Ambassador Robert E. Gribbin, Author and former Ambassador to Rwanda
Donatella Lorch, Director, Knight International Fellowship Program, International Center for Journalism
Moderator: Howard Wolpe, Director, WWICS Africa Program
Ambassador Robert E. Gribbin, who served as U.S. Ambassador to Rwanda from 1995 to 1998, presented his memoir and shared his reflections on the period immediately following the Rwandan genocide. His book, In the Aftermath of Genocide—the U.S. Role in Rwanda, sheds light on U.S. policy in Rwanda during that critical period, and is intended to inform and help improve future U.S. diplomatic and policy initiatives during crises around the world.
Ambassador Gribbin noted that the 1994 Rwandan genocide, in which between 800 thousand and 1 million Tutsis and moderate Hutus were murdered, was a political crime, rather than one fueled primarily by historical ethnic hatred. True, ethnic tensions and violence were entrenched in Rwandan society, particularly during the period immediately ensuing Rwanda's independence in 1962. Yet by the late 1970s, when Ambassador Gribbin served as Deputy Chief of Mission at the Kigali embassy, ethnic strains seemed to be largely mollified. Few doubted that the Hutu majority—accounting for about 85 percent of Rwanda's population—could be seriously challenged by the Tutsi minority. However, when Rwandan Tutsis who had fought in Uganda alongside Yoweri Museveni and had helped him take power there mutinied and launched an invasion of Rwanda in 1990, the politics of ethnicity reemerged. Peaceful Tutsis living in Rwanda were perceived as a potential political threat, and Hutu leaders began preparations for the annihilation of the Tutsi minority.
The West and the United States should have acted to stop the genocide while it was in progress but it failed to do so. Still, guilt over their inaction prodded them to play a much more active role in Rwanda's reconstruction and reconciliation efforts. In the aftermath of genocide Rwanda faced monumental challenges. Up to one million of its citizens had been killed fellows; the Tutsi Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) defeated the former Hutu regime and its allies and seized control of the country; meanwhile, Hutu military and militia leaders escaped to neighboring countries, along with over a million Hutu refugees, who feared backlash from the new Tutsi regime; and the country's human capital was devastated by the genocide and the ensuing refugee exodus. With a quarter of its people living in potentially volatile refugee camps just outside Rwanda's borders, the situation had to be resolved quickly.
To the surprise of many Western observers, the new Rwandan government embraced a reconciliatory approach. The new government was headed by a Hutu, and Hutus had majorities in the cabinet and in parliament, although the Tutsis maintained their control over the military. Rwanda also called on Hutu refugees to return and assured them of their safety. It demanded that refugee camps in neighboring countries be dissolved, and succeeded in persuading Burundi to shut down camps along their shared border.
The situation along the Zairian border, however, continued to be grave, with radical Hutu militias known as interahamwe launching attacks against Tutsis and moderate Hutus from refugee camps inside Zaire. International actors debated whether the refugee camps should be shut down, and there were internal disagreements within the U.S. Department of State on the degree of support the United States should provide to the Rwandan military. Eventually, the Rwandan government decided to take action and launched an invasion into Zaire. It dismantled the camps and returned the refugees to Rwanda.
With the relatively peaceful return of Hutu refugees, Rwanda turned to rebuilding and reconciliation. The United States took a leading role in reconstruction efforts, helping train the new Rwandan army while inculcating the troops with a respect for human rights and international law. It also provided equipment, dogs, and training for de-mining projects. U.S. experts helped Rwanda create laws capable of addressing complex post-genocide legal issues. In addition, the United States provided aid for survivors of the genocide and for commemoration projects.
Despite the progress that has been made, Ambassador Gribbin argued that there is much left to be desired. The pursuit of justice for the genocide's culprits has been painstakingly slow, and many of its leaders continue to hide and operate from the eastern parts of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (formerly Zaire). The military is still dominated by Tutsis and maintains considerable influence on the government. In the political realm, genocide has been exploited as a political instrument against Hutu politicians, through unsubstantiated allegations of collusion in the genocide.
A New York Times reporter during the genocide, Donatella Lorch of the Knight International Center for Journalism described her experiences before and after the genocide. She discussed the anger she felt at the inaction of the international community and the United States, as well as the sense of indifference she sensed in many Americans at the time. The problems that Rwanda faces are common throughout sub-Saharan Africa, and they demand our attention, she argued.
Ambassador Gribbin echoed the notion that many Americans have short attention spans for issues concerning Africa, although he noted that it is not likely to change immediately. In response to a question on the lessons that had been derived from the Rwandan genocide, he asserted that much had been learned about negotiations and peacekeeping efforts, but voiced his concern that important lessons may have been neglected because of the change of administration in the United States and the difficulty of institutional learning.
Amir Stepak, Research Consultant
Howard Wolpe, Director