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August 22, 2001, Wednesday

Papers Show U.S. Knew Of Genocide In Rwanda


Newly declassified government documents show that several senior United States officials were aware of the dimensions of the genocide in Rwanda in early 1994, even as some sought ways to avoid getting involved.

The 16 documents, released today by the National Security Archive, a research group at George Washington University, provide new details of the deliberations within the Clinton administration from April through May 1994 as the killings took place. By the end of June, an estimated 800,000 people were killed by government-backed militias.

The general contours of the inability and unwillingness of the United Nations and its members, notably the United States, France and Belgium, to help stop the killings have been widely reported. The United Nations studied the debacle in detail, and its top officials have acknowledged serious mistakes.

President Clinton, during a visit to Rwanda in March 1998, expressed deep remorse about his administration's inaction. He said people in distant offices, like himself, did not appreciate what was happening on the fields of Central Africa.

But the disclosure today suggests, for example, that some officials knew the potential for mass slaughter in Rwanda. In addition, once it began on April 6 -- after the Rwandan president was apparently assassinated when his plane was shot down -- several of them tried to persuade their superiors to act.

One of them was Prudence Bushnell, the principal deputy assistant secretary of state for African affairs. In a memorandum dated April 6, she warned her superiors, including Secretary of State Warren Christopher, that the killing of the Rwandan president that day would probably produce widespread violence and that the ''military intends to take over power temporarily.''

A cable dated April 29 shows that Ms. Bushnell spoke on the telephone with Col. Théoneste Bagasora, a Rwandan official who was later identified as a leader of the massacres. She told him Washington was aware of his actions and urged him to end the killings.

''This shows that our officials knew who to call three weeks into the killing,'' said William Ferroggiaro, the editor of the documents for the National Security Archive. ''Ms. Bushnell, to her credit, made this initiative. She discovered who was responsible, even though you wouldn't know it by his title.'' Colonel Bagasora has since been charged with crimes against humanity and is awaiting trial.

Mr. Christopher did not return a telephone call. Officials at the United States Embassy in Guatemala, where Ms. Bushnell is ambassador, said she was traveling and could not be reached for comment.

The documents also form the basis for an article in the September issue of The Atlantic Monthly by Samantha Power, the executive director of the human rights center at Harvard University.

Her article, which examines how American policy makers behaved during the massacres, concludes that American officials allowed the genocide to occur out of a combination of disinterest in Africa, a preference for negotiations over military intervention, and the residual trauma from the recent deaths of 18 American peacekeepers in Somalia.

The documents also provide more details behind the American government's decision to avoid calling the killings genocide.

One document, dated May 1, 1994, summarizes a meeting of several unidentified officials who were analyzing the Rwanda situation. The meeting ends with a warning against branding the massacres genocide.

''Be careful,'' the document reads. ''Legal at State was worried about this yesterday. Genocide finding could commit U.S.G. to actually 'do something.' '' ''Legal'' refers to the legal adviser at the State Department and U.S.G. is the United States government. The officials worried that if ''genocide'' was used, Washington would have to act because it is a signatory to antigenocide conventions of 1948.

Other documents show that some officials pressed Mr. Christopher to authorize the use of the term genocide. A memo from Toby T. Gati, assistant secretary of the State Department Bureau of Intelligence and Research, concluded that genocide had indeed occurred. Similarly Joan Donoghue, of the legal adviser's office, concluded in a memo disclosed today that genocide had taken place.

Using the Gati and Donoghue memorandums, several senior officials urged Mr. Christopher to authorize the use of the term, arguing that failure to do so would undermine American credibility, and contending that it would not force Washington to act.

In response, Mr. Christopher authorized officials to say that ''acts of genocide had occurred.'' Mr. Ferroggiaro said Mr. Christopher did not flatly call the slaughter genocide until June 10.

Organizations mentioned in this article:
National Security Archive

Related Terms:
United States International Relations; War Crimes and Criminals

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Copyright 2001 The New York Times Company