UN commemoration of the Rwandan genocide UNMISS

Content Note: this article mentions sexual violence and genocide

In the current climate, if you ask most people ‘what was the West’s worst foreign policy blunder of the post-Vietnam era?’ you are likely to get one of two answers: Iraq or Afghanistan. Yet, by almost any measure, the answer ought to be the Rwandan genocide. This disconnect reveals the shortness of Western political memory when it comes to foreign policy, a terrifying reality for anyone concerned about the inhabitants of fragile states in the post-Afghanistan era.

A reasonable estimate for the number of Tutsis killed during the Rwandan genocide is 500,000. At least 250,000 women were raped. The political repercussions of the violence led directly to the First Congo War, and precipitated the Second Congo War, the most violent conflict since the end of World War Two with an estimated 5.4 million excess deaths. As a result, parts of the Congo still suffer violence.

This could all plausibly have been prevented by prompt Western military intervention. Freedom of information requests have revealed that the US government knew in advance that the genocide was going to take place and elected not to intervene. As one think tank member told the Guardian: ‘That the Clinton Administration decided against intervention at any level was not for lack of knowledge of what was happening in Rwanda.’ Rather, the decision was taken out of embarrassment.

“If Western nations become unwilling to fight abroad in pursuit of humanitarian goals they risk facilitating and exacerbating crimes against humanity”

In 1993, the Battle of Mogadishu, part of a broader UN and American intervention to curtail the Somali Civil War, ended in humiliation for the American government when the now-infamous Black Hawk Down incident led to 18 American deaths. The military failure, and political damage caused by the release of footage of American corpses being dragged through the streets of Mogadishu, spurred US withdrawal from Somalia, and led to an overcautious response a year later when the Rwandan genocide began. Therefore, the scope of the Rwandan genocide, and the violent destabilisation that followed, can be blamed, at least in part, on an American crisis of confidence in the aftermath of military failure abroad. If this sounds familiar that is because we are witnessing the same knee-jerk policymaking again today.

Regardless of exactly why the mission failed, it is clear that the West, and especially America, has been badly burned in Afghanistan. Coming on the heels of the catastrophic invasion of Iraq, the withdrawal has been seen by many as marking the end of the post-9/11 era of Western interventionism.

At a time when people are increasingly and painfully aware of the West’s imperial past, this may seem a good thing. Western democracies have acted selfishly and arrogantly in the years following 9/11, with the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan motivated more by economic self-interest and a desire for vengeance than by any coherent foreign policy framework. France, the United Kingdom, and the United States, the only Western countries capable of unilateral intervention, do not have much credibility either at home or abroad when it comes to the humanitarian use of military force. Yet, if Western nations become unwilling to fight abroad in pursuit of humanitarian goals they risk facilitating and exacerbating crimes against humanity.

“It may be the case in the next few months or years that the West has to intervene in Ethiopia”

Consider Ethiopia. Prime Minister Abiy Ahmed’s government is at war with the Tigrayan People’s Liberation Front (TPLF), the group which governed Ethiopia until 2018 and continues to govern the province of Tigray. The Ethiopian National Defense Force (ENDF) has employed rape and starvation as weapons of war as well as enlisting the help of despotic Eritrean President Isaias Afwerki, whose troops have utilised similarly brutal tactics.

Currently, the TPLF has repulsed the advances of the ENDF and Eritrean army, and pushed forward into neighbouring Amhara where they too have been accused of war crimes. Worryingly, Ethiopian and Eritrean forces are blockading the region, denying aid agencies access to the injured, homeless, sick, and starving.


Mountain View

Withdrawal symptoms: the outcomes of foreign intervention in Afghanistan

The Horn of Africa is already an unstable place. Somalia’s government is desperately battling al-Shabaab. Eritrea’s government has been accused of domestic crimes against humanity by the UN, in addition to its actions in Tigray. South Sudan is the fragile, violent child of a civil war. Ethiopia is the only relatively wealthy and stable country in the region and yet it is wracked by ethnic and political tensions; if it descends into a full-blown civil war, the entire region could implode, causing unspeakable human suffering. It may be the case in the next few months or years that the West has to intervene in Ethiopia to prevent such an outcome. If Western countries remain gun-shy in the aftermath of Afghanistan then they may not do so; if this begets catastrophe, then we will simply have continued to ride the cycle of arrogance, failure, neglect, and overcorrection.

The West needs a comprehensive strategy for preventing and dealing with atrocities that has as its core tenet protection of the vulnerable. Until such a strategy is developed, millions will continue to die on our watch and that is neither an effective use of the West’s privileged global position, nor a way of atoning for its imperial past.