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Rice: Lessons from Rwanda

January 15, 2009


“I swore to myself that if I ever faced such a crisis again, I would come down on the side of dramatic action, going down in flames if that was required,” Dr. Susan Rice on visiting post-genocide Rwanda.

In her confirmation hearing for U.S. Ambassador to the U.N. this morning, Senator Feingold asked Dr. Rice what this quote means to her.

To my surprise, Dr. Rice used the occasion to stress the importance of conflict prevention. Information gathering and efforts to asses the potential for mass violence need to be improved, Rice noted. The U.N. and international community to improve overall conflict prevention efforts, Rice added. There is a strong relationship between persistent chronic poverty and mass violence, she further noted.

Yes, yes, yes! The debate in Washington is shifting from reaction to prevention. As FCNL and other groups have noted, genocide and mass atrocities don’t occur in a vacuum. While these situations can develop fast (as in the case of Rwanda), there are indicators or signs that precede mass violence. In Rwanda, it was hate radio. While many note the international communities’ failure to send troops into Rwanda, the real lesson is that the international community failed to asses reports of ethnically driven hate media and respond before the killing started.

Not convinced? Similar hate media started to come out of Cote d’Ivoire from 2004-2006. Persistent diplomacy from high level U.N. officials including the threat of legal action is credited with preventing tensions from escalating into catastrophic violence.

The real lesson from Rwanda is that earlier responses to credible threats of genocide works. While she didn’t dive into details, Dr. Rice’s comments on the need to improve conflict assessment demonstrated that she understood that this morning. Hopefully she will work to make the U.N. more adroit and better able to prevent these atrocities in the future.

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