As genocide erupted in Rwanda in 1994, killing 800,000 people in only about 100 days, U.S. President Bill Clinton verbally danced around the topic.
Despite intelligence reports clearly documenting the genocide, Clinton and his administration avoided using the word “genocide.”
The massacres wiped out 20 percent of the African nation’s population – and 70 percent of the targeted Tutsi people.
An examination of presidential papers by EthicsDaily.com reveals Clinton mentioned Rwanda in 23 speeches or documents issued during the 100 days of genocide.
Only two near the end of the period even used the word “genocide.” Even after the genocide subsided, Clinton avoided the term.
Clinton issued his first statement on Rwanda on the date now recognized as the start of the genocide – April 7.
It marked the first presidential reference to Rwanda since Ronald Reagan included the nation in a list of nations for an executive order nearly nine years earlier.
In his April 7 statement, Clinton noted “the tragic deaths” of the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi in a plane crash.
“I am equally horrified that elements of the Rwandan security forces have sought out and murdered Rwandan officials,” Clinton added, making reference to the ominous signs of something larger emerging. “I strongly condemn these actions and I call on all parties to cease any such actions immediately. These tragedies must not derail Rwanda and Burundi from pursuing national reconciliation and democracy.”
In remarks to the press the next day, Clinton referred to “the situation in Rwanda.”
In his weekly radio address on April 9, Clinton mentioned the “very tragic situation” in Rwanda and his concern about “the continuing violence.”
These generic references, which paled in comparison to the genocide occurring on the ground, would pepper Clinton’s references throughout the year.
During the early days of the genocide, Clinton also focused his comments on the efforts to get U.S. citizens safely out of the country.
Three weeks after the genocide started, Clinton elevated his wording in a radio address to condemn the “horrors of civil war and mass killings of civilians.”
He also referred to the killings as “senseless and criminal violence” as he urged “an immediate ceasefire.”
Some hints of the severity of the genocide in Rwanda started to seep out in Clinton’s remarks, even as he avoided using the word “genocide.”
However, at other times he resorted to talking about the “situation” or “tragedy,” and he lumped Rwanda into a list of worrisome violence that even included violence in the U.S.
Clinton made a passing reference on May 1 to “bodies being thrown into the river in Rwanda.”
The next day, Clinton briefly mentioned Rwanda, noting “[w]e see brutal human rights abuses from Haiti to Rwanda.”
In late May, Clinton issued an executive order prohibiting U.S. companies and individuals from doing business in Rwanda.
On June 27 – more than two-and-a-half months after the start of the Rwandan genocide – Clinton first used the word “genocide” in a public statement. He included the reference in remarks to the White House Conference on Africa.
“We’ve insisted that those who are committing genocide be brought to justice,” Clinton said with past tense even though he had not previously referenced genocide.
One month before Clinton’s use of the word “genocide,” the administration had started using the word, albeit with qualifiers.
The State Department and National Security Council authorized its spokespersons to start saying in late May that “acts of genocide may have occurred.”
Fears reportedly existed that the word “genocide” could inflame Americans, who would then demand military action that the administration sought to avoid.
Clinton did not mention “genocide” again until July 15 – about the time the genocide ended. On that date, Clinton closed the Rwandan embassy in the U.S.
“The United States cannot allow representatives of a regime that supports genocidal massacre to remain on our soil,” his one-sentence statement declared.
The only other reference Clinton made to “genocide” in 1994 came on Aug. 1. Although he mentioned Rwanda in 43 speeches and statements in 1994 (20 after the end of the genocide), he only mentioned “genocide” or “genocidal” on three occasions.
Later in his presidency, Clinton claimed he did not truly understand the depth of what was happening in Rwanda while the genocide occurred.
However, documents released earlier this month show the Clinton administration did know and had even been informed of the plans for genocide more than a year before it started.
Other documents released over the past two decades have also confirmed the administration’s knowledge.
Timothy Longman, professor of political science and international relations at Boston University and author of “Christianity and Genocide in Rwanda,” said recently that both George H.W. Bush and Bill Clinton knew about the potential for genocide before it even started.
“We now know that Rwanda should have already been on the Clinton administration’s agenda when it took office in January 1993,” Longman argued. “It is not that the U.S. government didn’t know what was happening in Rwanda. The truth is that we didn’t care.”
The question of why the Clinton administration did so little in the face of the Rwandan genocide continues to spark debate. Perhaps Clinton gave an answer amid the genocide.
During an interview with CNN on May 2, 1994 – the same time he mentioned “brutal human rights abuses” but not genocide – Clinton contrasted Rwanda with Bosnia.
“Security, prosperity, democracy: These are the pillars of our strategy in the new world,” Clinton said as he explained his foreign policy. “These building blocks do not answer every question we confront. In particular, this era has seen an epidemic of humanitarian catastrophes, many caused by ethnic conflicts or the collapse of governments.
“Some, such as Bosnia, clearly affect our interests,” Clinton said. “Others, such as Rwanda, less directly affect our own security interests but still warrant our concern and our assistance.”
Concern and assistance, which he announced in the same interview meant sending aid to help refugees, perhaps means little when the “security interests” of the U.S. are not considered in play.
Editor’s note: This is the eighth article in a series focused on genocide. Previous articles in the series are: