Commentary Magazine

Can We Prevent Genocide?

When president Reagan signed the Genocide Convention into American law a little more than a decade ago, he did so over the objections of many stalwart conservatives. In their view, the United Nations-sponsored treaty—formally known as the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide—was irredeemably tainted by the murderous deeds of its Communist signatories, from Albania and the People’s Republic of China to Vietnam and the Soviet Union.

Reagan saw things differently. Determined to wage battle against Communism on every front, but perhaps most of all ideologically, his administration argued that America could no longer afford to stand apart from a solemn international pledge to resist the wholesale destruction of peoples. As UN Ambassador Jeane J. Kirkpatrick told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, “The Soviets and others hostile to the United States have long focused on [our] failure to ratify the convention as part of their anti-American propaganda.” By going on record against the most egregious form of human-rights violation, she contended, the U.S. could at once honor its deepest principles and further its obvious strategic interests.

That this reassuring equation might soon dissolve occurred to no one at the time—but dissolve it did. By the early 1990’s, the cold war had receded into history, and the United States and its allies, fresh from a rousing victory in the Gulf war, found themselves having to deal with the unwelcome intrusion onto the world scene—and into their foreign policies—of instances of potential or actual genocide. What Western interests were threatened in the killing fields of Rwanda and Bosnia? And, if interests there were, at what cost could they have been defended?

These are the questions that haunt two important new books—Philip Gourevitch’s We Wish to Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families: Stories from Rwanda1 and Roger Cohen’s Hearts Grown Brutal: Sagas of Sarajevo.2 Indeed, for all the particulars that separate the two cases, Gourevitch (a staff writer for the New Yorker) and Cohen (the former Balkan bureau chief of the New York Times) have composed remarkably kindred accounts of mass ethnic slaughter. Both limn a complex historical and political backdrop while filling the foreground with the stories of ordinary people whose lives disappeared into the mayhem. More tellingly, both write with the indignant fury of journalistic prosecutors. The West, they charge—and the United States most of all—was complicit in the butchery. Repelled by the violence and disorder, the world’s richest and most powerful nations chose to look the other way when the obligation to act was plain.



Though Rwanda has long been divided between Tutsis and Hutus, Philip Gourevitch reports in We Wish to Inform You . . . , the boundary between the two groups is hardly self-evident, and is not even best described as ethnic. Alike in language and religion, and mingled through centuries of intermarriage, they are more akin to castes or classes. By tradition, Tutsis were herdsmen and aristocrats, while the far more numerous Hutus tilled the soil, often as vassals. More fatefully for Rwanda, according to Gourevitch, this political and economic pecking order was reinforced by a popular belief in certain “physical archetypes.” Hutus were generally—if often wrongly—thought of as shorter and darker-skinned than the supposedly fine-featured Tutsis.

On the eve of Rwandan independence from Belgium in 1962, the Hutus finally lashed out against the Tutsi elite, who had extended their privileges under the colonial regime. It was the first wide-scale political violence in Rwanda’s history, and it would be repeated in the years ahead by the dictatorial Hutu regime, with Tutsi deaths at times reaching well into the thousands. Such massacres abated under Juvenal Habyarimana, the Hutu general who took power in 1973 and chose to keep down the Tutsi minority more peaceably through a comprehensive program of state-sponsored discrimination. By 1990, a million Tutsis had fled Rwanda, nearly half of them to neighboring Uganda, the launching pad in that year for an invasion by a Tutsi-dominated guerrilla group calling itself the Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF).

As Gourevitch is at pains to emphasize, the war itself was not the source of the massive bloodletting that would ensue. To the contrary, it was only after President Habyarimana reached a tense accommodation with the RPF in the summer of 1993 that anti-Tutsi hysteria within Rwanda began to mount. Nor was this a spontaneous development. Since the outbreak of hostilities, Habyarimana’s inner circle had worked assiduously to demonize not only the RPF but its “accomplices” within Rwanda, by which it meant all Tutsis. Lists were compiled, Hutu youth militias were organized, and the government-backed newspaper and radio hammered away at a single sanguinary theme, neatly summarized in a “commandment” issued by the effort’s chief propagandist: “Hutus must stop having mercy on the Tutsis.”

It was apparently “Hutu Power,” as this movement fashioned itself, that lay behind the shooting-down of Habyarimana’s jet as he returned to the Rwandan capital on April 6, 1994; he was not anti-Tutsi enough. In a matter of hours, the genocidal machinery that had been so meticulously prepared was set in motion. Machete-wielding Hutus fanned out across the country, instructed to exterminate every last one of the “cockroaches.”

More astonishing perhaps than the sheer human energy required for the slaughter that followed—killing someone with a machete, Gourevitch points out, is slow, arduous work—was the readiness of so many tens of thousands of ordinary people to take part in it, and the close relations they often had with their victims:

Hutus young and old rose to the task. Neighbors hacked neighbors to death in their homes, and colleagues hacked colleagues to death in their workplaces. Doctors killed their patients, and schoolteachers killed their pupils.

Gourevitch does not pretend to be able to explain such intimate and wanton cruelty. Greed, passivity, superstition, drunkenness—these and other ordinary vices played a part, and were happily exploited by the captains of Hutu Power. But in the end, he writes, “the decimation had been utterly gratuitous.”

And it was a decimation. In the course of a mere 100 days, by which time the RPF had swept in and taken power from them, the Hutus of Rwanda murdered at least a tenth of the country’s population—by conservative estimates, some 800,000 Tutsi men, women, and children.



The first entry in the dense chronology that Roger Cohen appends to Hearts Grown Brutal is 395 C.E., the year in which the Roman emperor Theodosius died and his realm was split into East and West at the Drina River in present-day Bosnia. From this musty bit of history, Cohen reminds us in his rich narrative, much else in the Balkans flows: the division of the Southern Slavs into Catholic Croats and Orthodox Serbs, the centuries of straggle in the region between the Hapsburg empire and the expanding Ottoman Turks, the eventual rise of long-suppressed nationalist sentiments, and the various efforts in this century to forge a Yugoslav nation in the face of these “balkanizing” pressures.

Yet, when it comes to identifying the causes of the war that engulfed Bosnia from 1992 to 1995, Cohen is no antiquarian. It is not that he discounts the power of grievances and aspirations rooted in the past. Indeed, Serbia’s aggression would have been unthinkable had Belgrade not been gripped by vivid images of resurgent “Turks” and reborn Croatian fascists, of glorious medieval kingdoms and ignominious medieval defeats. But as Cohen stresses, these were hardly the unprompted expressions of the Serbian mind. They were carefully sown ideas, cynically propagated in the service of political and territorial ambition.

In this, of course, the arch-villain was the Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic. A leading Communist functionary as Tito’s Yugoslavia began to disintegrate in the late 1980’s, Milosevic wasted no time in raising the banner of what Cohen describes as a “paranoid, self-pitying, and aggressive” Serbian nationalism, or in transforming himself into the embodiment of a revived “fatherland.” Serbia, Milosevic declared, had to be made whole, its people brought under direct Serbian rule whether they lived in the Albanian-dominated province of Kosovo, in Croatia, or—most ominously—in Bosnia.

Bosnia, Cohen wistfully observes, was the one place in the former Yugoslavia where Muslims, Serbs, and Croats had managed to build something of a shared existence. A third of all marriages there were mixed, and, in Sarajevo in particular, a proud cosmopolitan ethos prevailed. Nevertheless, in Bosnia as in the Croatia of Franjo Tudjman, a politics based on ethnicity arose, drawing strength from the threat posed by Serbian chauvinism. Bosnia’s largely secular Muslims were soon united behind the more religiously-minded Alija Izetbegovic, a leader whom Cohen portrays as hopelessly unprepared for the Serbian onslaught that his own brand of nationalism would unleash.

No sooner had Bosnia declared independence in the spring of 1992 than the Bosnian Serbs, led by Radovan Karadzic but armed and directed by Belgrade, were on the march against the country’s newfound “mujahedin” and “jihad warriors.” Sarajevo was quickly encircled by heavy artillery. Within three months, 70 percent of Bosnia—an internationally recognized state, it should be noted—was in Serbian hands.

As for the one million Bosnian Muslims whose towns and villages were overtaken by this campaign of “ethnic cleansing,” some were herded toward areas held by their own government, others into enclaves where they remained at the mercy of the Serbs. Muslim women were raped by the thousands as a matter of policy, and the most unfortunate of the men ended up in concentration camps like Susica, Omarska, and Keraterm, where they were kept in unspeakably inhumane conditions, tortured, and often summarily executed. “A ghoulish savagery rather than cold-blooded efficiency drove the boozy killing,” Cohen writes. “Ears and sexual organs were sliced off; some people were beaten to death.”

Still, for all their sadistic sloppiness, the Serbs had gone far in securing “Greater Serbia.” By the time the Dayton peace agreement was signed in 1995, some 200,000 people were dead in Bosnia, the overwhelming majority of them Muslims, including over 18,000 who had simply disappeared in Serbian custody. In the half of the country retained by Serbian separatists as a spoil of war, scarcely a “Turk” remained.



Rwanda and Bosnia are vastly different places, not least in the degree to which they have figured in the affairs of other nations. Rwanda has never been more than an occasionally troublesome third-world outpost, while Bosnia (or Yugoslavia, in any event) has played a part in virtually every confrontation among the major powers in this century. It is thus all the more striking to see how similarly the West responded to the ethnic carnage that unfolded in these disparate corners of the world. As both Gourevitch and Cohen amply document, evasion and cowardice were the order of the day.

In the case of Rwanda, the designs of Hutu Power were known as early as January 1994, when Major General Roméo Dallaire, the Canadian commander of the UN force stationed there to monitor a peace accord between Habyarimana and the RPF, informed New York that he had received disturbing intelligence from a highly placed source in the Hutu military. In a fax to Kofi Annan, then the chief of UN peacekeeping operations, Dallaire gave a detailed description of the advance planning for the extermination and relayed the Hutu informant’s claim that “in twenty minutes his [own] personnel could kill up to a thousand Tutsis.” In keeping with the “mandate” of the UN’s mission, however, Dallaire was instructed to share the information with the (Hutu) Rwandan government.

With the onset of the massacres three months later, bureaucratic obtuseness gave way to diplomatic damage control. Having just reaped the bitter fruit of U.S. intervention in Somalia, the Clinton administration did everything in its power to forestall and limit UN action. State Department spokesmen engaged in shameless hair-splitting about the precise meaning of the term “genocide” and whether it described events in Rwanda. For their part, the French happily parroted the propaganda of their Francophone Hutu clients and, with the reluctant blessing of the UN Security Council, mounted a military expedition to Rwanda, pledging impartiality but in fact briefly extending the life of the murderous regime.

Worse perhaps was the “humanitarian” intervention that followed the victory of the Tutsi-led RPF. Well-provisioned UN refugee camps in Zaire soon became new bases of operation for the Hutu genocidaires, whose displacement from the scene of their crimes—and occasional harsh treatment at the hands of the RPF—transformed them into victims in the eyes of much of the international community. The world had seemingly concluded that the catastrophe in Rwanda was, as Gourevitch writes, “a kind of natural disaster—Hutus and Tutsis simply doing what their natures dictated.”

In the case of Bosnia, Western involvement was a more complex and longstanding affair—and yet the pattern was much the same. The bulk of the Serbs’ crimes occurred between April and October 1992, a period that, to the misfortune of Bosnia’s Muslims, coincided with the reelection effort of President Bush, who no doubt would have been disinclined to intervene even under less delicate circumstances. By the end of the summer of 1992, as the damning intelligence began to mount, administration officials made a conscious choice to avert their eyes. Queried about the possibility of genocide in Bosnia, Deputy Secretary of State Lawrence S. Eagleburger declared, “On the basis of what we have so far, it’s best to say the evidence is unpleasant conditions.”

Though candidate Bill Clinton protested this policy of inaction, speaking of the “high cost of remaining silent and paralyzed in the face of genocide,” his own support for air strikes against the Serbs and for repeal of the UN arms embargo on Yugoslavia evaporated soon after he took office. The new policy imperative was “containing the conflict”—and avoiding American entanglement. A situation that had once seemed black-and-white to the administration grew steadily grayer. The mutual hatreds in Bosnia were “centuries old,” announced the President, while Secretary of State Warren Christopher cited “atrocities on all sides.”

Predictably, it fell to the blue-helmeted peacekeepers of the United Nations to fill this policy vacuum. But as Cohen points out, there was no peace to keep—just an ongoing war in which the UN’s absurd “neutrality” dictated that it treat alike the besieged Bosnians and the occupying Serbs. Time and again, the presence of this “humanitarian” mission failed to deter Serbian aggression, culminating in the tragic fall of the UN’s “safe areas” for Bosnian Muslims, where the threat of NATO airstrikes proved empty in the face of the Serbs’ readiness to take the hapless UN soldiers hostage.



Reading these eloquent jeremiads is, needless to say, a most dispiriting exercise. Though each book has its faults—We Wish to Inform You . . . strives too hard for literary profundity, Hearts Grown Brutal bogs down at times in narrative detail—both Gourevitch and Cohen succeed admirably in fusing together the excruciating plight of individuals and the sorry spectacle of the West’s response. For the United States, they convincingly show, the refusal to acknowledge these human catastrophes from the start, much less to use force to stop them, was a gross dereliction of its unique responsibilities in the post-cold-war world.

What would have justified risking American blood and treasure to rescue Rwanda and Bosnia? Here neither Gourevitch nor Cohen seriously quarrels with a key point of the policy-makers they call on the carpet. For the West, they acknowledge, there was little in the way of interest, at least as it is conventionally understood, at stake in Central Africa or the Balkans. “As far as the political, military, and economic interests of the world’s powers go,” Gourevitch concedes, Rwanda “might as well be Mars.” As for the nearer planet of Bosnia, Cohen dutifully rehearses the case a foreign-policy realist might have made for intervention, citing in particular the risk of nationalistic upheavals throughout post-Communist Eastern Europe; but, as he plainly recognizes, the argument is weak in retrospect. To this day, in seeming vindication of those who argued that the non-confrontational policy of the West was enough to contain the Bosnian conflict, such disorder has yet to materialize.

What remains, of course, is the most important, if most problematic, aspect of the case for intervening against genocide—namely, moral obligation. In this regard, Gourevitch takes a strangely legalistic turn, relying above all on an exaggerated account of the commitments entailed by the Genocide Convention. It bears repeating, however, that even in the eyes of some of its most ardent supporters, the Convention was never much more than a symbol, a statement of principle with no real teeth. Its most severe provisions concern punishing the perpetrators of genocide after the fact, and then not even by military means but through legal action. Though Gourevitch chides the Clinton administration for declaring that the treaty only “enables” but does not require preventive action against genocide, this in fact would seem to be the case.

Cohen comes much closer to the necessary moral reasoning, if in a somewhat scattershot way. “Like America, Bosnia had been a multiethnic state,” he writes. “It was dismembered through ideologies of ethnic hatred that flouted the American idea.” Moreover, when the U.S. chose to ignore such open defiance of the most fundamental of human rights, it was being untrue not simply to itself but also to the world’s expectations of it. As he properly notes, “America still personifies the confidence necessary to draw a distinction between right and wrong and then fight for it.”

To complete these thoughts, and to challenge the destructive dichotomy that has so often guided American foreign policy since the end of the cold war, Cohen might usefully have added that the U.S. has a profound and ongoing interest in defending its principles. This hardly requires us to employ our military might in remedying every political wrong we observe in the world. But it does give us an inescapable stake in preventing genocide, a crime whose very existence is an affront to the universal claims upon which our own political system is based.



The language of interest, however, even when properly moralized, is not how Gourevitch and Cohen wish to discuss genocide. Interest implies the possibility of compromise or balance, and both writers seem determined to operate from moral absolutes.

Neither hesitates, for example, to compare the events about which he writes with Hitler’s war against the Jews of Europe. Gourevitch muses about the hypocrisy of the slogan, “Never Again,” and reports that in Rwanda, the dead “accumulated at nearly three times the rate of Jewish dead during the Holocaust.” In Serb-controlled Bosnia, Cohen for his part writes, it was possible to see “images seemingly lifted whole from Treblinka” and to find instances of what Primo Levi, in recounting the barbarity of Auschwitz, termed “useless violence.”

Yet, with the Holocaust so explicitly in the background, it is difficult to resist the urge to rank and grade catastrophes—and when it comes to genocide, Hitler’s Germany is a tough act to follow. Yes, Rwanda’s Tutsis were entirely undeserving of their fate; but there is no denying their historic role atop an oppressive colonial regime and their association with a sympathetic army nearby. For what conceivable wrong or threat did Europe’s Jews perish? Yes, the Serbs consigned thousands of Muslim men to concentration camps. But how often were the Nazis so discriminating as to spare Jewish women and children from that fate?

None of this is to gainsay the horror of the events to which Gourevitch and Cohen give vivid witness. But they do not seem sufficiently aware of how high a standard they set for themselves when they prompt comparisons to the Holocaust. At the same time, one wonders why they would wish to recall by implication the Allied response to the murder of Europe’s Jews, a chapter of World War II history that is hardly the stuff from which a present-day crusader against genocide can draw inspiration. If the West, even when fully mobilized for war, so signally failed the Jews, why would one expect anything better for beleaguered Tutsis and Bosnian Muslims at a time of unprecedented peace and prosperity?



Of a piece with their rhetorical appeals to the Holocaust—and more serious from a practical standpoint—is the failure of both Gourevitch and Cohen to deal candidly with the likely costs of the policies they endorse. Each contemplates scenarios under which the West could have taken a far more muscular stand, but neither acknowledges the loss of Western lives that would almost certainly have followed. Situations of such unconditional evil, they seem to suggest, require unconditional responses.

Thus, Gourevitch tells us, just two weeks after the genocide in Rwanda began, the UN’s General Dallaire declared that, given a free hand, he could bring a quick end to the anti-Tutsi pogrom with a force of 5,000 well-armed soldiers. “No military analyst whom I’ve heard of has ever questioned [Dallaire’s] judgment,” Gourevitch writes, “and a great many have confirmed it.” But how dangerous an operation would this have been? After all, ten Belgian peacekeepers had already been killed by this point. And, considering the likelihood of French opposition to such a mission, could it have been accomplished without direct American involvement? On these matters, Gourevitch is silent.

As for Bosnia, Cohen is rightly impressed by the success in 1995—three years into the war—of NATO’s first concerted bombing and artillery attacks against Serbian positions. But, as he himself suggests, the resulting cooperativeness of the Serbs had much to do with war-weariness and the satisfaction of most of their territorial claims. Earlier in the war, the success of such an effort would likely have depended on the active participation of soldiers on the ground. Cohen suggests that “limited force” would have sufficed, and in support he cites the claim by the Bosnian Serb leader Radovan Karadzic that 10,000 strategically placed NATO troops could have brought an early end to his campaign. Granting all this, what might such a confrontation have meant in terms of Western casualties? Cohen justly derides the “zero-risk, zero-body-bag doctrine” that now holds sway at the Pentagon—but he does not answer the question.



Posing such concerns is not tantamount to excusing Western inaction in Rwanda and Bosnia. But it does point to limits, and an appreciation for limits is precisely where Cohen and Gourevitch fall short. Swept along by the moral urgency of their cause, they neglect to reckon with the one political consideration—military risk—that most obviously stood in the way of intervention in both Rwanda and Bosnia.

This is made all the more regrettable by the fact that both books lay the groundwork for just the sort of cold-eyed assessment on which a decision to intervene might responsibly have been made. In the first place, Gourevitch and Cohen show how thoroughly dishonest and self-serving were the claims of those Westerners determined to make military action look pointless. The context of genocide in Rwanda and Bosnia may indeed have been “ancient tribal hatreds” and “centuries of strife,” but its immediate sources—bloodthirsty political movements with identifiable programs and leaders—were hardly so elusive or irresistible.

Nor was it the case, as some Western officials maintained, that the Tutsis and Bosnian Muslims were no less guilty of atrocities than their persecutors. By comparison with its Hutu Power foes, the Rwandese Patriotic Front was a model of self-restraint, determined to work with moderate Hutus and seemingly earnest in its pledge to transcend Rwanda’s ethnically polarized past. The Bosnian Muslims also followed a notably moderate course. For all the stridency that their nationalism assumed at times, they never based their own security and well-being on the annihilation of their Serbian neighbors.

What Gourevitch and Cohen fail to stress, however, is that not only were there good guys and bad guys in Rwanda and Bosnia, but the good guys were capable, or at least potentially so, of fending for themselves. Unlike the Jews of Hitler’s Europe, neither the Tutsis nor the Bosnian Muslims were without resources for self-defense; they simply lacked the necessary time to mobilize them. Even a temporary setback to the aggressors would have been of invaluable service in gaining them that time.

In fact, if the West—but preeminently the United States—had chosen to mount a forceful campaign on their behalf, there is every reason to believe that these would-be victims could themselves have averted the worst of the slaughter. In Rwanda, the RPF undoubtedly would have routed the forces of Hutu Power still more quickly than it eventually did. In Bosnia, a pause in the Serbian offensive would have given President Izetbegovic a chance to reverse his nation’s woeful inattention to military preparation and to turn its army into the effective fighting force that it would later become. In neither country was a “quagmire” for Western troops necessarily in the cards. A decisive but relatively brief engagement might well have been enough to stabilize the situation on the ground.

Even so circumscribed a Western aim would hardly have eliminated the possibility of serious casualties. But at least it would have been a starting point for a U.S. President determined to show that America’s stake in the affairs of other countries is not reducible to its own economic and military well-being.

Had George Bush or Bill Clinton been such a President, he would have faced a difficult assignment in explaining to the public why the lives of U.S. soldiers were worth endangering for so abstract an interest as America’s commitment to certain fundamental rights. Still, such a case just might have succeeded. American pride and self-respect, not to mention simple humanitarian goodwill, are not resources to be underestimated. But neither are they so boundless as to rule out the need for the sort of sober, practical deliberation that one seeks in vain in Philip Gourevitch’s and Roger Cohen’s impassioned accounts.



1 Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 356 pp., $25.00.

2 Random House, 523 pp., $27.95.


About the Author

Gary Rosen is the former managing editor of COMMENTARY .

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