Holly Burkhalter has more than twenty years’ experience in the human rights field. She is currently advocacy director of Physicians for Human Rights and previously worked for Human Rights Watch.
The date was April 16, 1994, and the place was the Rwandan town of Cyahinda. Thirty-five hundred unarmed Tutsi men, women and children had packed into a small Catholic church, and 4,000 more crowded into surrounding church buildings to escape from the Rwandan army and its death squads. But the men came with their guns and machetes and clubs, surrounded the parish buildings and attacked the helpless families within. In a methodical and almost leisurely manner, they murdered their day’s quota–thousands–then came back the next day, and the next.
At the end of four days, some 5,500 unarmed men and women, old people, toddlers and infants lay beneath the pews and aisles and heaped on the altar, their blood and brains splashed on the walls. The last to die at the church was a schoolgirl who had been thrown alive into a deep hole. Other children came to give her water to drink. When the local mayor learned of this, he ordered the hole covered.
There may be those who firmly believe that there should have been no military intervention to save the people in the church and stop the genocide, but I doubt that many of us would like to be counted among them. Whatever differences may roil us over questions of when, where and who on earth should intervene with military force to stop crimes against humanity and genocide, there are times when it simply must be done, and we know it.
Some people of conscience believe that because of the violence the United States has sponsored, our government has no business intervening to suppress vast crimes by others. I disagree. The Genocide Convention does not oblige only those treaty signatories with immaculate hands to prevent and punish the crime of genocide. Our solemn treaty commitment requires the United States to suppress genocide, even if shaming memories of the Holocaust, the Rwanda genocide and the disemboweling of Bosnia do not.
Yet when the case for military intervention to suppress genocide becomes as clear as that of Rwanda, it very late to be finding one’s conviction. The Rwanda genocide could have been stopped, but it would have been far easier to prevent. The international community possessed the will to do neither. And so the situation remains to this day, notwithstanding UN Secretary General Kofi Annan’s magnificent articulation of a new doctrine, wherein he placed suppression of crimes against humanity above a country’s claims of sovereignty.
That doctrine, welcome as it is, will not save a single life if the great nations of the world do not empower the UN to prevent and punish genocide and crimes against humanity, or, if the international institution is incapable, do it themselves. We as citizens should demand that our President declare the principle that prevention and suppression of genocide and crimes against humanity, and punishment of those responsible, are of vital interest to the United States, and announce a program to make this pledge meaningful. First, the United States should contribute significant resources to help expand the UN’s own capacity to prevent or suppress genocide and crimes against humanity. The creation of a standing UN rapid-response force is what is most needed to respond quickly to incipient genocide. Since that is not likely to happen with the current US Congress, however, we should demand, at a minimum, that Congress support standby arrangements where troop-contributing nations can designate, train and equip ready units for emergency intervention. Moreover, funds should be provided to double or triple the Secretary General’s $50 million reserve fund for preventive action.