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Multi-Institutional Examination of Rwanda Genocide Reveals Flaws in International Decision Making

Press Contacts

Washington, DC—Former peacemakers, peacekeepers, and peace monitors from more than a dozen countries today released extensive new documentation on the Rwanda genocide, drawing attention to flaws in international decision making that continue to hamper an effective response to mass atrocity.

Timed to coincide with the 21st anniversary of the start of the Rwanda genocide in April 1994, today’s release includes a fully annotated 230-page transcript of a two-day conference attended by many of the principal international actors on Rwanda. The conference, which took place in The Hague from June 1 to June 3, 2014, was sponsored by the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum and The Hague Institute for Global Justice, with support from the National Security Archive at George Washington University.

Conference attendees included the architects of the 1993 Arusha peace accords, the leadership of the UN peacekeeping force known as UNAMIR, four former ambassadors to the UN Security Council, as well as senior US, French, Belgian, and Rwandan officials. Under conference ground rules, the discussions were held behind closed doors, pending the release of an authorized transcript with supporting documentation from a wide array of primary sources.  

“By assembling so many of the key players in the same room, we were able to analyze the faultlines in the international system in a way that sheds light on our modern-day challenges,” said Cameron Hudson, director of the Simon-Skjodt Center for the Prevention of Genocide at the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. “The goal was to identify moments when international action might have made a difference.”

The Rwanda conference was the first stage in a broader effort to examine “International Decision Making in the Age of Genocide.” This summer, a group of high-level civilian and military decision makers will gather in The Hague for a follow-up conference marking the 20th anniversary of the fall of the United Nations “safe area” of Srebrenica.

“If we are serious about preventing future Rwandas and Srebrenicas, we must examine the functioning of the international system as a whole,” said Abiodun Williams, president of The Hague Institute for Global Justice. “This includes not just the UN Security Council, but the actions of a wide range of traditional and non-traditional actors, including the media.”

Insights that emerged over the course of the two-day conference on Rwanda are highlighted in a 32-page Rapporteur report (PDF) also released today:

  • The negotiation and implementation phases of the Arusha peace accords were out of sync with each other. There should be much greater coordination between peace-makers and peace implementers.

  • Ordinary Rwandans were poorly informed about the diplomatic negotiations in Arusha and became easy prey for extremists. Civil society should have been much more closely involved in the peace process.

  • Western governments failed to develop a common policy on Rwanda that could have prevented the genocide. There should have been greater reliance on regional bodies, such as the then Organization for African Unity.

  • The international community staked everything on the success of the Arusha peace agreement and failed to develop a backup plan or fully anticipate the role of spoilers. Decision-makers should prepare for the worst-case scenario as well as the best-case scenario.

Each phase of the “International Decision Making in the Age of Genocide” project is accompanied by an extensive document declassification effort. The National Security Archive of George Washington University has collected more than 20,000 documents on the Rwanda genocide. Many of the documents have already been posted on the websites of the Archive and the Museum. The remainder will be made available for research later this year, along with finding aids.   

“We want to provide historians, journalists, and scholars with access to the primary source documents that show how decisions were taken in real time,” said Tom Blanton, director of the National Security Archive. “We take readers behind the scenes of the closed sessions of the UN Security Council, as ambassadors wrestled with unspeakable atrocities and gut-wrenching decisions.”