Remembering Rwanda and Thinking of Syria

rwandan-genocideIn 1994, over the course of 100 days, members of the Hutu tribe waged a coordinated campaign to slaughter all of the Tutsi tribe within the borders of Rwanda. Nobody really knows how many people actually died, but it is thought that between 500,000 and 1,000,000 people were killed or approximately 20% of the Rwandan population.

America, weary from rocky military interventions in Haiti and Somalia stood by and did absolutely nothing material to stop it. The US military’s only role in the conflict was to evacuate its citizens.

The Clinton Administration issued a plea to the Rwandan Army and the Rwandan Patriotic Front (two warring factions) to “agree to a ceasefire and return to negotiations called for by Tanzania” and then suggested the the Rwandan military work to quell the violence.

Worse yet, to my memory, the American public failed to comprehend the serious nature of the conflict, viewing it as a foreign problem, a problem of Africa, and a problem of Africans. The internet existed then, but unfortunately, we can’t go back to read the comments on popular new sites. I am positive they would be incredibly revealing.

While Syria is not Rwanda, there are obvious parallels. Though Assad has willingly used chemical weapons on his own people multiple times, Americans, weary from Iraq and Afghanistan, have willingly turned a blind eye.

Americans, in the name of either peace or indifference, have essentially normalized the use of chemical weapons to retain political power for the worst governments on the planet. This is the scariest implication of the whole affair.

Figures like Assad do not respond to dialogue. Syria has been under sanctions for years to no effect. In fact, his rule has become vastly more violent under sanctions, rendering them useless.

People often fail to understand that dictators protect themselves and the people around them at the expense of their citizenry. Sanctions, which target the economy, only serve to punish the weak. Dictators, dealers in violence, will only respond to credible threats to their hold on power. For better or for worse, in the past decade, America has proven itself rather adept at removing governments it doesn’t like. Assad should take us seriously, but of course, our weak kneed electorate has turned us into an elaborate joke.

In principle, I am vehemently anti-war. However, sometimes a commitment to inaction is more unjust than a credible commitment to action. In this particular case, American indifference to the use of violence and weapons of mass destruction to keep a toxic seat of power will have deep long term implications for generations to come.

I was incredibly encouraged to see Nick Kristoff’s brave series of posts on Syria, despite the vitriol that came from his readership.

I was also happy to see that both Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International have unapologetically kept up reports on the severity of the situation. Amnesty “neither condemned nor condoned military action” which, considering the source, sounded like an endorsement to keep it on the table.

While some are relieved to see that Russia and Syria have brought the issue to the negotiating table (presumably absolving the US of any responsibility), I am not.

Assad, with Russia’s support, has successfully turned the conversation his way, and has only entrenched himself further. He can happily continue the killing (now at a rate of 5,000 people per month) as he likes now that he’s successfully defused the American threat. It will set an excellent example for others like him though I think he learned the tactic from North Korea.

Kristoff referred to a great piece from the Syrian Observatory for Human Rights which pretty much sums up my views on the new “peace movement.”:

What is emerging now in the United States and the United Kingdom is a movement that is anti-war in form but pro-war in essence. It is opposed to U.S. military involvement in Syria, but says and does nothing about Russia sending millions of dollars in arms to the regime or about Iranian and Lebanese boots on the ground. It complains rightly and justly about America’s past and present crimes in places like Iraq, Afghanistan, and Vietnam, but falls into Holocaust-denialism by claiming that Assad’s well-documented massive, murderous chemical weapons attack that killed 1,400 of his own people is a lie. This nascent movement is taking a side in Syria’s civil war by openly and unapologetically aligning with stateside supporters of the Assad regime while outwardly masquerading as neutral in a foreign conflict. It is a movement based on the same brand of hypocritical and highly selective, partisan outrage that powers the modern Tea Party.

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About Pete Larson

Assistant Professor of Epidemiology at the Nagasaki University Institute for Tropical Medicine

4 responses to “Remembering Rwanda and Thinking of Syria”

  1. stumpwater says :

    The problem is that regime change was never on the table. Obama made that clear — and what else was he to do, with all sorts of uglies waiting to rush into the vacuum a regime change would create? Also, of course, Russia’s interests ensure that regime change is a no-go. Rwanda was different not only in the level of violence, but in the fact that it was primarily a localized conflict. Syria is a far, far trickier situation. So, given the fact that we can’t just take Assad out, the question then becomes, who gets to die for Assad’s sins, if not Assad? If you have the answer to that question, I would love to hear it. I am torn on this issue — I agree with much of what you say, and I know that something must be done, but violence is not going to change the dynamic for the better.

  2. Pete Larson says :

    I’m not torn at all.

    Without the credible threat of violence, the conversation goes nowhere. I fully condone the use of military assets to dissuade the use of chemical, biological, nuclear, etc. weapons as a means of maintaining political power. It is also the case that the parties which would use such weapons are also the least likely to respond to empty calls for peace.

    I was encouraged this morning by the news that Russia and the US had reached an agreement on Syria, but it’s worth noting that the agreement didn’t come without a threat of violence. If that threat isn’t credible, the agreement is worthless.

    I never claimed that Rwanda and Syria were the same (I said as much). I am merely stating that inaction in potentially more dangerous than action. In Rwanda, that was proven.

  3. Pete Larson says :

    An interesting article (thankfully written be an adult) from this morning that validates some of my thoughts:

    http://www.nytimes.com/2013/09/14/opinion/the-duty-to-protect-still-urgent.html?ref=opinion

    “The reality, however, is that if the United States wants to stop atrocity crimes, it may have to go it alone. With Syria, the United States’ threat of force has played a role in the diplomatic breakthrough involving Russia that just might protect civilians against further use of chemical weapons. ”

    I would argue that the threat of force was essential to any “breakthroughs” that may have occurred.

  4. stumpwater says :

    Pete, I agree with you that the threat of force may have been necessary, and that it had to be credible in order to be effective. But I also believe that if we were to follow through with the threat, it would cause more harm than good. That is why I am torn. A million Rwandans died because of our inaction. Far more have died as a result of our “police” actions. Again, if we were serious about policing the world, we would shut down the perpetrators (we are militarily capable of that), but we are apparently only interested in half-measures that serve to maintain the status quo, or otherwise serve our own interests.

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