The United States Role in Transitional Justice for Rwanda

I. Background

The case of the Rwandan genocide is particularly significant for analyzing transitional justice responses to atrocities because of the egregious nature and specific characteristics of the mass killing and its consequences.1 First, an extraordinarily high number and percentage of Rwandans participated in committing the genocide.2 Second, despite evidence of mass atrocities and the likelihood that even minimal efforts would have mitigated the scope of the genocide,3 neither the UN nor the world’s sole superpower, the United States, intervened.4 After the genocide, however, the UN, acting through the UNSC—where the USG took a proactive role and on which the GoR coincidentally held a nonpermanent seat during 1994—actively engaged in the post-conflict transitional justice process in Rwanda.

The USG’s decision to support the creation of the ICTR met with no serious internal opposition. Then-U.S. National Security Advisor Anthony Lake recalls: “We thought it was a good idea. There were no high level arguments or concerns—simply approval and ‘let’s get it done in the [UNSC].’ ”5 Some USG officials involved in the debate remember that the only counterarguments to the ICTR, which were minimal, concerned whether creating the tribunal might incite more violence—the opposite of the intended effect. As Shattuck recalls: “The other side of the debate was that it would be a potentially incendiary device at a time when there had been plenty of bloodshed already, and that it would not prove to be the instrument of peace that we thought it would be.”6 However, these concerns were minor, and were certainly not held among senior officials. In the end, according to Scheffer, “[t]here was no faction under the executive or legislative branches standing in the way of creating the ICTR.”7 This near-unanimous approval within the USG to support the establishment of the ICTR is puzzling given the USG’s inaction during the genocide; the number, merits, and precedence of alternative transitional justice options; the GoR’s ultimate opposition to this proposal; and the fact that the USG did not initially favor this option.

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