The United States had been pushing for a full withdrawal of U.N. troops from Rwanda. On April 21, the U.N. Security Council unanimously voted to cut its peacekeeping force in Rwanda from 2500 troops to 270.
Major Brent Beardsley
photo courtesy of Canadian Department of National Defence
Major Brent Beardsley was Military Assistant to U.N. commander Dallaire. Beardsley says the tiny U.N. force in Kigali woke up to Rwanda's insignificance.
"It was almost to the point where you know you want to get on the phone and just yell in to it 'Is there anybody alive out there?' The world just didn't care and it made no difference what you said or how you said it to them," recalls Beardsley. "We could have packed up dead bodies, put them on a HERC, flown to New York, walked in the Security Council and dumped them on the floor in front of the Security Council, and all that would have happened was we would have been charged for illegally using a U.N. aircraft."
By early May at least 250,000 Rwandans were dead. At about the same time, the Clinton administration was completing its new policy directive on U.N. peacekeeping.
In a speech that month to U.S. Naval Academy graduates, President Clinton said "Whether we get involved in any of the world's ethnic conflicts in the end must depend on the cumulative weight of the American interests at stake."
President Clinton's new approach to peacekeeping required any U.N. mission to directly benefit U.S. national interests. It made a purely humanitarian intervention all but impossible.
Michael Sheehan was a former National Security Council staffer who served at the U.S. mission to the United Nations. He says U.S. policy was driven by the fact that just six months earlier, 18 U.S. servicemen had been murdered in Somalia.
"It was a very very frustrating period, because as soon as this document comes out, we have a situation of enormous consequences unfolding in front of our eyes, but it was a very difficult situation for the administration. The Clinton Administration was brought to its knees by the problem in Somalia. There was no democratic operative that could advise President Clinton to virtually turn around the ships steaming out of Somalia and send them back into a new African adventure of a raging civil war in the early parts of a genocide. By the time the extent of the genocide became clear, it was almost too late."
But clear to whom? Use of the term genocide was highly contentious. The United States was a signatory to the 1948 Genocide Convention and some administration officials believed applying the term to Rwanda could compel the United States to act. At the peak of the killing in Rwanda, administration lawyers instructed officials not to use the term "genocide." Most kept to the script.
When asked by a reporter, Madeleine Albright, U.S. Ambassador to the United Nations (later Secretary of State under the Clinton Administration) said, "As you know this becomes a legal definitional thing. Unfortunately, in terms of as horrendous as all these things are, there becomes a definitional question."
Albright and other senior Clinton administration officials now say they did not grasp the full scope of the killings until it was too late. And they were not alone. Most Western governments, U.N. headquarters, and the international media continued to see the Rwandan violence as another bloody spasm in the country's ongoing civil war. But classified documents obtained by William Ferroggiaro of the National Security Archives, a non-partisan research group, show that U.S. intelligence reports concluded that the slaughter in Rwanda amounted to genocide as early as April 23, 1994. That's two days after the U.N. Security Council voted unanamously to withdraw most peacekeepers from Rwanda.