On a trip to Rwanda in March 1998, President Bill Clinton issued what has come to be known as the “Clinton apology.” Speaking on the Kigali Airport tarmac, he (in)famously stated: “We come here today partly in recognition of the fact that we in the United States and the world community did not do as much as we could have and should have done to try to limit what occurred [in Rwanda].” He then added in true Clintonesque style:
It may seem strange to you here, especially the many of you who lost members of your family, but all over the world there were people like me sitting in offices, day after day after day, who did not fully appreciate [pause] the depth [pause] and the speed [pause] with which you were being engulfed by this unimaginable terror.
By “unimaginable terror,” Clinton was referring to the Rwandan Genocide of 1994 in which Hutus, in a campaign orchestrated by the Hutu-led government, slaughtered an estimated 800,000 Tutsis and Hutu political moderates. “We did not act quickly enough after the killing began,” he apologized. “We should not have allowed the refugee camps to become safe havens for the killers. We did not immediately call these crimes by their rightful name: genocide.”
In this mea culpa, “Slick Willie” artfully dodged his and U.S. culpability in facilitating the genocide. As the old adage asks: What did he know and when did he know it? According to Samantha Power, the Harvard foreign policy scholar and now with the Obama National Security Council, Clinton woke up to the horrors of Rwanda while reading a “New Yorker” article by Philip Gourevitch. She reports that he forwarded the article to his national-security adviser, Sandy Berger, demanding: “’How did this happen?,” adding, ‘I want to get to the bottom of this.’”
And getting to the bottom of it he surely didn’t. As Power reminds us, “The President’s urgency and outrage were oddly timed. As the terror in Rwanda had unfolded, Clinton had shown virtually no interest in stopping the genocide, and his Administration had stood by as the death toll rose into the hundreds of thousands.” [Power, “Bystanders to Genocide,” Atlantic, September 2001]
Clinton, secretary of state Madeleine Albright and others within his administration knew for years what was taking place in Rwanda and did little to halt the genocide. After the bloodletting ceased, Clinton awoke from a somnambulist stupor, saxophone in hand, and, being America’s “first black president,” flew to Kigali to apologize. His apology rang hollow to those who had suffered due to Clinton’s inaction.
The question before President Obama is whether he will, like Clinton and many other of his predecessor, awake from his presidential slumber in a few years and travel to Kinshasa to make yet another apology for his and his administration’s failed policies with regard to the slaughter taking place in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC)? Standing aside in the face of horrendous slaughter, be it formally “genocide” or another form of mass killing, rape and pillage, is as American as apple pie. Sadly, Obama seems to be continuing this ignoble tradition.
* * *
The DRC has been in a state of war since 1994 when the Rwanda Genocide spilled across its eastern border. Civil struggle, ethnic conflicts, foreign invasions and battles over mineral wealth have repeatedly overwhelmed this fragile country. Estimates of those killed since the outbreak of the “First Congo War” in 1996 range from 3 million (Human Security Report) to 5.4 million (International Rescue Committee). No matter which estimate one accepts, the ongoing slaughter taking place in the DRC represents the greatest bloodletting since World War II.
Oxfam International recently released a study, “Now, The World Is Without Me,” assessing the growing horror of violence being inflicted on the noncombatant population in the DRC, especially the systematic campaign of rape of women and young girls. The Harvard Humanitarian Initiative conducted the study. More than 4,000 rape victims were interviewed from 2004 to 2008 in a hospital in the eastern city of Bukavu.
Rape has long been an instrument of war, a tactic used to terrorize the noncombatant population. [See “’The Hard Hand of War’: Rape as an Instrument of Total War,” CounterPunch, April 4, 2008] In the DRC, members of the Congolese army, Rwandan militias and armed gangs have raped tens of thousands of women. According to the Oxfam report, there has been a 17-fold increase in civilian rape over the past few years. More than 9,000 people, including men and boys, were raped in 2009.
The study’s findings are deeply disturbing:
# 60 percent of rape victims surveyed were gang raped by armed men;
# 56 percent of assaults were carried out in the family home by armed men;
# 16 percent took place in fields and almost 15 percent in the forest;
# 57 percent of assaults were carried out at night.
Sexual slavery was also reported, affecting 12 percent of the women with some being held captive and repeatedly raped for years.
More revealing as to the spread of the “fog of war” to civil society is the finding that in 2008 civilians committed 38 percent of the rapes, compared to less than 1 percent in 2004. The study notes: “These findings imply a normalisation of rape among the civilian population, suggesting the erosion of all constructive social mechanisms that ought to protect civilians from sexual violence.”
Rape is an act of violation and, in a traditional or patriarchal society, a mark of shame often borne by the victim for years. The Oxfam study reports that female rape victims feel stigmatized by the act of violation, that they are somehow responsible for the crime perpetrated against them. They often are rejected by the their families and 9 percent report being abandoned by their spouse. They often do not seek medical care for fear of being identified as a victim; only 12 percent come to the local hospital within a month of the assault and over half of the women waited more than a year before seeking treatment. Sadly, very few women came for treatment in time to prevent HIV infection.
“Rape of this scale and brutality is scandalous,” said Krista Riddley, director of Oxfam’s humanitarian policy. “This is a wake-up call at a time when plans are being discussed for UN peacekeepers to leave the country. The situation is not secure if a woman can’t even sleep safely in her own bed at night.” Susan Bartels, Harvard’s chief researcher, warns, “Sexual violence has become more normal in civilian life. … The scale of rape over Congo’s years of war has made this crime seem more acceptable.”
* * *
America has a long history of denying immoral socio-political barbary. It starts with Thomas Jefferson, who not only wrote eloquently as to the rights of human subjects, but accepted the horrors of slavery as part of the fabric of the new nation and, as a slave-owner, fathered six children with a slave woman he clearly loved.
Andrew Jackson, the valiant commander of the victorious forces in the Battle of New Orleans, waged a vicious war against America’s native people, most notably his slaughter of the Seminole and Creek Indians in 1817. As he advised, “We are not only fighting hostile armies, but a hostile people, and must make old and young, rich and poor, feel the hard hand of war.”
The first modern genocidal war took place amidst World War I and the collapse of the Ottoman Empire. Between 1915-1916, Turkish troops slaughtered an estimated 1 to 1.5 million ethnic Albanians. Efforts by Woodrow Wilson to make Armenia an official U.S. protectorate were rejected by Congress in 1920; however, later that year, the Republic of Armenia was established.
As the climate for America’s entry into the 1940s European conflict intensified into what would become a second world war, it is now clear that Franklin Roosevelt and his closest advisors knew about Nazi anti-Semitism, concentration camps and the mass imprisonment of Jews. Whether they knew that Jews and others were being exterminated in gas chambers remains an open question.
Nevertheless, Roosevelt approved Operation Thunderclap, the firebombing of Dresden in which tens of thousand of noncombatants were incinerated. He also seems to have known of mad-dog Curtis LeMay’s plan to firebomb Tokyo and other Japanese cities and kill hundreds of thousand of noncombatants. More so, he approved the development of the nuclear weaponry that would incinerate noncombatants in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. FDR did not live long enough to give the final order to bomb Japan; this honor fell to his replacement, Harry Truman.
In the half-century since the end of world war, mass slaughter has been institutionalized. China’s politically-orchestrated famine of1958-1961 saw between 15 and 40 million people suffer and die. An estimated one million people were killed due to the partition of Pakistan; two million were exterminated in the Cambodian genocide of 1975-1979. During this period, American’s great conservative leader, Ronald Reagan, approved the killing of tens of thousands of populists in Chile, El Salvador, Nicaragua and other parts of Latin America. Clinton’s decision to have NATO undertake a 78-day bombing assault on Serbia in 1999 seems to be the lesson he learned from his failure to halt the Rwanda Genocide. However, the terrorization of noncombatants and the rape of the civilian female population taking place in the Congo signals a new, degenerate, stage in modern warfare.
President Obama is not unaware of the horrors of that defile the Congo. As a Senator, he sponsored a bill approved in December 2006 to provide relief and promote democracy in Congo. He also cited rape in the Congo as part of his Nobel Prize speech rationalizing just war:
Sanctions must exact a real price. Intransigence must be met with increased pressure – and such pressure exists only when the world stands together as one. … The same principle applies to those who violate international laws by brutalizing their own people. When there is genocide in Darfur, systematic rape in Congo, repression in Burma – there must be consequences.
So, what are the consequences for the continuing slaughter inflicted in the Congo?
So far these consequences seem only cosmetic. In 2009, Hillary Clinton visited the Congo, only her non-diplomatic outburst due a translation error garnered headlines while the ongoing ware in the DRC was ignored. Obama appointed Howard Wolpe as a special advisor for the region. One only wonders whether he will be any more successful then his colleagues Sen. George Mitchell for Israel-Palestine and Richard Holbrooke for Afghanistan-Pakistan.
Sadly, as DRC President Joseph Kabila is seeking to have the UN’s 20,000 peacekeeping mission withdrawn, the decision by Obama’s UN representative Susan Rice to not participate in the Security Council’s scheduled visit to the DRC helped scuttle the trip. This may signal the UN’s capitulation to Kabila’s demands.
Having visited Rwanda in the wake of the 1994 slaughter, Rice remarked: “I saw hundreds, if not thousands, of decomposing corpses outside and inside a church. Corpses that had been hacked up. It was the most horrible thing I’ve ever seen.” Apparently truly shocked, she added, “It makes you mad. It makes you determined. It makes you know that even if you’re the last lone voice and you believe you’re right, it is worth every bit of energy you can throw into it.”
One can only wonder where Rice’s anger, along with that of Obama and Clinton, are with regard to the rape and murder taking place in eastern Congo? Most likely, if the UN peacekeepers are withdrawn, the slaughter will increase and more women will be victims of rape and abuse.
DAVID ROSEN is the author of “Sex Scandals America: Politics & the Ritual of Public Shaming” (Key, 2009); he can be reached at email@example.com.