In 1994, the Rwandan genocide claimed 800,000 lives. This genocide was remarkable for being very low-tech — lots of non-military, average people with machetes killing their neighbors. Romeo Dallaire, the leader of the small UN peacekeeping mission there, saw it coming and was convinced he could stop much of the violence if he had 5,000 international troops plus the authority to seize weapon caches and do other aggressive intervention operations. Famously, he made a plea to his superiors and was denied. (The genocide ended only when a rebel army managed a string of military victories and forcibly stopped the killing.)
Kofi Annan forbade him from expanding his peacekeeping mandate because there was no international support — in particular, the U.S. was not on board. A recent article from The Economist explains,
And the trickiest challenge will always be the unexpected. Bill Clinton is often blamed for failing to stop the killing in Rwanda. He could have sent troops or at least jammed the radio broadcasts that told the killers where to go and whom to kill. But he had seen a humanitarian military intervention in Somalia go bloodily awry the previous year, so he did not.
But, very interestingly, there seems to have been an information cost dimension to the problem:
He said afterwards that he had not understood soon enough what was going on in Rwanda. [Samantha Power, genocide expert and advisor to Barack Obama] retorts that he “could have known…if he had wanted to know”. But that is easy to say with hindsight. The Rwandan genocide was the quickest on record. Even experts did not realise just how well-organised and systematic the killing was until nearly half the victims were already dead. Mr Clinton could in theory have wrenched his mind away from all the other crises in the world and grasped the Rwandan situation in time to save many lives. But in practice, how many presidents are that flexible?
As despicable and disastrous Clinton’s inaction was, I think you can’t blame him for making decisions based on the very poor amount of information they had at the time. (Though the situation was definitely not as simple as the article depicts it — for example, the State Department spent months playing semantic games around the term “genocide” to avoid admitting they were standing by as one took place.)
Whoever’s fault it was, U.S. decision makers had either bad intelligence or reports that were too easy to ignore. And there’s something to be said for a bounded rationality explanation: political leaders having very limited attentional resources for acquiring information before making decisions. But compared to 1994, today we have far better infrastructure for disseminating information from the ground: mobile phones, online video, blogs/messaging/etc, and even websites specialized for gathering documentation of human rights violations like witness.org. These sources should make it easier for policymakers to know about, and harder to ignore, really bad situations like this.
There might already be a test case for this hypothesis — did social media information dissemination affect the international response to Darfur? Certainly many groups advocating intervention, like Save Darfur, have been tremendously helped by online organizing. But have there been any results? Or was it always an uphill battle (e.g. China needs the Sudanese government’s oil)? I’m not sure.