A People Betrayed

Linda R. Melvern, A People Betrayed: The Role of the West in Rwanda's Genocide
(London: Zed Books, 2000).

Review by Adam Jones

The subject of A People Betrayed, by the British investigative journalist Linda Melvern, is the catastrophe that descended on the tiny Central African nation of Rwanda in 1994. Historians and analysts of these events have long linked western policies to the "genocidal frenzy"(1) that gripped Rwanda for twelve unforgettable weeks -- a period during which the rate of mass killing exceeded that of the Jewish holocaust by roughly fivefold. Studies(2) have demonstrated the importance of first German, then Belgian colonial policies in reconstructing the caste divide between Hutu and Tutsi into a more rigidly "ethnic" one, in which Tutsi came to hold a privileged place. The Belgians were also responsible for introducing an identity-card system in the 1930s which listed the ethnicity of the bearer; it was such cards that allowed for the winnowing of Tutsi victims at the militia-manned roadblocks in 1994. Lastly, France, in its seemingly perpetual quest to extend its sphere of influence in Africa and undermine competing "Anglophone" tendencies, was critical to the maintenance and arming of the Juvénal Habyarimana regime, from which the genocidal "Hutu Power" movement sprang.

Melvern addresses the French role, together with that of Egypt and Uganda, in chapter 2, noting that an invasion by the Tutsi-dominated RPF rebels in 1990 was seen in France "as an invasion by a neighbouring state, considered to be part of a Ugandan plot, which, in turn, was party of a larger post-Cold War attack by 'les anglo-saxons,' whose eyes were on French interests in Africa" (p. 30). She also explores the U.S.-sponsored undermining of the International Coffee Agreement, which sent Rwanda's fragile economy into free-fall, fuelling the aspirations of the extremists for a genocidal redistribution of land, money, and jobs.

The author focuses, though, on the months immediately preceding the genocide, when the U.N. dispatched 2,500 peacekeepers under Canadian General Roméo Dallaire to oversee implementation of peace accords signed in 1993; and on the genocide itself, when the extremists seized upon the death of President Habyarimana to launch their "final solution" of the Tutsi "problem" in Rwanda. Melvern shows that despite a CIA analysis in January 1994, warning that "if hostilities resumed, upwards of half a million people would die" in Rwanda, Dallaire's requests for greater intelligence-gathering and raids to seize weapons caches were brusquely denied by U.N. headquarters. In early 1994, as disaster approached, Dallaire's communications with headquarters left "no doubt that a serious crisis threatened ... [and] made it abundantly clear that genocide was looming" (p. 107). Under the circumstances, it is hard not to agree with a U.N. refugee official cited by Melvern, who considers Dallaire "the one shining beacon" in the U.N.'s sorry Rwandan involvement.

Recognizing the political weakness of the West's commitment to keeping the peace, one of the first moves of the génocidaires was to abduct and murder ten Belgian peacekeepers dispatched to protect the moderate Prime Minister, Agathe Uwilingiyimana (who was also killed). Following this atrocity, the U.N. -- under strong U.S. pressure -- voted to slash the peacekeeping force to just 270 people,(3) evacuating the core Belgian contingent completely. The withdrawal produced heartbreaking scenes like the one that opens Melvern's book: the departure of 90 peacekeepers from the École Technique Officielle in Kigali, carried out in the full knowledge that the two thousand desperate refugees crowded into the school would be slaughtered by the Hutu militiamen waiting nearby -- as indeed occurred.

Melvern places special emphasis on the role of the U.N. Security Council, warranted in part by the "invaluable primary source" she has turned up (p. 152): a 155-page leaked account of Council meetings during the critical month of April. "In the first four weeks of genocide, the fact that a systematic and continuing slaughter was taking place in Rwanda was not once discussed at length in Council meetings," she reports (p. 166). The United States "would not accept any resolution except one which withdrew all the peacekeepers," though it eventually bowed to British requests that a token presence remain (p. 163). As the scale of the horrors began to seep in to global public opinion, the U.N. reversed itself yet again, ordering an increase in the peacekeeper presence to 5,500. But deployment was held up by the Clinton government's shameful delaying tactics, which included bickering over the financial terms for the lease of armoured personnel carriers for the operation (p. 196).

When largescale intervention finally did come -- in July 1994, after an estimated 800,000 people had been killed -- it was a unilateral operation conducted by the French, and seemed aimed more at propping up the tattered remnants of the "Hutu Power" regime than in saving lives or apprehending perpetrators. Only when hundreds of thousands of Hutu refugees, including many génocidaires, began to flow into festering camps in neighbouring Zaire were the humanitarian sentiments of the world finally aroused, and a truly international response mobilized. Everyone, it appears, could understand a "refugee crisis," even if almost no leader or prominent public figure could recognize a genocide while it was underway. The United States, suddenly freed of the cost-consciousness it had displayed in the APC negotiations with the U.N., mounted "a major response costing $300-400 million" -- and "it took just three days, once the orders had been issued by the White House to the Pentagon, for the first American troops to be on the ground [in Zaire] and distributing fresh water to the refugees" (p. 219).

In the light of this bleak record, it is hard to disagree with Melvern's assertion that "the combination of revelations about the scale and intensity of the genocide, the complicity of western nations, the failure to intervene and the suppression of information about what was actually happening, is a shocking indictment, not just of the UN Security Council, but even more so of governments and individuals who could have prevented what was happening but chose not to do so" (p. 6). This is similar to the argument advanced in the most prominent human-rights report on the genocide, Leave None to Tell the Story by Alison Des Forges of Human Rights Watch (Human Rights Watch 1999).(4) Such interpretations are not uncontroversial, however. Alan J. Kuperman, for one, has argued that the speed and scale of the genocide was such that no outside intervention mounted after the outbreak of mass killing could have saved more than a minority of the victims.(5)

One is also left wondering whether the fresh information Melvern has turned up -- notably the leaked Security Council document -- warrants the book jacket's rather breathless claim that A People Betrayed is "a classic piece of investigative journalism" replete with "new and startling information [that] has the makings of an international scandal."(6) In fact, the broad outlines of western complacency and complicity have been known for several years, and Melvern does little to challenge or fundamentally expand this framework. Her book nonetheless stands as the best general overview of the West's role in the Rwandan catastrophe.(7) It is briskly written, and includes enough information on the causes and course of the genocide to ground readers unfamiliar with the events. Clearly, so long as the world's most powerful countries and international organizations are ruled by considerations of expediency and image-making, effective intervention in most cases of genocidal killing is unlikely.


1. See African Rights, Rwanda: Death, Despair and Defiance, Revised Edition (London: African Rights, 1995), ch. 8.

2. See, e.g., Gérard Prunier, The Rwanda Crisis: History of a Genocide (New York: Columbia University Press, 1997).

3. Melvern notes, however, that "in a clearly illegal act, Dallaire and his deputy, Brigadier Henry Kwami Anyidoho, commander of the Ghanaian troops, defied the Security Council and 456 men remained" (p. 174).

4. Human Rights Watch, Leave None to Tell the Story: Genocide in Rwanda (New York: Human Rights Watch, 1999), pp. 595-691. To say that this is the "most prominent" human-rights report is not to suggest it is the best or most complete; in this writer's view, that honour goes to the African Rights report cited in note 1.

5. See Alan J. Kuperman, The Limits of Humanitarian Intervention: Genocide in Rwanda (Washington, DC: Brookings Institution, 2001). Kuperman does accept that a more robust U.N. presence and role prior to the genocide could have prevented its outbreak.

6. There are also occasional inconsistencies in Melvern's book. For example, she offers "proof" on p. 19 that an earlier round of murderous assaults on Tutsi, in 1963, "was not a genocide," but then contradicts herself with a reference on p. 63 to "the genocide of Tutsi in December that year." And A People Betrayed could have used a tighter copy-editing: this reviewer found "soldiers" printed as "soliders"on four separate occasions in six pages (pp. 120-25).

7. See also Arthur J. Klinghoffer, The International Dimension of Genocide in Rwanda (New York: New York University Press, 1998).

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