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On December 11, 1946, the General Assembly of the United Nations declared genocide a crime under international law. On December 9, 1948, the General Assembly went further, adopting Resolution 260A(III), the Convention on the Preservation and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, which obliged “Contracting Parties” to “undertake to prevent and to punish … acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethical, racial, or religious group.”

Just as a state’s police swear to prevent and punish murder, so the signers of the Genocide Convention swore to police a brave new world order.


Decimation means the killing of every tenth person in a population, and in the spring and early summer of 1994 a program of massacres decimated the Republic of Rwanda. Although the killing was low-tech—performed largely by machete—it was carried out at a dazzling speed: of an original population of about seven and a half million, at least eight hundred thousand people were killed in just a hundred days. Rwandans often speak of a million deaths, and they may be right. The dead of Rwanda accumulated at nearly three times the rate of Jewish dead during the Holocaust. It was the most efficient mass killing since the atomic bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

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In mid-December of 1997, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright delivered a speech to the Organization of African Unity in Addis Ababa in which she said, “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.” Albright, who would be making a brief visit to Rwanda during her tour of Africa, also condemned the use of humanitarian aid “to sustain armed camps or to support genocidal killers.” Simple words—but politicians dislike having to say such things; that same month, in New York, I heard a senior emissary of the UNHCR sum up the experience of the Hutu Power controlled camps in Zaire with the formulation, “Yes, mistakes were made, but we are not responsible.”

His stop there was brief—he never left the airport—but it was highly charged. After listening for several hours to the stories of genocide survivors, Clinton forcefully reiterated Albright’s apologies for refusing to intervene during the slaughter, and for supporting the killers in the camps. “During the ninety days that began on April 6, 1994, Rwanda experienced the most intensive slaughter in this blood-filled century,” Clinton said, adding, “It is important that the world know that these killings were not spontaneous or accidental…they were most certainly not the result of ancient tribal struggles…These events grew from a policy aimed at the systematic destruction of a people.” And this mattered not only to Rwanda but also to the world, he explained, because “each bloodletting hastens the next, and as the value of human life is degraded and violence becomes tolerated, the unimaginable becomes more conceivable.”

Clinton’s regrets about the past were more convincing than his assurances for the future. When he said, “Never again must we be shy in the face of the evidence” of genocide, there was no reason to believe that the world was a safer place than it had been in April of 1994. If Rwanda’s experience could be said to carry any lessons for the world, it was that endangered peoples who depend on the international community for physical protection stand defenseless. On the morning of Albright’s visit to Rwanda in December, Hutu Power terrorists, shouting “Kill the cockroaches,” had hacked, bludgeoned, and shot to death more than three hundred Tutsis at an encampment in the northwest, and in the days before Clinton’s arrival in Kigali, as many as fifty Tutsis were killed in similar massacres. Against such a backdrop, Clinton’s pledge to “work as partners with Rwanda to end this violence” sounded deliberately vague.