WASHINGTON -- On April 12, 1994, six days after a plane carrying Rwanda's president was shot down, setting off a wave of killings, Madeleine K. Albright, the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations at the time, sent a cable to the State Department proposing that the United States take the lead in pushing to withdraw the U.N. peacekeeping force operating there.
Ms. Albright's tersely worded cable, recently declassified, starkly captures the U.S. reluctance to respond to the deepening crisis in Rwanda. When most of the U.N. force was withdrawn shortly afterward, leaving the violence almost completely unchecked, the crisis rapidly escalated into one of history's most grimly efficient genocides, with some 800,000 people killed in fewer than 100 days.
Twenty years after the genocide, the National Security Archive and the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum have obtained nearly 300 secret cables from the United States, Britain, New Zealand and other members of the U.N. Security Council during the fateful weeks when events in Rwanda spiraled out of control.
The documents, which the groups posted on their websites Monday, offer a vivid record of closed-door debates, in which the diplomats, lacking accurate information and scarred by a disastrous military mission in Somalia months earlier, voted to pull out most of the peacekeepers at the very moment when they could have curbed the killing.
"It's clear, in hindsight, that the pullout of peacekeeping was the green light for genocide," said Tom Blanton, director of the National Security Archive at George Washington University, which, along with the Holocaust Museum, is sponsoring a conference this week in The Hague on how the world handled the Rwanda crisis.
Cameron Hudson, acting director of the Holocaust Museum's Center for the Prevention of Genocide, said, "It looks very cold and doesn't paint any of the big countries in a good light."
Former President Bill Clinton has described his administration's inaction as one of the greatest regrets of his time in office. Ms. Albright, who has also expressed regret, said in an interview that she welcomed the release of the cables because she hoped a fuller exploration of that period would contribute to policies that would prevent future atrocities. "I was an instructed ambassador, not the secretary of state, but I do wish I had argued harder," said Ms. Albright, who became secretary of state during Mr. Clinton's second term.
On April 14, after Belgium announced that it would pull its troops from the peacekeeping force in Rwanda, the U.N. Security Council debated whether to beef up the mission to help protect civilians, withdraw it entirely or scale it back to a rump force, largely for symbolic value. The United States and Britain favored the third option.
"I understood why there had been talk of protecting civilians," the British ambassador at the time, Sir David Hannay, wrote in a cable. "But even a vastly increased and better equipped UNAMIR would find such a broad mandate difficult to fulfill," he said using the acronym for the peacekeeping force, U.N. Assistance Mission for Rwanda.
In her April 12 cable, Ms. Albright said there was a "window of opportunity" to withdraw the bulk of the force because the airport in the capital, Kigali, was still under the control of Belgian and French troops. She advocated leaving behind a "skeletal staff that might be able to facilitate a cease-fire and any future political negotiations."
On April 21, after a week in which 10,000 Rwandans were killed in Kigali alone, the Security Council voted to reduce the force size to 270 troops from 2,100.
The remaining peacekeepers found themselves "standing knee-deep in mutilated bodies," said Romeo Dallaire, the Canadian general who commanded the U.N. force.