Tikkun Magazine, July/August 1997

Living With Genocide

By Stephen R. Weissman

The first and most fundamental human right is the right to life. Without it such other rights as freedom of speech and protection against arbitrary arrest are simply irrelevant. In this sense, genocide - the intentional destruction of substantial portions of the racial, national, ethnic and religious components of humanity - is the most heinous of all human rights abuses. In the wake of the Nazi Holocaust, the United Nations established the Convention on Genocide which has been ratified by 106 countries. It confirms that the "odious scourge" of genocide is a crime under international law, one that the signatories "undertake to prevent and punish." Concern about the spread of genocide has also been behind the recent creation of the International Criminal Tribunals for the former Yugoslavia and Rwanda.

Yet there remains an enormous gap between the expressed commitment of the international community and its actual behavior. In the last five years alone, the world has failed to take timely action to prevent or stop genocide or genocidal acts in Bosnia, Chechnya, Rwanda, Burundi, and now Zaire.

America has contributed to this failure of international law enforcement. As the most powerful and influential country in the world, and the one most open to popular participation in foreign policymaking, the United States could play a critical role in mobilizing cooperative international action. However, despite the post-Cold War dividend of reduced security threats, neither Republican nor Democratic administrations have given priority to protecting the most basic of all human rights. Yet a constructive, multilateral approach to genocide would require neither the wholesale dispatch of American troops nor unending drains on limited foreign affairs budgets. It would not lead to "more Somalias."

In pursuit of a grand but vaguely defined "new world order," President George Bush was unwilling to contemplate even minimal use of NATO airpower against Serbian aggression in Croatia and Bosnia, a step former policymakers now say might have prevented much of the subsequent carnage in Bosnia. And after propounding an impossibly ambitious list of foreign policy objectives (ranging from the promotion of democracy and market economics worldwide to preventing regional conflict and stamping out international terrorism, pollution and drug dealings), President Bill Clinton hesitated for almost three years before initiating the coalition diplomacy and NATO air strikes that helped lead to the Dayton peace agreement. Moreover, an authoritative international study concludes, while up to 800,000 people were being slaughtered in Rwanda in April-June 1994, "By its acts of omission, the United States ensured that neither an effective national response nor a collective UN effort to mitigate the genocide materialized. Citing financial constraints, the United States wanted a bare-bones UNAMIR [U.N. peacekeeping mission] before April 6th, argued for withdrawal soon afterwards, and delayed the authorization as well as deployment of an expanded [non-American] UN force in May and June."

The Canadian Commander of UNAMIR, Major-General Romeo Dallaire, has observed that, "In Rwanda, the international community's inaction contributed to the Hutu extremists' belief that they could carry out their genocide...UNAMIR could have saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of people. As evidence, with the 450 men under my command during this interim, we saved and directly protected over 25,000 people and moved tens of thousands...A force of 5,000 persons rapidly deployed could have prevented the massacres in the south and west of the country...."


Probably the clearest illustration today of the tragic spread of genocide and the real potential of the international community to stop it is provided by Rwanda's neighbor, the small Central African state of Burundi. This was by no means apparent as I awoke at dawn in my hotel room in the ramshackle capital of Bujumbura last December. The lakeside city lay tranquil as soft streaks of light uncovered the dramatic hills looming in the distance. White birds drifted lazily over small wooden buildings as the first pedestrians set off on the main road for work. Beyond the city however, in this "Land of a Thousand Hills," the "Switzerland of Africa," a generation-long cycle of genocide was continuing.

A U.N. human rights monitor described to me a rather typical occurrence which she had just personally investigated on a hill called "Murambi" in a northern province. Fleeing from fighting in Eastern Zaire, refugees from the majority Hutu ethnic group returned to Burundi on October 20-21. The minority Tutsi army separated out the men and gathered them in and around a pentecostal church, urging them to "sleep and be calm" as they would be "registered" the following day. "At around 7:30 P.M.," she recounted, "it began to be dark and people started to go to sleep. The soldiers arrived and began to shoot and throw grenades at the refugees. After about an hour they left. About 400 persons were dead [and 200 others wounded]. One of the survivors said he counted 435 bodies. The local administration claimed that the Hutu armed bands did it. They acknowledged 285 bodies in a common grave."

Since 1993, an estimated 150,000 Burundians - 2.5% of the population - have been murdered in ethnic-based massacres of civilians. An additional 825,000 Burundians are currently refugees or displaced persons. The Tutsi army has been the main perpetrator, but insurgent Hutu militias and civilians of both ethnic groups have also participated in the killings. As in Bosnia, genocide is by no means the result of ancient tribal hatreds. In fact, there were few violent confrontations between Tutsi and Hutu until about a generation ago. When European colonists arrived in the late 19th century, Burundi was a long-established, decentralized kingdom in which the principal political rivals were branches of a separate group, the ganwa or royal "princes of the blood." While the predominantly pastoral Tutsi benefited more from the extensive patron-client system than the mainly agricultural Hutu, and outranked them socially, both groups spoke the same language and shared a common culture. Their economic circumstances were often similar, and intermarriage was common. Even their overall distinction in status was subject to qualification. Some Hutu clans, like the Abahanza which guarded the royal tombs, were quite prestigious while certain Tutsi "bad clans" were forbidden to enter the King's court. Generally speaking, regional and family identities appear to have been more central to Burundian politics than ethnic ones.

Under the influence of colonialism, ethnic differences became more salient. Centralization and economic modernization eroded old ties based on locality and kinship. Most important, Belgian policies in Burundi and Rwanda promoted the political and social domination of the "noble" Tutsi whose "fine bearing alone guarantee them considerable prestige over... the worthy Hutu, less clever, more simple, more spontaneous and more trusting." As elsewhere in Africa, the transition to independence spawned a struggle between politico-ethnic elites that gravitated towards ethnic polarization and authoritarianism. But nowhere was the conflict as stark as in Burundi and Rwanda where only two groups with radically different populations and social statuses - the dominant Tutsi minority comprised 15 percent of each country - faced each other. And no ruling clique was more insecure than the military-based southern Tutsi faction that came to power in Burundi just as its Tutsi brothers in Rwanda were being driven not only out of office but to a large extent out of the country itself.

Since the 1960s, the political process in Burundi has unfolded with the fatalism of a Greek tragedy. After the assassination of Prime Minister-designate Louis Rwagasore, a ganwa who had brought Hutu and Tutsi together in the dominant UPRONA party, politico-ethnic conflict contributed to the assassination and severe wounding of two more prime ministers. When it became apparent in 1965 that the Tutsi had prevailed, Hutu leaders attempted an armed coup. This led to the first genocidal acts (3,000-5,000 killed) including the liquidation of most of the Hutu political elite. After another, more substantial Hutu armed challenge in 1972, the regime murdered 100,000 to 200,000 people in three months, a "selective genocide" that targeted educated Hutu.

Following a well-publicized local genocide (up to 20,000 victims) in 1988, international pressures produced a transition to multiparty democracy. However the experiment was shortlived. The Tutsi President, Major Pierre Buyoya hoped that a controlled liberalization would enable him to co-opt enough Hutu support to maintain him and the UPRONA party in power. But the Hutu-led FRODEBU party, and its relatively moderate Presidential candidate Melchior Ndadaye, swept the June 1993 elections. In October, Ndadaye and his constitutionally designated successors were assassinated by Tutsi soldiers with the complicity of top military officers. This triggered ethnic massacres on both sides (Ndadaye's murder also contributed to the decision by extremists in Rwanda's ruling Hutu clique to eliminate the Tutsi threat once and for all). In a prolonged "creeping coup," Tutsi leaders used force and intimidation to drive FRODEBU Presidents into a series of increasingly disadvantageous "power sharing" agreements. A former FRODEBU Cabinet Minister, Leonard Nyangoma, organized the CNDD, which created the most threatening Hutu insurgency yet using bases in Eastern Zaire. Last July, the military stepped in and formally reinstalled Buyoya as President.

Thus what began as a conflict for power among political elites has gradually become a recurrent life-and-death struggle among ethnic groups. Periods of violence, political scientist Rene Lemarchand writes, are driven by "the conviction held by both Tutsi and Hutu that unless the other's crimes are retaliated against by retribution, planned annihilation will inevitably follow." Both groups have created impressive "mythico-histories" to justify their political positions. These incredibly detailed and divergent explanations of ethnic group origins, body-types and social and political behavior go far beyond even the serious differences between blacks' and whites' perceptions of reality in the United States. And now these deadly "mythico-histories" have been transplanted to Zaire, recently renamed the Congo. There victorious Zairian Tutsi rebels, supported by the Tutsi regimes in Rwanda and Burundi, fought and massacred a mixture of Rwandan and Burundian insurgents, genocidaires and civilian refugees.


For more than 30 years, the international community has been unwilling to take strong and sustained action against the cycle of genocide and support moderate forces in Burundi. Nothing illustrates this more clearly than the response to the 1972 bloodbath, the first clear genocide since the Holocaust. A small number of African leaders, notably President Julius Nyerere of neighboring Tanzania and Organization of African Unity (OAU) Secretary-General Diallo Telli privately remonstrated with Burundi President Michael Micombero. But the OAU's Council of Ministers, reflecting the continent's dictators' anxiety about creating a precedent for foreign intervention against a sitting government, told Micombero it was "convinced that, thanks to your saving action, peace will be rapidly re-established, national unity will be consolidated, and territorial integrity will be preserved." This message, a West African delegate confided, "could be interpreted more or less to suit the desires of the recipient."

The U.N. belatedly dispatched a mission to Burundi which at least produced a public and authoritative confirmation of the massive death and suffering. But U.N. officials did not follow up with specific requests for international action to stop genocide; instead, they focused on appeals for humanitarian assistance to the survivors.

The overall response of Burundi's Western donors is best summarized by the title of a contemporary Carnegie Endowment for International Peace Report: "Passing By." Here, for example, are the soft expressions in a letter which was delivered to Micombero at the very height of the massacres by the U.S., Belgian, French and German Ambassadors:

"As true friends of Burundi we have followed closely with anxiety and uneasiness the events of these last few weeks. Thus we are comforted by your having constituted groups of wise men (elders) to pacify the country, and by the commands which you have given, to repress the arbitrary actions of individuals and groups, the private vengeances and excess of authority."

After the 1988 events, the American Congress, Belgium, the European Union and even the World Bank threatened to withold further aid unless the Government moved towards reconciliation with its Hutu citizens. Dependent upon foreign assistance for a quarter of its GNP, the regime undertook a top-down program of liberalization. But when Burundi's fledgling democracy collapsed in 1993, the West once again stood by. France carried on with its military aid program - part of its effort to project "grandeur" in world politics even at the price of alliances with the least savory regimes in Africa - and other donors kept their economic spigots open. It was not until the Spring of 1996, as the Hutu-led CNDD insurgency grew, that the West signaled its dissatisfaction by suspending aid. By then however, both sides had become more strongly committed to military actions. (While the conflict in Zaire eliminated most CNDD bases in late 1996, the insurgency is now well-established in Burundi and able to maintain some access to the outside through porous borders.) As in Bosnia and Rwanda, the only promise of progress now lay in a determined diplomatic initiative backed up by strong economic, military and political sanctions.


Two such initiatives have been launched over the last 18 months. Interestingly, both have been African-led but received only half-hearted support from the Europeans and, most critically, the Americans.

In February 1996, U.N. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali suggested that a group of member countries should consult together and provide military forces for possible rapid deployment to deter wider massacres and protect vulnerable groups and installations in Burundi. This "contingency planning" was designed to reinforce ongoing African and other diplomatic efforts to foster dialogue between the contending forces, and to ensure that the U.N. would not again stand by, as it had in Rwanda, if violence worsened. In U.N. parlance, Boutros-Ghali was threatening Burundi with "peace enforcement," an international military intervention even without the consent of the warring parties. With the end of the Cold War the U.N. has authorized or undertaken peace enforcement operations in the Persian Gulf, Somalia, Haiti, Bosnia and Rwanda. But in each case, the critical determinant of success or failure has been the political will of the five permanent members of the Security Council - specially the U.S.-to use their diplomatic clout and resources to organize, rapidly deploy, and maintain an adequate multinational force.

Concerning Burundi, France declined to put up any ground troops and promised only to "consider" other financial and logistical assistance. Paris's ties to the Burundi Government and continuing embarassment over its controversial military role during the genocide in Rwanda controlled its decision. The only other member of the "Perm 5" with a strong interest in Africa was the U.S. Still smarting from its military debacle in Somalia, the Americans also refused ground forces, but offered the U.N. other military support including "urgent and tanker airlift". Thus the fate of Boutros-Ghali's proposal depended upon the willingness of the U.S. to use its influence with other countries to assemble a multinational force. While several African states (including Boutros-Ghali's Egypt) offered or were likely to provide ground troops, the key was to obtain specialized contributions (particularly in such areas as command and control and mobile deployment) from such experienced Third World countries as South Africa, Zimbabwe, India and Pakistan and perhaps smaller European nations and Canada.

Within the U.S. Government a stalemate quickly developed over this issue. One side, led by National Security Adviser Anthony Lake, argued that it would be imprudent not to do "contingency planning" in light of the situation in Burundi and possible political pressure to "do something" if violence worsened during the upcoming U.S. presidential campaign. The opposition was spearheaded by the Joint Chiefs of Staff who were anxious to deflect any new demands on forces they already viewed as stretched by commitments in Bosnia, worried about the messy political tensions that could tie down even a non-U.S. force, and fearful that the United States could somehow get increasingly drawn into the conflict. The eventual compromise can best be described as pseudo-contingency planning. Without identifying any real military units from specific countries, the United States handed U.N. peacekeeping officials a set of "planning assumptions" including a mystery force of 20,000 troops that would enter Burundi within six months and establish three "safe havens." According to U.S. officials, the "plan" largely ignored such key issues as command and control, potential Burundian hostility, and alternative strategies to protect civilians. In short, the U.S. had produced "contingency planning" that was devoid of any practical military significance. As time went on, other countries noticed the corruption of language involved. "Let me be frank for once," a leading European Ambassador to the U.N. confided last fall. "The contingency has superseded the contingency planning. Contingency planning is something that is being done because we are not really ready to intervene yet."

The other major initiative marked a notable reversal of African states' past reluctance to intervene against the continent's human fights abusers along with the recognition that the rest of the international community was paralyzed. Since late 1995, a half dozen or so East and Central African "Great Lakes states," supported by the OAU, the Carter Center, and the Belgian Government, have launched a determined campaign to force a negotiated political settlement in Burundi. Despite sometimes differing economic interests and political tendencies, they have persistently negotiated out a common Burundi policy:

* They drafted former Tanzanian President "Mwalimu" (Swahili for teacher) Nyerere to facilitate negotiations among all parties to the conflict. Although Nyerere, who has long experience with Burundi issues, admits he has little concrete to show for his efforts, he has been able to hold ever more inclusive meetings with the key actors, civilian as well as military, and to establish what one participant describes as "a better psychological atmosphere." Meanwhile, the Community of Sant' Egidio, a lay Catholic group in Rome, began mediating between the military regime and the guerillas to achieve an agreement on "principles" and a cessation of hostilities that would usher in broader-based political negotiations under Nyerere. Nyerere's prestigious involvement ensures that Burundi continues to receive high-level attention from the regional states.

* They responded to Burundi's surprise June 1996 request for regional military assistance with plans to send (with anticipated Western financial support) at least 10,000 troops to guarantee security and facilitate political negotiations. In contrast with Boutros-Ghali's proposal, this was to be an invited intervention and one that also had the explicit purpose of bolstering Nyerere's political mediation. Of course, fear of an uninvited U.N. force - as well as rising insurgency and persistent lobbying by Ugandan President Yoweri Museveni for regionally-assisted military reform - helped generate the Burundi appeal. Although the request was politically ill-prepared, and the July 1996 Tutsi-led military coup led to its withdrawal, the region's willingness to provide substantial military forces to enforce a political solution is critically important for future peacemaking efforts.

* They reacted to the Buyoya coup with comprehensive economic sanctions, later modified to exempt "humanitarian" goods like seed, fertilizer, food, medicine, and educational and construction materials. Sanctions would be lifted only after the government restored a measure of constitutional legality and entered into meaningful political negotiations with armed as well as unarmed parties. Despite leakages (particularly from Tutsi-led Rwanda), the embargo has tripled the price of gasoline, hamstrung Burundi's tiny industrial sector - the Bujumbura beer company that accounts for 40 percent of Burundi's tax base has often worked at less than 50 percent of capacity - and lowered revenues from covert exports of coffee and tea. It has undoubtedly contributed to the governement's willingness to begin talking with the CNDD.

Behind this new dynamic lies a new generation of African politicians led by recently elected Presidents Benjamin Mkapa of Tanzania and Museveni of Uganda. While their regimes vary in their commitment to multiparty democracy, these leaders' experiences have convinced them that systematic violence and coups produce massive refugee flows and political instability in neighboring countries, that basic moral values have a prominent place in foreign policy, and that they need to act jointly to resolve many of their problems.

The new regional diplomacy should make it easier for key Western countries to support action against genocide in Burundi since it promises to minimize their military and political burden. Nevertheless the French have remained aloof. America has been more helpful. Yet its responses have been constrained by the foreign affairs bureaucracy's general tendency toward incremental negotiation ahead of pressure, and by the Pentagon's continuing reluctance under the "Powell Doctrine" to support even other countries' intervention in politically sticky, non-strategic countries.

"Tony Lake said yes, if there's a coup, we'll isolate them," related one frustrated, high State Department official. "But we did nothing. We said these are good guys. We didn't adopt sanctions. Our credibility is not so hot." After initially opposing sanctions as an inappropriate and ineffective form of pressure against the "not-so-extreme" Buyoya regime, the U.S. - influenced by the new Presidential Special Envoy to Burundi, former Congressman Howard Wolpe - finally came down behind the regional sanctions. But it soon began to lobby each of the regional states to relax the embargo to "reward" Buyoya for superficially meeting some of the requisite conditions. Had the Africans not maintained their remarkable unity behind sanctions last fall, they would have condoned the Buyoya Government's evident drift towards a military solution. High Burundi military and civilian officials assured me in December that they would not countenance real negotiations with the insurgents until they had turned the military balance strongly in their favor. And the U.S. has thus far failed to offer the regional states needed help in monitoring and obtaining international enforcement of sanctions, including the critical oil embargo against the government and a recent ban on arms supplies to both sides.

Washington did set forth its own plan for a Burundi-oriented, Western-financed Africa Crisis Response Force (ACRF). Designed without adequate consultation with African or key European states, the ACRF failed to address the key regional concerns of reducing the carnage and facilitating peace negotiations. Its mission was to be confined to assuring the delivery of humanitarian aid in a few "safe areas" to people fleeing genocide elsewhere. "It would be a shame if our soldiers sat around and watched," complained a disappointed East African military leader. Lacking support from its prospective partners, the ACRF was subsequently demoted from a force to a training initiative. Thus the U.S. is currently doing no contingency planning for supporting the largely African military force that will be a sine qua non for an eventual political settlement in genocide-torn Burundi.


If the U.S. wished to become an active partner with others in fighting the spread of genocide in the world, it would first have to re-examine reigning definitions of "national interest" in foreign policy. Like many fashionable methods of political analysis today, these are posited on an overly selfish model of human behavior. The "realist" school of international relations, which rose to prominence in the worst years of the Cold War, defines the national interest as a state's accumulation of power to assure its survival and way of life in an anarchic world. As Cold War tensions faded, "globalists" preached that states could now pursue an even wider range of domestic benefits (from trade and non-proliferation of weaponry to pollution and drug controls) through cooperative international agreements. Neither conception recognized that a state and its citizens could have an "interest" in the welfare of the broader human community. Where altruistic impulses burst through, as in the areas of human rights and democracy, they were usually labeled "values" which might be pursued until they conflicted with real "interests."

In practice, American foreign policy frequently ignores this artificial distinction between "interests" and "values." How else can one explain why half of our foreign aid budget has been going to assure the survival of Israel while more influential Arab states sit on top of much of the world's oil, or why we reversed our policies towards the tyrannies in South Africa, the Philippines and El Salvador? And why after all should such controversial policies as expanding NATO to meet vaguely defined and remote security threats in Eastern Europe or increasing exports to China to benefit a small minority of Americans be considered inherently more important to our "interests" than working with others to save hundreds of thousands of men, women and children we see being murdered in Bosnia or Central Africa? Furthermore, in an age of global communications, an altruistic policy today can become a utilitarian one tomorrow. Timely intervention against genocide in Bosnia or Rwanda - if accompanied by well-conceived long-run policies - would have saved the international community billions of dollars it poured out in heartfelt humanitarian aid. More important, an erosion of the international standard against genocide in Burundi, Rwanda and Zaire could well have a negative impact on future violent conflicts in more "strategic" areas like South Asia, Eastern Europe, and North Africa.

Despite their negative reaction to our politically ill-conceived and poorly explained unilateral intervention in Somalia, Americans do not reject multilateral diplomatic and military action against genocide. For example, they favored NATO air strikes against the Bosnian Serbs years before President Clinton took decisive action in 1995. Moreover, each time the administration took a public stand against aggression the polls showed greater public support for military action, including the provision of U.S. troops to extract U.N. peacekeepers and the use of air power to protect "safe areas." Recently, 70 percent of Americans favored arresting Bosnian Serb indicted war criminals even if there are some American casualties. Several months ago, administration officials quietly went to Capitol Hill and discovered that conservative Republicans were disposed to support U.S. aid for African peacekeeping in Burundi.

Nevertheless an organized, political constituency for cooperative international action against genocide has not developed. One reason certainly is that many liberals and progressives are rightly skeptical about American intervention abroad. During the Cold War, U.S. policymakers freely invoked moral and liberal imperatives for intervention but often ended up bolstering tyrannies and privileged elites. Also the post-Cold War world has featured violent ethnic and religious conflicts, usually in regions with which Americans have little affinity. Addressing these strange and daunting conflicts can seem like a truly Sisyphean task.

Still, citizen mobilizations against unconditional military assistance to Central American governments and "constructive engagement" with the apartheid regime in South Africa, along with public support for military peace enforcement in Bosnia, suggest that liberals and progressives will back economic, political and, if necessary, military pressures where there is hope of fostering reasonable political solutions. And while resolving genocidal conflicts requires greater emphasis upon military means, the end of the Cold War permits broader regional and multinational participation in, and supervision of, such operations. As for the supposed intractability of these conflicts, there is no reason to believe that the comparatively recent advent of a form of black apartheid in Burundi is inherently harder to understand and address than the centuries-old system of white domination in South Africa. Why should we throw up our hands before the prospect of genocidal massacres in a Bosnia or Kashmir when we can conceive of peaceful solutions to the Arab-Israeli conflict?

A foreign policy that gave higher priority to genocide and other serious human rights abuses could be founded not only on our memory of the Holocaust ("Never Again") but also on our own history of struggle for civil and human rights. Something similar seemed to be on the mind of Uganda's Minister of State for Defense, Amama Mbabasi when we met late last year. "Basic to the national interest of Uganda," he explained, "is regional stability. Burundi affects our immediate neighbors and us too. But even more basic to our interest is our own experience with human rights. We subscribe to the view that the concept of territorial sovereignty does not apply where human rights are concerned. We have never forgiven the world for Idi Amin."

Stephen R. Weissman is the author of A Culture of Defernce: Congress's Failure of Leadership in Foreign Policy (Basic Books) and former Staff Director of the U.S. House of Representatives Subcommittee on Africa. This article is based on a study supported by a grant from the U.S. Institute of Peace.

Source Citation

Weissman, Stephen R. 1997. Living With Genocide. Tikkun 12(4): 53.

tags: Burundi, Genocide, Politics & Society, Rwanda, War & Peace  
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