Lessons from Rwanda

April 10, 2014 By Zach Silberman

This week the world reflected on the 20th anniversary of the Rwandan genocide, an unspeakable tragedy that claimed the lives of 800,000 innocent Rwandans through 100 days of terror. Out of the ashes, Rwanda rose to achieve social and economic progress, such as an increase in life expectancy to more than 60 years, and economic growth consistently reaching 8 percent annually.

The work of the international community following the Rwandan genocide was built around the public and private sectors working together to prevent conflict. USAID sought to build the capacity of Rwanda’s governing institutions, while NGOs like the International Rescue Committee and World Vision provided relief to refugees of the genocide.

IRC and World Vision still work in Rwanda to promote peace and security by increasing access to justice, raising awareness of human rights, and enabling the nation’s children to have a better future.

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The lessons of the Rwandan genocide remain relevant today as the U.S. is faced with complex crises in Syria and the Democratic Republic of Congo that require conflict prevention and peacekeeping strategies.

The President’s FY15 budget request calls for increases in international peacekeeping activities by 36 percent over FY 14 levels, mainly to support missions in South Sudan and Mali, and to meet the full U.S. assessed share of all United Nations operations. In addition, the administration proposed $150 million for a new “Peacekeeping Response Mechanism” to allow the United States to respond to unanticipated and urgent peacekeeping needs if another Rwanda was to occur.

Defending this new initiative before Congress, U.S. Ambassador to the UN Samantha Power argued that, “Multilateral peace operations enable us to do so in a cost-effective manner in such strife-torn countries as South Sudan, Somalia, the DRC, and Mali as well as in transitioning counties critical to U.S. interests such as Afghanistan, Libya and Iraq.”

In the wake of Rwanda, the U.S. government continues to take steps to focus its attention on atrocities prevention. A 2012 presidential directive highlighted the need for a comprehensive strategy to prevent atrocities and created the President’s Atrocities Prevention Board, which brings together relevant national security agencies to develop and implement atrocity prevention and response policy.

Newly confirmed Under Secretary of State for Civilian Security, Democracy, and Human Rights Sarah Sewall recently argued that, “Atrocity prevention is a core national security interest for the United States.”

Both former President Bill Clinton and former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright have often acknowledged that not responding to the Rwandan genocide was one of their “greatest regrets” while in office.

As Rwanda and the world mark the anniversary with a week of mourning, we should be mindful of how far the nation has come, but also remember the importance of preventing mass atrocities through a coordinated approach to conflict prevention.