Limits of Humanitarian Intervention: Genocide in Rwanda by Alan Kuperman

Could the West have done something to stop the Rwandan genocide? This is the fundamental question posed by Alan Kuperman in Limits of Humanitarian Intervention: Genocide in Rwanda. This slim volume (it’s only 128 pages, including three appendices), pragmatically addresses many of the common assumptions regarding the genocide in Rwanda and the ability of the West to stop the killing once it had started.

Kuperman walks readers through the events leading up and during the genocide using a variety of grey and scholarly literature. Early reports that there was an impending genocide were scattered and were not taken seriously. The most famous of these is the “genocide fax” sent by General Dallaire, commander of the peacekeeping force UNIMIR on 11 January 1994. But as Kuperman writes, “Dallaire’s own cable had expressed doubts about the informant’s credibility.” Prior to the genocide, only Belgium pushed for changes to the UNIMIR mandate and increased troop numbers to ensure that violence did not flare again.

Kuperman finds few instances where Western powers knew about the genocide prior to April 20, about 13 days after the massacres started. Because there were limited intelligence assets in the region, Western leaders relied primarily on popular media for information as events unfolded in early April. Early media reports focused mostly on Kigali and portrayed the violence as renewed civil war. Aside from a string of ignored United States Defense Intelligence Agency (DIA) memos, the recognition of mass killings in the countryside and the term genocide were first reported on or around April 20.

This critical analysis of the Rwandan genocide tackles many of the common claims regarding possible interventions to stop the genocide. Pragmatically, Kuperman breaks apart each of these claims to find that only a revised UNIMIR mandate for peacemaking and an additional 5000 troops in January 1994, as advocated by Belgium, might have prevented the genocide.

His most critical finding is that unlike popular claims that 5000 additional troops would have stopped the genocide after it started, when the scale of the violence was realized on April 20th, it was much too late for any size of military force to make a difference. Most of the killings had already occurred or would occur before US military forces could arrive on the ground and begin operations. This contention is largely based on the limits of cargo capacity and the loading time it would take to deploy the 101st Airborne Division over 10,000 miles across three continents and via several airports that had limited runway and fuel capacity. Kuperman argues that by the time these additional forces arrived, the genocide would have been nearly over.

This is startling evidence. It means that we have an obligation to do more than intervene to stop genocide. We have an imperative to establish proper deterrence mechanisms to prevent genocide. This means better intelligence collection and coordination, and a better overall understanding of regions at risk of ethnic conflict. This is Kuperman’s biggest conclusion, but he also offers a buffet of lessons that we can learn from the Rwanda case that might be useful in considering other cases of genocide. But you’ll have to read the book to find out!

Kuperman’s book is the most pragmatic volume on both the genocide in Rwanda and on humanitarian interventions that I have read. Compared to others who would blame the United States for its failure to intervene (like Samantha Power), Kuperman keeps a cool head. He makes no apologies for the West while thoroughly exploring how each option at the time would have affected the final outcome of the genocide. Hopefully enough policymakers will read this text and begin making implementing some of Kuperman’s policy suggestions. For the moment, as we watch the Libya debacle unfold, it appears we have learned far too little about interventions and are still using the mandate to protect as a tool for our political objectives, rather than from a true humanitarian calling.

Limits of Humanitarian Intervention: Genocide in Rwanda By Alan J. Kuperman| 180 pages |
Brookings Institution Press: 2001 | List Price: $18.95

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