Twenty-five years ago, in a small central African country that most Americans would have trouble finding on a map, one of history’s most efficient and rapid genocides took place. Over the course of 100 days in Rwanda in 1994, nearly 1 million people, mostly Tutsis, were murdered by their fellow countrymen and women while the world watched and did nothing.
As the genocide unfolded, US officials discussed what to call it and what action to take. They settled on taking no lifesaving action beyond the rescue of American citizens. The cost of the ensuing humanitarian crisis was high, both in human casualties and monetary costs. The aftermath of the genocide saw a refugee crisis and new conflict in the neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo, where mass atrocities were committed. A 2010 UN report stated that it was possible that genocide also occurred in the DRC.
Violence in the DRC continued for decades, with millions of people displaced; now the DRC is home to the largest UN peacekeeping mission in the world. The annual cost for the mission is more than $1 billion, and billions have been spent on humanitarian relief efforts. If preventive steps had been taken before the mass killing in Rwanda, we might have avoided not only the genocide there but the continuing tragedy in the DRC.
This month, commemoration events are taking place around the world to mark the 25th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide. While it is extremely important to remember the lives lost and the lives forever changed, we must also remember the inaction of the international community and the complete failure of the United Nations—save for a few committed peacekeepers who did all in their power to save lives.
It is also important to reflect on what has been done over the past 25 years to make the prevention of genocide and mass atrocities a priority and think critically about why the world continues to ignore the vow of “Never Again.”
The international community has taken several steps to improve its ability to prevent and respond to genocide and mass atrocities. One came during the 2005 World Summit, when heads of state from 191 countries endorsed the Responsibility to Protect doctrine and agreed “to take collective action, in a timely and decisive manner…should peaceful means be inadequate and national authorities are manifestly failing to protect their populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing and crimes against humanity.” In other words, states agreed that if a government was unable or unwilling to protect its population from mass atrocities, the world would band together and do something about it. Unfortunately, that hasn’t been the case. From Syria to South Sudan, from the Central African Republic to Myanmar and Yemen to the DRC, genocide and mass atrocities continue to happen while the world watches.
Why has the world become numb to mass atrocities? Is it because of apathy and indifference, or a lack of political will? Partially, but it is also because the international system is structured to protect the perpetrators of genocide and not protect the people. This must change.
In an ideal world, we would have functioning and stable states that participated in and supported intergovernmental institutions. The world would be wholly intolerant to mass atrocities and human-rights violations, and if mass atrocities broke out in one state, neighboring countries would quickly and effectively respond. Perpetrators of mass atrocities would be held accountable for their actions. Bad actors would be isolated from the international community, and no government would dare to ally itself with habitual human-rights abusers. But that doesn’t happen.
Instead, foreign-policy decisions tend to be based on perceived short-term interests and not on values or long-term interests. So we befriend violent dictators whose actions we cannot possibly justify, except on the specious grounds of “national security.” We should have learned from the past support for brutal individuals and dictators such as Osama bin Laden, Saddam Hussein, Augusto Pinochet, and Mobutu Sese Seko that such support is counter to long-term interests. We can change this practice, but it will take a fundamental reimagining of our foreign policy.
We need to convince policymakers to invest in conflict prevention and efforts that target the root causes and drivers of violence. We need to focus on programs that address deep-seated issues, builds stable institutions, and supports vibrant civil societies that can act as a bulwark against identity-based violence. Our foreign policy must be driven by our values and not short-term interests. And we must recognize that propping up human-rights abusers and perpetrators of mass atrocities is a threat to our security.
Recently, we have had some important wins in this fight. Congress just passed a resolution to end US support for Saudi Arabia’s war in Yemen, a conflict that has been replete with mass atrocities. And, earlier this year, the Elie Wiesel Genocide and Atrocities Prevention Act was passed into law, defining prevention of genocide and other atrocity crimes as a core national security interest and moral responsibility.
New legislation with strong bipartisan support in both the Senate and House has the potential to make the most significant impact on our foreign policy. If passed into law, the Global Fragility Act would create a whole-of-government strategy and policy to prevent and reduce violent conflict and fragility around the world. The Global Fragility Act makes some funding available for this initiative, but if we truly want to see change, we need to invest more money in upstream prevention efforts.
We must put our money where our mouth is. The State Department and the US Agency for International Development (USAID) are woefully underfunded at less than $50 billion when compared to the Defense Department’s $700 billion. That $50 billion covers all of our diplomatic, development, and humanitarian-aid expenditures, of which only a tiny portion is focused on preventing violence. Yet we are surprised when we aren’t successful at preventing atrocities. Budgets reflect our values, and for a long time now our priorities have been misguided.
There has been a lot of reporting on the global displacement crisis, with 68.5 million people forced to flee their homes. The majority of those displaced are fleeing mass atrocities and violent conflict. Research has shown that reactive aid efforts cost far more than preventive measures, yet we keep responding in an ineffective, ad hoc manner instead of investing in prevention. A prevention-focused foreign policy would save lives as well as money and resources.
Let us use the commemoration of the 25th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide to go beyond memory, beyond the tired platitudes of “Never Again,” and support policies and actions that will actually prevent genocide and mass atrocities. And with the 2020 elections around the corner, we should insist that presidential and congressional candidates incorporate a prevention-focused and values-based foreign policy in their platforms.
Looking ahead to the 30th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide in 2024, will we be celebrating the fundamental changes that were made to US foreign policy, or will we still be advocating for those changes? We hope to be celebrating.