions, might have curtailed Hutu ambitions[7]. While a major strategy of the Hutu extremists was to kill several of the international peacekeepers, taking active measures to protect those forces while not redeploying them would also thwart Hutu strategy. 

In this scenario, the U.S. would have provided political and logistical support. The U.S. faced logistical challenges dealing with a land-locked country, but its airpower had the capability to use existing airfields in Rwanda and neighboring countries[8]. While Hutu extremists could target U.S. assets and personnel, they were more likely not to directly interfere with international forces. During the actual genocide, while Hutu extremists killed 10 Belgian peacekeepers, Tutsis protected by the limited number of international forces usually found themselves safe from attack[9]. Even in situations where Hutu killers greatly outnumbered international forces, the Hutu did not attack the international peacekeepers[10]. 

This is not to say that increased authorities and manpower for the UN Peacekeepers would have solved all the problems. How the UN could have dealt with the Tutsi forces looking to reenter Rwanda and defeat the Hutu forces presented a difficult long-term problem. The Hutu extremists would not have simply stopped their efforts to drum up support for Tutsi elimination. It is possible the Hutu extremists would look to target UN forces and logistics, especially if it was an American asset, in a repeat of Somalia. Even by offering American equipment and indirect support, domestic political support would be tenuous at best and U.S. President William Clinton’s opponents would use those actions against him, with Clinton’s party still suffering historic losses in the 1994 midterm elections. It is possible that the Hutu and Tutsi would try to wait out the UN forces, coming to a “peaceful” government, only to hold their fire until after the peacekeepers are sent home. 

Yet, acting through the UN Peacekeepers before April might have stopped the genocide and all the ills that followed. While Paul Kagame may never come to power and Rwanda’s economic and social resurgence would have taken a different path, there may have been hundreds of thousands of Rwandans still alive to make their mark in improving the life of the nation. Additionally, the Hutu extremists may not have been so active in spreading their ethnic hatreds beyond their borders. The Congo Wars of the late 1990s/early 2000s have their genesis in the Hutu extremists who fled into the refugee camps[11]. If there is no mass displacement of those extremists into Democratic Republic of Congo, perhaps Africa avoids a brutal conflict and over 5 million lives are saved[12]. Perhaps assisting the UNAMIR with U.S. support/logistics might not have been a popular move in 1994, but if executed, the U.S. may not have to look back in 2019 to say “We should have done something.”

End Notes

[1] Power, Samantha (2001, September). Bystanders to Genocide. The Atlantic. retrieved 15 Mar 2019 from (https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2001/09/bystanders-to-genocide/304571/

[2] Kuperman, Alan J (2000, January/February). Rwanda in Retrospective. Foreign Affairs (Vol 79, no.1) 101. 

[3] Stanton, Gregory H. (2004, June). Could the Rwandan Genocide have been Prevented? Journal of Genocide Research. 6(2). 212

[4] Ibid 

[5] Ibid

[6] Rauch, J. (2001) Now is the Time to Tell the Truth about Rwanda, National Journal, 33(16) retrieved 14 Mar 2019 from http://search.ebscohost.com/login.aspx?direct=true&db=asn&AN=4417527&site=ehost-live

[7] Wertheim, Stephen. (2010). A Solution from Hell: The United States and the Rise of Humanitarian Interventionism, 1991-2003. Journal of Genocide Research, 12(3-4), 155. 

[8] Stanley, George (2006) Genocide, Airpower and Intervention, 71. 

[9] Power, Samantha (2001, September). Bystanders to Genocide. The Atlantic. retrieved 15 Mar 2019 from https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2001/09/bystanders-to-genocide/304571/.

[10] Ibid

[11] Beswick, Danielle (2014). The Risks African Military Capacity Building: Lessons from Rwanda. African Affairs, 113/451, 219. 

[12] Reid, Stuart A (Jan/Feb 2018). Congo’s Slide into Chaos. How a State Fails. Foreign Affairs, 97/1. 97.

About the Author(s)

Scott Martin is a career U.S. Air Force officer who has served in a multitude of globally-focused assignments.  He studied Russian and International Affairs at Trinity University and received his Masters of Science in International Relations from Troy University.  He is currently assigned to Ft. Meade, Maryland.  Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.