Could Genocide Have Been Stopped in Rwanda?

Dr. Taylor Seybolt
Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs, Harvard University

March 17, 1999

On April 6, 1994, the president of Rwanda was killed when his airplane was shot down as it approached Kigali airport. Sporadic killing started in the capital city of Kigali within one hour. Very quickly a genocide carefully prepared by extremist Hutus engulfed the whole country. In retrospect, people have debated whether the grisly massacre could have been stopped if certain military actions by outside forces had been taken in the early period of the killing. Two hypothetical scenarios for such military actions have been widely entertained: General Romeo Dallaire’s "shock troop" proposal, and Allison Des Forges’ "decapitation" plan.

In my opinion, early intervention by foreign troops could have possibly saved hundreds of thousands of lives. However, effective intervention would have required strong political will. After the debacle in Somalia, no governments had an interest in getting involved in Central Africa. Setting political will aside, as these hypothetical scenarios do, it is critically important to understand that stopping the genocide was a very hard and dangerous job. The shock troop and decapitation proposals I examine are wrong to suggest that a lot of good could have been done with a little force.

General Dallaire’s "shock troop" proposal is elaborated in a Carnegie Commission report called Preventing Genocide by Scott R. Feil (April 1998). The scenario envisions 5,000 foreign troops intervening in five phases to stop the killing, first in the capital, then in the rest of the country, and in the end reverting to ordinary peacekeeping operations. Alternatively the 5,000 troops could have been deployed simultaneously rather than in phases, controlling territory from north to south.

The first problem with this plan is one of timing. By the time outsiders realized a genocide was occurring, not just a civil war, large massacres were taking place throughout the country. Even if the "shock troops" had been dispatched in the most expeditious way without being retarded by politics, they could not have been ready for combat in Rwanda until 11 days after the killing began, at the very earliest. About half the victims had been killed by the end of April! Besides timing, the force size was drastically insufficient. It would have been impossible for 5,000 troops to police an area of nearly 10,000 square miles with over 60,000 armed people in it.

Allison Des Forges proposed the "decapitation" plan in a talk at the Kennedy School of Government on October 14, 1998. The scenario calls for elite troops to enter Rwanda in the first 2 to 5 days of the genocide and kill or capture the 20 or so extremist leaders who were primarily responsible for mobilizing the genocide. Once these leaders were gone, the ordinary Hutus would not be so emotionally charged and ideologically motivated to kill their Tutsi neighbors. This plan can be rebutted on several points. One is that as soon as the killing began, things became so chaotic that it was extremely difficult for outsiders to figure out what was happening, much less identify the leaders of the genocide. Secondly, the window of opportunity for decapitation action was within 48 hours of the initial killing according to Des Forges. In fact it took 48 hours for the US government to order the departure of its citizens from Rwanda. It is hard to conceive of a government taking action to remove the leaders of another country in that same amount of time.

Third, it is true that European and American special operation forces could have arrived as quickly as within 12 hours. But how would they have been able to identify or locate the leadership clique? The Americans knew Panama like the back of their hand but still had trouble capturing General Noriega. It would have been impossible for the foreign troops to get all 20 leaders at once. If they missed some of the targets, they probably would never be able to find them again. Those people might very well have worked to perpetuate the massacres. Lastly, it is not guaranteed that the mass killing would have stopped if the leaders were removed. Tens of thousands of Hutus had come to believe years of propaganda that said if they did not kill the Tutsi, then the Tutsi would kill them. The offensive by the rebel Rwandan Patriotic Front gave the idea credibility.

Rwanda was a hard case for conducting military intervention to defend human rights. I do not intend to argue that the US government and other countries should sit idle and let a genocide proceed when it happens again. Instead, I suggest that policy makers must take into account some basic considerations before using military force for humanitarian purposes.

  1. Military action will likely be very difficult and will involve risks.

  2. Some principles, such as stopping genocide, are worth defending even at great risk.

  3. If the United States is to take this business seriously, then it must change the way it analyzes intelligence data, the way it trains soldiers and Marines, and its peace operations doctrine.

Taylor Seybolt is a postdoctoral research fellow at Harvard University’s Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs. He defended his dissertation on humanitarian military intervention in the MIT Political Science Department.

Rapporteur: Yinan He

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