James M. Lindsay

The Water's Edge

Lindsay analyzes the politics shaping U.S. foreign policy and the sustainability of American power.

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TWE Remembers: Juvenal Habyarimana’s Plane Crashes and the Rwandan Genocide Begins

by James M. Lindsay
April 6, 2012

President Clinton speaks to survivors of the 1994 Rwandan genocide at the Kigali airport on March 25, 1998. (Win McNamee/courtesy Reuters) President Clinton speaks to survivors of the 1994 Rwandan genocide at the Kigali airport on March 25, 1998. (Win McNamee/courtesy Reuters)

Planes crashes have killed a regrettable number of world leaders. Legendary UN Secretary General Dag Hammarskjöld died in 1960 in Zambia (then Northern Rhodesia) in mysterious circumstances while on his way to negotiate a ceasefire in neighboring Congo. Pakistani president Muhammed Zia-ul-Haq died in 1988 in similarly disputed circumstances. Just two years ago, Polish President Lech Kaczynski  died when his plane crashed attempting to land at a Russian airport in bad weather. But no plane crash involving a world leader has led to the kind of consequences that followed the death of Rwandan president Juvenal Habyarimana on April 6, 1994. His death did more than disrupt Rwanda’s day-to-day routine; it ushered in one of the worst genocides of the twentieth century.

Habyarimana was returning to Kigali, the capital of Rwanda, from Tanzania on the evening of April 6, 1994 with Cyprien Ntaryamira, the president of Burundi. The two had just wrapped up discussions about implementing the Arusha Accords, a deal to end Rwanda’s three-year civil war. The war had fallen largely, but not entirely, along ethnic lines, pitting Hutu, Rwanda’s largest ethnic group, against Tutsi. The two groups shared many similarities, including a common language and many common traditions, and they lived in the same towns and villages. Belgium, the colonial power in Rwanda, had given Tutsis an upper hand in both politics and business, which bred resentment with Hutus. After Rwanda gained independence in 1962, Hutus dominated the government. As part of the Arusha Accords, Habyarimana, who was a Hutu, was set to end his two-decade rule by swearing in a transitional government upon his return. But as his plane neared Kigali’s airport it crashed, landing (oddly enough) on the grounds of the presidential residence.

What caused Habyarimana’s plane to crash remains a matter of dispute. The Mutsinzi Report, the product of an investigative commission initiated by the Rwandan government in 2007 and published in 2010, contends that the plane was shot down by surface-to-air missiles launched on the order of members of Habyarimana’s own inner circle. Some initial reports and at least one French judge blamed Paul Kagame, the leader of the opposition Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) forces in 1994 and Rwanda’s current president, for the crash. But a French inquiry recently cleared the Kagame and RPF of responsibility.

Regardless of who shot down Habyarimana’s plane, within hours Habyarimana’s presidential guard began to kill leaders of the political opposition and then Tutsis and moderate Hutus. Radio stations broadcast vile propaganda urging on the killings. An unofficial militia called the Interahamwe (“those who attack together”) formed. It had as many as 30,000 at the peak of the genocide. The killings were brutal and personal; many of the victims were killed face-to-face with machetes.

The world noticed the genocide from the start. The day after Habyarimana’s plane crashed, President Bill Clinton issued a statement saying that he was “horrified that elements of the Rwandan security forces have sought out and murdered Rwandan officials.” If Habyarimana’s death and the killings of Rwandans weren’t attention-grabbing enough, the world soon learned that Hutu militias had tortured and then murdered ten Belgian soldiers serving on a UN peacekeeping mission in Rwanda.

The international community did not, however, choose to stand and fight. Belgium quickly withdrew its remaining troops. The UN Security Council soon followed suit, voting unanimously on April 21  to withdraw all but 270 troops. General Roméo Dallaire of Canada, the commander of UN peacekeeping forces in Rwanda, was blunt about what he witnessed and failed to stop:

Rwanda will never leave me: it’s in the pores of my body. We saw lots of them dying, and lots of those eyes still haunt me—angry eyes, innocent eyes. They’re looking at me with my blue beret, and they’re saying, ‘What in the hell happened?’ … And they’re absolutely right: How come I failed? How come my mission failed?”

By this time, just two weeks after Habyarimana’s plane crashed, tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of Rwandans had already died.

If the international community would not save Rwanda, the Tutsi-dominated RPF would. It broke the ceasefire within twenty-four hours of Habyarimana’s death. RPF troops slowly rolled back Hutu forces, finally capturing Kigali on July 4. In the course of three months, as many as 800,000 Rwandans had been killed.

The United States consciously declined to intervene in Rwanda. A month after the genocide began, President Clinton signed a directive aimed at limiting U.S. military involvement in peacekeeping operations. Anthony Lake, the national security adviser at the time, explained the policy as recognizing the impossibility of solving every conflict around the world:

When I wake up every morning and look at the headlines and the stories and the images on television of these conflicts, I want to work to end every conflict. I want to work to save every child out there. And I know the president does, and I know the American people do. But neither we nor the international community have the resources nor the mandate to do so. So we have to make distinctions. We have to ask the hard questions about where and when we can intervene. And the reality is that we cannot often solve other people’s problems; we can never build their nations for them.

Four years after the genocide, President Clinton flew to Kigali to apologize to the survivors, telling them that “we in the United States and the world community did not do as much as we could have and should have done to try to limit what occurred in Rwanda in 1994.” Some experts, like my former colleague Alan Kuperman, argue that even if the United States had intervened in Rwanda that the death toll still would have been enormous. No one will ever know how many lives might have been saved if the international community had acted rather than watched.

The horror of the Rwandan genocide helped spur interest in the notion of the Responsibility to Protect (R2P), the idea that countries have an obligation to intervene to protect people against genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity. The UN endorsed the R2P concept at the 2005 World Summit, and the UN Security Council reaffirmed the obligation in 2006. As recent events in Darfur, Sudan, and Syria all show, however, the UN and its member states continue to have trouble translating R2P from ideal into reality.

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