Megillah Esther Part I – The Tale

Megillah Esther Part I – The Tale


Howard Adelman

I should have written this as the first essay in my series on antisemitism. For this is the first tale about antisemitism. It is set in Babylon between the period of the first and second Jerusalem temples. However, tonight is Purim, the Jewish holiday that celebrates the Book of Esther and the escape of the Jews from the evil Prime Minister of the Persian Empire, Haman, who was determined to exterminate Jews throughout all the lands of Persia that extended over 127 provinces from India westward to Ethiopia. He was the world’s first antisemite. This is the appropriate time to tell the tale.

I will write about that antisemitism, but I must first build the foundation by recapping the tale itself to set in place the parts and then explicate the genre of fiction known as romance in which Esther fits.

However, as Jane Austen taught us, everything is not always what it seems. Everyone wears masks and, to understand what is going on, the royal court must be unmasked. We begin with a depiction of the romance of the court itself when King Ahasuerus in Shushan, the capital of the Persian Empire, in the third year of his reign, had a great feast inviting all the members of his royal household, all of his military officers, all the princes and princesses throughout the provinces for a week-long feast after 180 days of celebration throughout the empire. Talk about the excesses of royal conspicuous consumption! It is difficult to find anything that competed before or since as the guests drank out of vessels of gold in a room where:

“there were hangings of white, fine cotton, and blue, bordered with cords of fine linen and purple, upon silver rods and pillars of marble; the couches were of gold and silver, upon a pavement of green, and white, and shell, and onyx marble.” (1:6)

The first sub-plot begins with the introduction of Queen Vashti that will adumbrate the whole story about costuming and revelation. On the final day of the big bash, before the officers and princes of the court, the king summoned Queen Vashti “before the king with the crown royal, to show the peoples and the princes her beauty; for she was fair to look on.” (1:11) She was required to appear nude with only the crown on her head to be put on display as a trophy wife. With this initial act of vulgarity, it should be no surprise why many rabbis speculated that Ahasuerus was originally a commoner who had usurped the throne in a coup.

To the king’s complete embarrassment, Queen Vashti refused to come at the king’s bidding lest she be humiliated before the whole court. Did she know the risks she was taking? Did she understand what it meant to publicly defy the will of the king? She stood on principle no matter what the risks. It is very difficult to know or understand why the rabbinical commentators needed to portray her as a wicked queen. There is not even a hint of that in the story. Sure enough, Ahasuerus was boiling mad; “the king was very wroth, and his anger burned in him.” He was not thinking about what an ass he had been to issue such a stupid order when he was drunk.

Seething, King Ahasuerus turned to his wise men and advisers and asked what he should do. How should he respond to this act of willful disobedience?

Yesterday was International Women’s Day protesting against the remaining remnants of a patriarchal society. In a patriarchal society, such disobedience of women to their male overlords might set a precedent. The advisers advised. “For this deed of the queen will come abroad unto all women, to make their husbands contemptible in their eyes, when it will be said: The king Ahasuerus commanded Vashti the queen to be brought in before him, but she came not.” (1:17) Man is owed honour and respect from his women, the very principle romantic tales subvert. To set an example, Queen Vashti, because she would not appear naked in her crown before the whole court, was stripped of all her properties, all her magnificent gowns, all her jewelry and cast out of the court.

The whole point of this prolegomena was to set the stage of what Esther would be risking when she chose to disobey the king’s edict much later in the tale. With the dismissal of Vashti, there came an opening for a new queen. Like the tale of the golden slipper, a search was begun for the prettiest maiden in the land.

A new character and the major plot is then introduced. Mordecai, a Jew who lived in Shushan, the capital, was “the son of Jair the son of Shimei the son of Kish, a Benjamite.” (2:5) This is an important detail which almost no rabbinical commentator overlooked. For in saying that Mordecai was a Benjamite among the Jews captured when the first temple was destroyed in Jerusalem and transported to the capital of the Persian Empire, we are led to recall that Mordecai was himself a descendent of royalty, from the tribe of Kish, the name of King Saul’s father. And, going further back, the descendent of Benjamin the youngest and favoured son of Jacob. We also remember that Jacob tricked Esau into giving him the birthright and, according to lore, bequeathed eternal enmity between the descendants of Esau and of Jacob, between Amalek, the grandson of Esau, and any Jew, suggesting that antisemitism has very deep roots in familial rivalry. Yet it is the name Mordecai that means “bitter,” though Haman will be the source of the “tumult” (the meaning of Haman) between him and the Jews of the Persian Empire.

Hadassah (Esther or Ishtar, in Aramaic “bright star”) was Mordecai’s niece whom he adopted and raised. Thus, we have introduced the archetypal orphan so beloved of romance novels. Esther is itself a mask for her real, earthier, name. Hadassah means myrtle, the symbol of righteousness. Further, and of course, she was a natural beauty. She joined the contestants for queen by becoming a concubine under the custody of Hegai, keeper of the women in the royal court. Esther rose quickly to become the king’s favourite and “Esther had not made known her people nor her kindred; for Mordecai had charged her that she should not tell it.” (2:10) In other words, she hid her religious and ethnic identity. The masks were on. The situation was similar to the one where the Chancellor in the court of the Chinese Sung dynasty had his beautiful sister become his spy by having her planted among the women of Kublai Khan’s harem.

Unlike the Sung dynasty chancellor, Mordecai supposedly cared about Esther and her well-being and paced below the women’s house in the court to gain information, not on Ahasuerus, but on the well-being of Esther. Maybe he was himself a spy on the court? Perhaps his interest was not Esther’s welfare, but that was just an excuse for walking below the women’s house. Perhaps Esther was his planted inside secret agent. In any case, four years after the big bash and discarding Queen Vashti, “the king loved Esther above all the women, and she obtained grace and favour in his sight more than all the virgins; so that he set the royal crown upon her head, and made her queen instead of Vashti.” (2:17) And it is repeated: “Esther had not yet made known her kindred nor her people; as Mordecai had charged her; for Esther did the commandment of Mordecai, like as when she was brought up with him.” (2:20)

The next step in the plot takes place. Mordecai overhears two chamberlains of the court plotting a coup. Mordecai told Esther. Esther told the king. And the two traitors were duly hung following an investigation.

The introduction of Haman, the Agagite, who became the Vizier or Prime Minister, followed. Like the Israelites, Haman was also a foreigner and a sojourner, but a descendent of Agag from the Negev, a people whom King Saul slew in a massive genocide. For the Agagites were descendants of Amalek. But a few must have escaped the slaughter. A deep desire obviously burned in Haman’s gut to avenge the destruction of his people.

When Haman was appointed by King Ahasuerus as Prime Minister, the king commanded that all bow before Haman, and, for Jews, before Amalek. But, “Mordecai bowed not down, nor prostrated himself before him.” For an analysis of why Mordecai refused to bow down, see my daughter Rachel’s article, “Why Did Mordecai not Bow Down to Haman?” ( Was it because bowing was viewed as idolatry or because Haman was a descendent of Amalek? Or both?

Mordecai never offered a reason when the king’s servants asked him why he refused to bow before Haman. (3:2) Except he told them he was a Jew. Esther could not tell that she was a Jew, but Mordecai would use his being a Jew to excuse his refusal to bow before Haman.

Haman, on hearing the news, was full of rage. The text then continues: “it seemed contemptible in his eyes to lay hands on Mordecai alone; for they had made known to him the people of Mordecai; wherefore Haman sought to destroy all the Jews that were throughout the whole kingdom of Ahasuerus, even the people of Mordecai.” (3:6) Killing Mordecai alone would leave Haman open to revenge by his fellow Jews, especially if they learned he was an Agatite. Haman would have to kill all Jews. The mass murder was justified in the same way the exile of Vashti was justified – he needed to uphold the perception of absolute authority. But if he only had Mordecai’s slain, he would have left himself open to revenge from Mordecai’s fellow Jews. Haman bided his time.

About five years later he worked out a plan. Playing Bannon to Trump, he planted the seeds of a fifth column in the king’s mind, a very early version of a conspiracy theory. Further, the king would benefit financially from this solution to “the Jewish problem.”

8 And Haman said unto king Ahasuerus: ‘There is a certain people scattered abroad and dispersed among the peoples in all the provinces of thy kingdom; and their laws are diverse from those of every people; neither keep they the king’s laws; therefore it profiteth not the king to suffer them.
9 If it please the king, let it be written that they be destroyed; and I will pay ten thousand talents of silver into the hands of those that have the charge of the king’s business, to bring it into the king’s treasuries.’

King Ahasuerus gave Haman his signet ring to show he had the authority to carry out the deed. The decree went forth. What did Mordecai do? He panicked. Bewailing his and his countrymen’s fate, he put on sackcloth and ashes and mourned their imminent fate.  And all Jews in the empire followed suit. But this was the beginning of Esther exhibiting her independence from her uncle Mordecai, to whom she had always been an obedient niece. She challenged his fatalist approach and urged him to don proper clothes and discard the sackcloth. Mordecai refused. He sent back the details of the orders to destroy the Jews to Esther through her servant or steward, Hathach, for the meaning of his name is that he was assigned as Queen Esther’s protector.

What could Esther do? The law was clear and unequivocal. She could not appear before the king unless she was summoned. She knew what had happened to Vashti when she disobeyed the king’s edicts. Mordecai replied to this message in an early version of JFK’s, “Think not what your nation can do for you. Think what you can do for your nation.” “Think not with thyself that thou shalt escape in the king’s house, more than all the Jews.” (4:13) Esther wrote a note back asking all Jews to fast for her for three days. And she vowed, “so will I go in unto the king, which is not according to the law; and if I perish, I perish.” (4:16)

Remember she was a real beauty. After three days, she dressed for the part and appeared in the courtyard of the king and he raised his sceptre bewitched by her beauty and invited her in. He promised to grant any wish, even to give her half his kingdom. Her only wish she said was to hold a banquet in honour of both the king and Haman. The king once again promised to grant any petition she put before him. Haman on receiving the invitation burst with pride at his rise to the heights of the royal court.

At the same time, he prepared a gallows on which to hang Mordecai. But that same night, the king could not sleep and reviewed his Chronicles and came across the story of how Mordecai had discovered the plot to overthrow him as he learned he had never rewarded Mordecai for this deed. When Haman came before the court the next day without this background knowledge of what was in the king’s mind and the king asked, “What shall be done unto the man whom the king delighteth to honour?” (6:6) it should be no surprise that, given the banquet that was being held and his invitation, that he believed the question was about himself. He answered, let the man be clothed in the king’s apparel and ride on the king’s horse through the streets so that he may be honoured.

Can you imagine the shock when the king agreed and ordered Haman to take the apparel for Mordecai to don and the horse for Mordecai to ride? It was now Haman’s turn to mourn for he had to know the fate that now awaited him, a fate reinforced by his wife and friends for Haman had challenged the edict of governing the Jewish treatment of the descendants of Amalek. But Haman still had to attend the Queen’s banquet for the king.

At the banquet the king once again promised to grant Esther any petition. She asked for the king to give both herself and her people’s lives and she told him about the plan to destroy her people.  She had heretofore kept quiet because revealing the name of the Jew’s adversary might damage the king. But the king asked who and where he was that would dare do such a deed. Esther said, “Haman.”

Haman, if he was terrified before, had to be trembling in his boots. When the king left the banquet in wrath to seek out Haman, Haman entered and fell pleading before Queen Esther. The king returned and interpreted what he saw as an effort of Haman to rape Esther. “Will he even force the queen before me in the house?” (7:8) And Haman was hung on the gallows originally built for Mordecai.

However, the king had a dilemma. The destruction of the Jews had been ordered under his seal. He could not retract the order. But what he could do and what he did was authorize the Jews to defend themselves against those who would kill them

Thus, were the Jews saved.

Tomorrow: The Analysis of Esther as a Romance


With the help of Alex Zisman

From Generation to Generation Vayeilech Deuteronomy 31:1-30

From Generation to Generation
Vayeilech Deuteronomy 31:1-30


Howard Adelman

This section is read between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur. Most commentators focus on the need for repentance, the need for confessing one’s sins to God and one’s fellow humans, and to ask for forgiveness of those sins. But the text is largely about passing the torch from the generation of nomads and desert dwellers to those who now would become settlers in the promised land. Nine and one-half of the twelve tribes will cross the Jordan led by Joshua and settle in that land. Moses will not go with them. It is not only because he was very old, but because God said he could not. He was not permitted. His mandate had been taken away and transferred to Joshua.

But who is the greatest sinner by far? And He does not have to confess. For it is a promise that He has also already demonstrated that He can exercise on the east bank of the Jordan River. He now promises that He will do the same after crossing the river. Just as He destroyed the Amorite kings, Og and Sihon and the members of their tribes – men, women and children – so will he do after the Israelites cross the river.

גיְהֹוָ֨ה אֱלֹהֶ֜יךָ ה֣וּא | עֹבֵ֣ר לְפָנֶ֗יךָ הֽוּא־יַשְׁמִ֞יד אֶת־הַגּוֹיִ֥ם הָאֵ֛לֶּה מִלְּפָנֶ֖יךָ וִֽירִשְׁתָּ֑ם יְהוֹשֻׁ֗עַ ה֚וּא עֹבֵ֣ר לְפָנֶ֔יךָ כַּֽאֲשֶׁ֖ר דִּבֶּ֥ר יְהֹוָֽה:
The Lord, your God He will cross before you; He will destroy these nations from before you so that you will possess them. Joshua he will cross before you, as the Lord has spoken.

God promises to wipe out a nation, to kill every man, woman and child still living on the land. God promises to commit the ultimate in ethnic cleansing, genocide. Then the spoils will be divided among the nine-and-a-half other tribes. In accordance with God’s command, the Israelites not only will carry out these acts but they will not be “dismayed” in doing so – וְלֹ֥א תֵחָֽת. However, in spite of how God acts on behalf of the Israelites, in spite of His keeping His promise not to forsake Him, they will forsake God. God Himself makes this prophecy. God will keep His covenant with His people. But they will fail to reciprocate.

This nation will rise up and stray after the deities of the nations of the land, into which they are coming. And they will forsake Me and violate My covenant which I made with them. (31:16)

How will God respond? He already knows and so prophesizes. God will then abandon his people. God will hide His face from them.

My fury will rage against them on that day, and I will abandon them and hide My face from them, and they will be consumed, and many evils and troubles will befall them, and they will say on that day, ‘Is it not because our God is no longer among us, that these evils have befallen us? (31:17)

What sin would they commit? They would become idolaters, self-evidently far worse than being a géenocidaire. It is the people’s duty to obey and participate in genocide. Is God punishing his people because they care more about public opinion than God’s will? Have they lost the faith and the courage to carry out His commandments? That is one possibility. I suggest another. God perhaps hides his face because he was ashamed of what He did. He is even more ashamed that he cannot own up to such a horrible deed. So he takes the irresponsible option and blames the other, his own chosen people.

Yom Kippur is not only the time to own up to one’s own sins, but a time of waiting, waiting each year to see if God will confess His own transgressions. That time will not come as long as biblical commentators ignore these damning sections of the text. Rashi, for example, says not a word about the genocide. He elaborates on the meaning of words but cannot even spend a bit of time on a horrendous deed. Rabbis have generally followed that lead and pivot to other much less troubling sections of the Torah.

Parshat Matot: Numbers 31-36 – Justice

Parshat Matot: Numbers 31-36 – Justice


Howard Adelman

Eye in the Sky is a 2015 British thriller that applies the laws and ethics of just war theory to drone warfare. Whether in the ceilings of gambling casinos or in weather helicopters above our cities, whether the pictures are taken by satellites flying above the earth or by tiny robotic flies entering a house through a window left ajar, these ubiquitous surveillance cameras are now omniscient and omnipresent. In the Torah, God is the eye in the sky who can attend even to the pecking of a tiny sparrow.

One can, of course, be absorbed in this all-pervasive point of view and the technology or theology behind it. But one can also find it captivating and totally absorbing to use the eye in the sky to reveal dilemmas of justice in the lives of humans. The latter is the real purpose of the 2015 movie and of this week’s Torah portion.

In the movie, surveillance cameras from satellites zero in on a house in Eastview, the Somali section of Nairobi and also enter in from within the house using a surveillance camera is a mechanical flying insect. I had problems personally with the scene being placed in Eastview since, though I have not been back to Nairobi since the real rise of fanatic Islam began to spread all over the world in this century, I found it hard to believe that the Kenyan army would permit armed fanatics to control the streets and entry to a villa in the Somali part of Nairobi. But the movie quickly made me suspend such sources of disbelief. For the issue was credibility, not truth. The issue was a moral and legal issue and not the empirical reality of the dilemma. The situation merely needed to be plausible; it did not need to be credible.

The film opens with a Somali Muslim father who works repairing bicycles. He has made a hula hoop for his ten-year-old (???) daughter who is delighted by her present. Her father is also pleased and overjoyed watching his daughter play – that is, until a strict Muslim enters the courtyard to redeem his repaired bike and remonstrates the daughter and the father for allowing his daughter to play in such a provocative way – the swinging of hips, one presumes. This is important because we can identify with the daughter forced to conform in her play to a very strict interpretation of Sharia law, a stricture to which her own father agrees given the intimidating environment in which they supposedly live.

The girl will be the focus of our concern throughout the movie as Hawkeye missiles are to be shot at a house in which there are two leading terrorists and, as a bonus, two martyrs preparing to blow themselves up and sacrifice themselves for their fanatical belief in Islam. The young girl is selling her mother’s baked bread outside the walls of the compound that is being targeted. She is the potential and likely collateral damage with which the military officers concerned with military urgency are wrestling as they try to take advantage of a rare opportunity. The Attorney General and lawyers from the justice department are there as well, focused on the interpretation of international law concerning the conduct of war. There are also politicians concerned with the issue of how the collateral damage of the death of the young girl will be viewed by the media, quite aside from the importance of military action even for humanitarian reasons. To top it all off, there is a holdout moralist who, in addition to her concern with the perception of the public, goes beyond that and finds the potential killing of a girl to be beyond the pale, even when the targets are terrorists and the threat is imminent.

Key issues of law and morality, military necessity and moral considerations, weigh on contemporary society in the context of warfare. So too in the Torah. Ethical questions always arise in such life-and-death situations. However, in the film and in the Torah, the ethical outcomes are radically at odds. In the movie as the urgency of this situation grows, ethical necessity dictates a willingness to sacrifice the innocent daughter of a Somali bicycle repair man in the interest of advancing the war against radical Islam. From the legal perspective, once proper legal procedures have been followed and the responsible authorities authorize the decision, the lawyers from the justice department advising on the law applied to the terms of engagement can be persuaded to authorize an action in the name of military necessity.

But the politicians take longer since the perception of how the action will be weighed, how the death of one girl will be weighed on the scales of justice, against the likely but still only possible large number of deaths from the vest bombs of the fanatics weigh heavily. And then there is the moralist. She will never be persuaded that the possible loss of the life of one young girl by a deliberate action with knowledge aforethought should not outweigh the highly probable but still uncertain deaths of many more sometime in the very near future. The tension of the movie is built around these conflicts.

Of course, this is a totally false picture of the doctrine of just war and the terms of military engagement applied to such a situation, for this is an open and shut case militarily, legally, politically and even morally. The sacrifice would certainly be permitted under the laws of necessity and proportionality, under the laws of proper authority and procedural regularity of just war theory. But, after all, this is a Hollywood film even if made by the Brits. For though the decision is British, the implementers are Americans. It helps that the British military officers are played by Helen Mirren and Alan Rickman to allow even me to set aside my incredulity at the overt manipulation of my emotions for such a distorted moral dilemma. I know better, but I was totally sucked in. Aaron Paul, the pilot of the drone, may have tears in his eyes, but I actually wept as I, in my mind, berated the legalists, the weak-kneed politicians and the ideological moralists who stood in the way of military necessity and a just decision – with one small qualifier which I will not reveal lest it spoil the movie for those who have not seen it and may want to.

What has this all to do with this week’s Torah portion? Well the latter is also all about justice, even though the norms of justice are totally at odds. They are the other extreme of the situation in the film cast in the context of political and moral correctness which is portrayed as such a heavy handicap on the military carrying out its duties of protection. Look at the series of moral issues raised in chapters 32-37 of Numbers:
1. With the background of Jephthah and the insistence that he must keep his vow to sacrifice his daughter because he did make the vow to sacrifice the first one who greeted him if he achieved military victory, chapter 30 explores the same issue from the perspective of the daughter, that is whether she was obligated to follow through on the vow to carry out the terms of the contract made by her father; chapter 30 takes up that issue and permits reversion of the vow under very specific patriarchal conditions – the father (or the husband if she is now living in his house) hears the vow and immediately takes action to revoke it; unlike Jephthah’s vow that he alleged could not be reversed, the vow in such circumstances can be revoked.

2. The decimation of all the Midianites, men, women and children, with the exception of female children who have not reached the age of sexual maturity – like the girl in the movie; this genocide is not only permitted, but authorized by God. On what spurious grounds? Because Balaam blessed rather than cursed the Israelites? The real reason is given since the men, including all male children, had already been slaughtered. Moses became angry that mature women had been spared for, lest we forget, the real outcome of Balaam’s blessing was that he, with his blessing, cursed the Israelites by allowing cohabitation between Israelite men and Midianite women. Moses insisted that these mature women had to be killed as well. According to Rashi, God authorized such action lest the preservation of his chosen people be endangered by ethnic intermixing, yet Moses himself was married to a Midianite woman and, as I have said many times before, King David would descend from the loins of one of Israel’s greatest prophets, the Moabite Ruth.

3. The issue of what plunder was acceptable, under what conditions and how it was to be justly apportioned between the military and civilians, between the priestly class and other civilians. (I wanted to write a separate commentary on this, but not enough space and time.)

4. The next issue was the just allocation of lands to the different tribes of Israel and the lands to be set aside for the priestly class.

5. The fixed boundaries of the nation and the setting up of a sufficient number of cities of refugee (6) within that land for unintended murders (what we now call manslaughter) from family members who would otherwise seek and be entitled to vengeance.

6. The restrictions preventing the daughters of Tzelafchad from marrying outside even their tribe when there were no male heirs lest the lands they inherit be allocated to another tribe upon their father’s death since there was no surviving male heir.

The Torah in this section, with God’s imprimatur, sanctions genocide and ethnic cleansing, never mind when it is moral and proper to allow an innocent young girl to be sacrificed is collateral damage in an operation driven by military necessity. This is the other extreme of the moral universe than the one presented in Eye in the Sky. Other than a universe totally free of moral and legal constraints, this is about as close as you can get to a totally morally debased world portrayed as belonging to a moral and legal worldview and sanctioned, indeed instructed, by God.

One can only hand one’s head in shame and offer retrospective apologies to the Midianites (and the Amorites).

I will end here because I have to prepare to be a witness at a wedding of a couple who are Seventh Day Adventists. Yesterday afternoon I spent with a former graduate student who now directs a unique program in diversity studies in an American university and his wife chairs another program at a different nearby university. They also had their grandson with them whom we made an effort not to become collateral damage to a discussion about intolerance and Donald Trump.

There are so many times I feel so blessed to live in the present, when diversity is so valued and in a country like Canada that has made such a value central to its very being.

VI: Samantha Power: The Responsibility to Protect (R2P)

VII: Samantha Power: The Responsibility to Protect (R2P)


Howard Adelman

Evan Osnos’ New Yorker pre-Christmas piece on Samantha Power provided me with a window into the priorities and workings of the Obama administration and an opportunity to comment on one of the most high profile figures in that administration. These series of blogs have not been an analysis of Osnos’ essay. Rather, I have used the essay to discuss much of what he did not say. For example, he not only did not discuss the doctrine of “The Responsibility to Protect” (R2P), he did not even mention it once. Yet R2P is the doctrine with which Samantha Power has been most closely identified by both her friends and certainly her enemies. In this blog I want to discuss Samantha Power’s understanding of and commitment to the Canadian originated doctrine of “The Responsibility to Protect” (R2P) that was so conspicuously absent from the article. As a follow-up in subsequent blogs, I will first explore the credits she claimed for the USA related after chairing the ABD, President Obama’s Atrocities Prevention Board, set up in 2011 and subsequently discuss the application of R2P to specific cases.

At the beginning of this century, Tom Axworthy, when he was Foreign Minister of Canada, initiated a commission to study and make recommendations on how countries should behave when there are indications that wide-scale atrocities are or may be taking place or even about to take place. Formed in September 2000, the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty (ICISS) delivered its massive two volume report, “The Responsibility to Protect,” in 2001. Its goal was to develop a global political consensus about how and when the international community should respond to emerging crises involving the potential for large-scale loss of life and other widespread crimes against humanity. The report pointed to the central challenge – the primacy of the doctrine of the sovereign state as absolute. It outlined how that could be overcome by limiting sovereignty and creating a doctrine of intervention as a trump when states failed to fulfill their responsibilities to protect their own citizens. Under the auspices of the United Nations, the doctrine was to include both a “Responsibility to Prevent,” endorsing early warning systems and root cause analyses, and a duty both to respond and rebuild, although the overwhelming public image has been on intervening within a sovereign state. In 2005, the doctrine was endorsed by the United Nations unanimously.

In the doctrine, a state has a responsibility to protect its own population. If it fails to do so and mass atrocities seem immanent or underway, the international community assumes the responsibility of, in the first instance, assisting a state unable to provide protection on its own. If the state fails to protect its citizens from mass atrocities, the international community has a right to use a variety of tools at its disposal to ensure protection of those citizens. Coercive military intervention could be used as a last resort.

The uptake of R2P by the international community in a very short time is very instructive. Contributing to a Safer and More Secure World. (2005-05-12) and its complementary International Policy Statement were issued at the very beginning of 2005 by the Government of Canada (GofC) followed by “A Role of Pride and Influence in the World” that set forth the principles of R2P, how Canada would implement it, and the steps Canada would take to get the international community to buy in. One part of the last document reads: “While diplomacy remains the preferred tool in the pursuit of international peace and security, our country must possess the hard military assets necessary to achieve our foreign policy goals.” Coercive military means would be used to back up diplomacy in the traditional realist mode. However, the policy document also stated that, “the Government has made clear that it intends to engage members of the United Nations in moving forward with the ‘Responsibility to Protect’ initiative.” In fact, that process was well underway.

The UN High Level Panel on Treats, Challenges and Change wrote “A More Secure World, our Shared Responsibility;” the document was released by the Office of the Secretary-General of the UN in 2004; R2P was endorsed in 2005. The objective was to develop new rules to enable the international community to protect civilians from extreme harm when their own government is unwilling or unable to do so.   In 2005 at the UN World Summit, when the UN unanimously endorsed the doctrine, it was already clear that it was a stillbirth. China, for example, was just one of many countries that put caveats on their support. That country was quite clear that it was voting for motherhood; anytime the issue came up and R2P was to be applied, it was to be subordinate to the absolute sovereignty of a state. Sovereignty must always trump R2P. A nation’s permission to intervene would still be required. The doctrine was only to be applied with the consent of the nation targeted, a principle that the doctrine was intentionally designed to overcome. The United States under George Bush’s administration also voted in support of the doctrine while making quite clear that decisions of multilateral bodies, such as the UN, would be subordinate to the decisions and interests of the United States. Sovereignty still ruled.

Samantha Power’s first book was not A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide published in 2002, which traced the history of genocides in the twentieth century and government responses to those atrocities as they developed, but a co-edited volume with Graham Allison the previous year called Realizing Human Rights: Moving from Inspiration to Impact. The order of the books and their titles are instructive. For her focus was not to provide a scholarly understanding of why genocides take place nor why governments stand by and do nothing. The book was intended to inspire action, initially by ensuring that warning information was collected and analyzed and a box of prevention tools developed, including military intervention.

This coincidence of timing led to the close identification of Samantha Power with the R2P doctrine rather than any role she played in its development or getting the UN’s endorsement in unanimously adopting the doctrine while gutting it of any meaning, though undoubtedly the fame of her second book, combined with the aftermath of the failure to prevent atrocities in both Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia, helped in both publicizing the doctrine and linking her name closely with it. Samantha Power had no significant role, even in the International Coalition for the Responsibility to Protect (ICRtoP), which was organized to ensure the doctrine was implemented.

The New American, as a very loud voice on the far right in America, has insistently contended with the original R2P doctrine and insisted that U.S. sovereignty and interests had to be protected against the insatiable hunger for power of the UN, the globalist government-in-waiting. Right wingers claim that the Carr Center for Human Rights at Harvard, with its commitment to make human rights principles central to the formulation of U.S. public policy, and, more particularly, Samantha Power as its founding executive director, participated in the advisory board of the International Commission on Intervention and State Sovereignty established by the Canadian government. In fact, Michael Ignatieff, at the time Carr Professor of Human Rights Practice at the Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University, was on the commission, not Samantha Power. The Carr Center itself, however, is not included in the index of the report. Further, in the supplementary second volume of the Responsibility to Protect Report edited by Thomas Weiss and Don Hubert, to which I contributed an essay and which includes an exhaustive bibliography, Samantha Power did not contribute to any of the thematic essays. Nevertheless, these facts never stood in the way of the right in the United States linking her intimately with the doctrine or for branding Samantha as a “worldwide leader” in the promotion of this “sovereignty-stealing” doctrine that Samantha Power allegedly worked to develop in partnership with The Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect (GCRtoP).

How does this have any significance since Samantha Power unequivocally endorses R2P? It is significant only in pointing out that anything the right says about Samantha Power, both generally and with respect to R2P, is not to be trusted. Unfounded comments from the right make Samantha Power an epitome of scholarly accuracy and acuity. Ramesh Thakur, when he was director of the Balsillie School of International Affairs and a distinguished fellow at The Centre for International Governance Innovation, published an op-ed in a number of Canadian newspapers on the new world order. The right wrote that Thakur in his article quoted Samantha Power as “pushing for a “global rebalancing” and “international redistribution” of power that would usher in a “new world order.” Contrary to their claim, Samantha was not even cited in the article.

What really bothered Marco Rubio (R-Fl) at her inauguration hearings for her appointment as UN permanent representative to the UN was not Samantha’s threat to the supremacy of the absolute sovereignty of the USA, but her call for the USA to confess its past sins, for a collective public mea culpa, a public equivalent to the secret confessional in a Catholic Church. In her article, “Force Full” in The New Republic in 2003, Samantha had criticized George Bush’s use of “illiberal power.” “U.S. foreign policy has to be rethought…We need: a historical reckoning with crimes committed, sponsored, or permitted by the United States. This would entail restoring FOIA [Freedom of Information Act] to its pre-Bush stature, opening the files, and acknowledging the force of a mantra we have spent the last decade promoting in Guatemala, South Africa, and Yugoslavia: A country has to look back before it can move forward. Instituting a doctrine of the mea culpa would enhance our credibility by showing that American decision-makers do not endorse the sins of their predecessors.” Samantha favoured humanitarian intervention and opposed imperial military intervention. Samantha’s response to Marco Rubio’s query, however, was an exercise, not only in sophistic political side-stepping, but in turning a challenging political question into an exercise in obfuscation. Further, she used the question to exclaim her vaulted view of the United States.

In this blog I focus on words and ideas rather than claimed deeds, such as Presidential Study Directive 10 (PSD-10) of September 2011 declaring the prevention of mass atrocities and genocide to be a “national security interest and core moral responsibility” of America and directing the National Security Advisor to conduct a comprehensive review assessing U.S. government capabilities and needs in this area.

Ambassador Power told one interviewer that, in addition to the constraints around the moral imagination and budgets that she encountered, and the time required to convince others, she had to cajole and convince after understanding where those resistant others were situated even when she experienced herself as an outsider and an alarm went off, “intruder alert, intruder alert.” Although she had come to appreciate and understand those constraints, nevertheless she always felt blessed “to have the chance to bring these issues to the fore.” Barack Obama was not one of those constraints because he has had a longstanding interest in multilateral efforts to combat war crimes and genocide and supported a more constraining international legal regime on war crimes, even at the cost of national sovereignty even as he appears more the “realist” than an advocate of humanitarian intervention. So she had always been working with the imprimatur of the president.

At an International Symposium on Preventing Genocide and Mass Atrocities in Paris convened by the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and the Mémorial de la Shoah in Paris, Samantha Power, as Special Assistant to the President for Multilateral Affairs and Human Rights and Senior Director for Multilateral Affairs at the U.S. National Security Council, gave a keynote address on 15 November 2010. The conference focused on genocide prevention and policy initiatives, current threats of mass atrocities, and prospects for greater international cooperation. Samantha made four points.

To the question of what we should do differently as governments and members of civil society to reduce the likelihood of atrocities, she stressed the importance of strategic commitments to prevent mass atrocities in Obama’s National Security Strategy that go beyond a vow of “Never Again!,” beyond the UN’s endorsement of R2P, or even citing R2P in a Security Council resolution. The strategic commitment is one that sends a critical message throughout the government and to the world of American priorities in order for resources to be allocated and political will to be mobilized and harnessed.

In the Torah, there is a distinction between oaths, vows and promises. When one reads Samantha Power, a strategic commitment is not an oath which a higher authority will require you to fulfill, nor a vow where there are consequences if you fail, nor even a promise where your sense of self to yourself and others will be diminished if you fail to act. A strategic commitment is none of these. It is about symbols. It is about messaging. It is about enhancing and reinforcing a constituency. It is about creating an organization that can work towards a singular goal. But it is not about developing practical tactics on the ground and certainly not about delivering results. In other words, it is about politics. It is about spin.

Samantha went on to insist that the strategic commitment also had to be personal and embodied in an individual who will ensure a president’s legacy and an organizational structure that will guarantee that the information flows up and the options are available to the president. This is consistent with her misplaced analysis of what went wrong when President Clinton was dealing with Rwanda. It is not consistent with my analysis of that failure nor with my appreciation of the significant humanitarian successes by governments. Ron Atkey, when he was Minister of Immigration and was confronted with the Indochinese Boat people crisis, told his staff in the Ministry that he did not want to go down in history like those Canadian officials who turned their backs on the Jewish boat people in the thirties and said “None is too many.” Practical more than rhetorical leadership is required.

Look at the difference. In Samantha’s world view, underlings are required to ensure a legacy so “that the President doesn’t look back on his presidency and wonder why he wasn’t informed or presented with decisions.” In the Canadian understanding of commitment, that commitment is a will to act in a specific direction in a specific context faced with a specific problem. Whether it was Jack Pickersgill’s commitment to facilitate entry of Hungarian refugees into Canada or the Clark government’s approach to the problem of Indochinese refugees, commitment was not a strategy but an action, not setting up and devolving the problem onto an organization and making an impersonal structure responsible and simply appointing someone at the top committed to the same purpose. Those steps followed from a specific commitment to act, not as a condition for acting. For Samantha, what is required is governmental organization that matches the methodical organization characteristic of mass-killings. However, a prior requirement of genocide is the commitment of a few to destroy a group. The organization is simply a tool to accomplish the task.

Samantha simply demonstrated that she neither understood the source of the problem nor how commitments are formed to deal with them. Her approach is essentially bureaucratic and not action-oriented, concerned with general abstract propositions not specific deeds. Though it has some resemblance to mass lining in the Chinese political system, it lacks the key element of determination on the part of leadership to get something done.

Samantha’s third requirement to combat the prospect of mass atrocities focused on institutionalization. “Governments must work to systematize ‘prevention…to routinize our response to indicators of mass atrocities.” But indicators, as demonstrated in the developing East and West African early warning systems, do not connect with action but with the process for gathering and classifying information. Structures and organization do not necessarily make it easier to ensure early engagement. They just can help make it possible. Possibility should not be confused with engagement. Further, instead of announcing a new “Tech Challenge for Atrocity Prevention” that will “invite ideas–and award grants–for innovative technologies that strengthen the U.S. government’s capacity for early warning, prevention, and response with respect to mass atrocities,” why not, instead, recognize and enhance what is already in the field and is working by strengthening local capacity to anticipate the prospect of mass killing? It is not the American DOD that needs strengthening in its capacity to deal with atrocity prevention and response. The U.S. already needs to be on a weight loss program relative to its array of intelligence services. The military in Africa need to be strengthened. It is hard to imagine the American army being authorized to, let alone embarking on, an “atrocity prevention mission.”

Osnan’s article on Samantha was subtitled, “In the realm of the possible” with the implication that ideals had to be tempered with reality. But that is simply the result of construing idealism and realism as poles apart. In fact, they are complementary. The problem is to get the two into a dialectical embrace. Strategic commitments, in Samantha’s construal, structure and organization, and even institutionalization simply will not do. The focus has to be on decisions and deeds in responding to concrete challenges, not creating abstract general principles and a bureaucratic structure to enact them. Principles must be embodied in practices and not in abstractions. So all the convening of bureaucrats would not have led to the decision to take Hungarian refugees or Indochinese refugees into Canada. Decisions to act were crucial. “Whole of government” meetings focused on prevention are a crock, except as an educational tool. They do not and will not drive plans and responses. Samantha is just demonstrating her ignorance of the way governments actually accomplish anything.

Samantha’s fourth and final point in her address was to stress the importance of civil society and the value of social movements, such as the movement of which she was a part on the Darfur issue. I will take up that as an example in more detail tomorrow. But having been very active in many social movements rather than politics, from the nuclear disarmament movement to Operation Lifeline in the private sponsorship of the Indochinese refugees, it is my considered opinion, as a result of my research as well as critical reflection, that they are not a sine qua non, as Samantha contended. As both my involvement and research have tried to establish, civil society pressure can be complementary and enhance the ability of government to lead and act. But government has and must provide real leadership. It is not a graduate seminar for considering options. That leadership can initiate actions independent of social movements or, preferably, with their help, but the existence or non-existence of a social movement is not key.

Samantha’s involvement in the Darfur movement is a prime example. It has been a total bust as I will try to show tomorrow. Contrary to what she claimed, there was a movement dealing with Rwanda headed by Alison des Forges. The failure was not because of the absence of such a movement, but because the government was traveling in a very different direction with very different commitments. Her contention that, “it (a social movement) didn’t activate for Rwanda. However, because of Darfur, which reached its peak killing period around the ten-year anniversary of Rwanda, the movement has been broadened and institutionalized.” Indeed, but to what effect?  On Sudan, as I will try to show, what was needed was an accurate assessment of the problem and a commitment to action. To conceive of government working because of grass root and grass top pressure is just a fallacy. The top is not a pressure point but a centre of activity. Grass roots can help the centre; it cannot mobilize it.

President Obama’s endorsement of Samantha’s prophylactic recipes to strengthen the U.S. government’s ability to foresee, prevent, and respond to genocide and mass atrocities are misplaced. “Strong organization,” “a whole-of-government approach,” “bureaucratic monthly meetings,” “appropriate burden sharing,” “National Intelligence Estimates on the global risk of mass atrocities and genocide,” as if genocide and mass atrocities were equivalent to climate change and anticipations of food shortages. Pap! Bureaucratic spin for doing nothing. Training peacekeepers and local capacity building are not new tools. Neither are targeted sanctions, even if the targets are tweaked somewhat. Nor visa bans. These, and lessons learned studies, have been utilized by both Republican and Democratic administrations in the past. Very economical initiatives on the ground have been underway, ironically largely financed by the American government for over a decade. These should be recognized and enhanced rather than concentrating on bureaucratic remedies. But I have not been able to find whether Samantha knows they exist.

Samantha’s fallacious analysis would not be so awful if it was not the prime cause for the impotence of the most powerful country in the world.

II: Samantha Power and Rwanda – Authority and Impotence

II: Samantha Power and Rwanda – Authority and Impotence


Howard Adelman

In Evan Osnos’ article on Samantha Power, David Rothkopf, the editor of Foreign Policy, who is a very prolific author and had just published National Insecurity (2014), was quoted on Samantha Power as follows: “Here is the person who wrote the best-reported, analyzed cri de coeur on genocide, in an Administration that has effectively said, in the face of humanitarian disasters, we’re going to do very little, whether it is the continuing catastrophe in the Democratic Republic of Congo or Syria or the brewing problem with Rohingya – Muslims persecuted in Burma.” Note Rothkopf’s careful depiction of Samantha’s famous 2002 book, not as the best, which is the way the quote is often recalled, but as the “best-reported” book. Further, Rothkopf does not even say it is the best-reported analysis of genocide, but it is the cri de coeur that has been analyzed and been widely reported. And the end of the quote is precious; it is a stiletto indictment of the Obama administration for both hypocrisy and passivity. (I will expand on this at the end and in later blogs.) The issue is not Samantha Power’s acuity and ability at dissection, but her ability to cry with utter outrage and get widespread coverage while not being dismissed simply as a bleeding heart.

The quote aptly captures the strength of the book. It is not a careful dissection of genocide or of particular genocides. It is not good scholarship. It is a moving account driven by a powerful moral impetus that captures and captivates the reader while, at the same time, providing a heartfelt rather than pugilistic advertisement for herself. I will not dissect and analyze her whole book. Instead I will focus on her one chapter on bystanders to the Rwanda genocide, a subject on which Astri Suhrke, a Norwegian colleague, and I undertook the first international analysis.

Yesterday, in dealing with Evan Osnos’ essay on Samantha Power in the recent New Yorker that focuses on the relationship between influence and power, I concentrated not so much on her influence on those in power but on the influences on Samantha – psychological, personal, political, experiential. I stressed the importance older men might have assumed in that development. Samantha certainly sought out such links. In one very minor example that I know from my son, Jeremy, who wrote a biography of Albert Hirschman (which, coincidentally, Samantha Power’s husband, Cass Sunstein, reviewed extremely favourably in the New York Review of Books), Samantha had sent Albert at the institute for Advanced Study in Princeton a signed copy of her 2002 book with a fairly fawning note that she had been personally very much influenced by and very appreciative of Albert’s 1970 book, Exit, Voice, and Loyalty. In her intellectual development, she had always been torn between the pole requiring loyalty in service of an administration and adopting a role trying to influence an administration (that is, exercise a voice).

In Osnos’s article there is a discussion of the problem of the Obama administration not hearing her pleas over the three years of the Syrian crisis. Her answer was that, as long as she was heard, even if not listened to, as long as she could possibly influence policy, she would serve the administration. It was clear that she had paid no real attention to the issue of “exit” in Hirschman’s book even though, as a journalist, she had urged resignation for morally committed but frustrated individuals in an earlier crisis. She had praised the actions of a young foreign-service officer who had resigned from the National Security Council to protest the U.S. invasion of Cambodia in 1970. She lauded his moral sensibility and his choice of “exit” as the correct one. But when it came to her own choices, exit, loyalty and voice were not the three points of a triangle. Rather voice and loyalty were simply poles of a dichotomous tension. It seems clear that she herself had never seriously considered the option of an “exit”.

The issue raised above should not be confused with a sense of post-service loyalty following exit that restrains the exercise of voice. After one exits from a position of authority, civic duty requires a respectful period of silence. In an op-ed, Samantha’s husband, Cass Sunstein, praised George Bush for resisting all efforts to induce him to comment on Obama’s foreign policy. But Leon Panetta, Obama’s former CIA director and Secretary of Defense, in his book Worthy Fights, and Robert Gates, Secretary of Defense under both Bush and Obama, in his book, Duty, had no such compunction. Panetta revealed private debates that were expected to remain private, at least for the term of the president. Gates charged Obama with losing his way and that the White House was “so eager to rid itself of Iraq that it was willing to withdraw rather than lock in arrangements that would preserve our influence and interests.”
In an interview promoting his book, Gates concluded that, with respect to Afghanistan, Obama “doesn’t believe in his own strategy, and doesn’t consider the war to be his. For him, it’s all about getting out.” As Cass Sunstein argued, “former Cabinet members owe a duty of loyalty to a sitting president, not least because they have been able to participate in internal discussions. In those discussions, officials generally deserve to be able to speak on the understanding that what they say will not appear in a book — certainly not while the president remains in office.” When you first exit from office, both voice and influence are temporarily trumped.

Confidentiality and loyalty do have limits. If a former official was exposed to genuine wrongdoing — for example, in the form of illegality, as opposed to policy disagreements — he or she may have a duty to speak out. Neither Panetta nor Gates point to any such wrongdoing. They did lack grace; gracelessness is indeed an insufficiently acknowledged vice. But Samantha is guilty of the opposite – not simply fawning loyalty at the sacrifice of principle, but becoming an apologist and spin doctor portraying disastrous policies as valiant efforts. (I will return to develop this theme in subsequent case study blogs.)

Hence, Samantha’s focus on loyalty and voice to the exclusion of exit. This is as an example of her simplistic and dichotomous thinking, the thinking of a moralist, even when dealing with Albert Hirschman who was anything but one. In 2002, Samantha and my path crossed over this issue, but focused specifically on Rwanda. I and my Norwegian colleague, Astri Suhrke, in 1995, with the help of a team of eighteen other researchers, had written an in depth study for an international consortium of 19 states, including the USA, and 18 international agencies, on the role of bystanders in the Rwanda genocide. Samantha’s book had not yet been published when we met, but she had written an article in The Atlantic in 2001 that presented an early version of her book chapter on Rwanda

From that article, it was clear she had not relied on French, Belgian or the other scholars who wrote companion volumes to ours on the actual conduct of the genocide, but had relied on Philip Gourevitch’s bracing, very moving and well-written, though also not always accurate, account in The New Yorker. (See his subsequent book, We Wish to Inform You that Tomorrow We Will Be Killed with Our Families.) Samantha was writing, not so much about the course of the genocide itself, but the role of bystanders, the very topic we had studied and recorded in such detail.

Her focus was the United States, not the role of other states – France, Belgium, Canada, or international agencies, primarily the UN. She asked: “Why did the United States not do more for the Rwandans at the time of the killings? Did the President really not know about the genocide, as his marginalia suggested? Who were the people in his Administration who made the life-and-death decisions that dictated U.S. policy? Why did they decide (or decide not to decide) as they did? Were any voices inside or outside the U.S. government demanding that the United States do more? If so, why weren’t they heeded? And most crucial, what could the United States have done to save lives?” In fact, most of the questions she raised remained unanswered in her chapter on Rwanda. Her general interpretation alleged that the inaction was primarily due to a lack of focus on the ground in Rwanda and a failure to communicate what was happening to the highest level. When she joined the Obama administration, this interpretation – or misinterpretation – became the foundation of how she personally carried out her role upon moving next door to the pinnacle of power.

She began by an initial falsehood. “So far people have explained the U.S. failure to respond to the Rwandan genocide by claiming that the United States didn’t know what was happening, that it knew but didn’t care, or that regardless of what it knew there was nothing useful to be done.” But our study had offered none of these answers. In our initial account, we had explained that the Mogadishu syndrome, as we had dubbed it, the American experience in Somalia in 1993, made so vivid by the film, Blackhawk Down, had traumatized the US with respect to intervening in Africa. Later, based on further research, but much before Samantha Power undertook her research between 1998 and 2001, we had revised our original thesis to argue that the October 1993 Somalia incident was not the instigator for turning a blind eye to intervention, but the nail in the coffin of intervention that had already been set in place as a result of the Clinton administration’s struggle with Newt Gingrich’s Congress over funding. Bill Clinton had already determined to limit his exposure to criticism from the Republicans about wasteful expenditures in overseas ventures. The Administration determined not to become involved in funding peacekeeping ventures, let alone deploying any peacekeepers.

Admittedly, Samantha had the advantage of just having accessed previously classified US documents that we had not seen, but, as we had said in our report, American administration personnel had been extremely open with us, including a key person in the CIA, a State Department analyst who shared with us a report he had prepared on the run-up to the genocide, and the American ambassador in Rwanda. We had also exchanged with our colleague, Michael Barnett at the University of Wisconsin, his knowledge and inside information as a member of the United States UN delegation; he had been responsible for the Rwanda file when he was on a one year leave from the department. His book, Eyewitness to a genocide: The United Nations and Rwanda discussing the United States and the UN roles, appeared the same year as Samantha Power’s book, to general academic acclaim, but none of the wide publicity that Samantha’s much more anecdotal account had received. He had already published an article that she could have accessed while she was undertaking research for her book.

Samantha drew the same conclusion that we had much earlier and Michael had drawn contemporaneously with her book. The U.S. government “knew enough about the genocide early on to save lives, but passed up countless opportunities to do so.” What she had presented as an original finding was the consensus of earlier studies, not an amazing and original insight. Samantha also echoed our earlier conclusion that the U.S. not only failed to send troops, but “led” in the effort to remove most of the UN peacekeepers, an account we corrected in subsequent studies well before her interpretation had been published. She made this claim in spite of the evidence already published by representatives on the UN Security Council and the fact that, although the United States was a leading voice, and Michael Barnett had joined the chorus of non-interventionists, the majority of the Security Council were of the same mind. This interpretation was also the one made by both the Nigerian and the New Zealand delegates on the Security Council who had opposed the draw-down of peacekeepers.

The issue was not an error in interpretation, but that the error was made in spite of other prior scholarship that undercut that analysis, positions which the writer failed to acknowledge and challenge. The problem was not that she wrote a journalist account, but that she wrote one claiming original scholarship without evidently reading the other scholarship available. Further, the important focus was to tell a moral tale of virtually exclusive American perfidious behaviour.

Samantha was correct that the U.S. aggressively undermined the effort to send reinforcements once the genocide became widely known three weeks after it started. For example, as we had documented, the U.S. had agreed to supply armoured personnel carriers once the UN reversed its draw-down policy, but the U.S. military ended up in a dispute with the UN that lasted five weeks over who should pay the costs of painting the vehicles in the white and blue of the UN. It is also true, as we documented, that the U.S. had assiduously refused to use the term “genocide”, however, not because use of the term would obligate the United States to become involved in the genocide as Samantha claimed in a very prevalent misunderstanding about international law, but becaause the use of the term might encourage public pressure, which was unwelcome, to get the administration to act. But, in general, Samantha was correct: “staying out of Rwanda was an explicit U.S. policy objective.”

Samantha, however, made other mistakes. She claimed that during the “first three days of the killings [6-9 April 1994] U.S. diplomats in Rwanda reported back to Washington that well-armed extremists were intent on eliminating the Tutsi.” There are two things wrong with this assertion. First, months before, primarily through Canada’s General Roméo Dallaire’s January cable to the UN, U.S. diplomats had been informed of these extremist intentions. In fact, even before Dallaire wrote his infamous cable, a lowly policy analyst in the U.S. State Department had written virtually the same thing in his report. On the other hand, in spite of pleas from the political officer in the Swiss delegation in Rwanda and from the Papal Nuncio in Kigali, the American ambassador in Rwanda, David Rawson (who happened to be one of the rare diplomats in Rwanda who spoke Kinyarwanda because he had been the son of a missionary in Rwanda and Burundi and had also written a PhD thesis on Burundi), had been very complacent about the events building up to the genocide and had been blindsided and struck silent by the events as they unfolded when the genocide broke out on 6 April 1994. Further, in the first days, senior American officials simply viewed what was taking place as a coup. President Clinton on 6 April 2014 said that he was “shocked and deeply saddened … horrified that elements of the Rwandan security forces have sought out and murdered Rwandan officials.”

In the first few days after the outbreak, all diplomats in Kigali, not just the Americans, were primarily concerned with getting their diplomatic corps and their families, as well as the ex-patriates out of the country. With rare exceptions, they were not focused on the atrocities taking place but on exit. The diplomats in Rwanda were far too busy dealing with the exodus to undertake a political analysis of what was taking place in Rwanda. As President Clinton himself said on 8 April 1994, “I just want to assure the families of those who are there that we are doing everything we possibly can to be on top of the situation to take all the appropriate steps to try to assure the safety of our citizens there.”

As far as the American press is concerned, the first report of the atrocities taking place in Rwanda in North America – earlier accounts appeared in the Belgian and French press – was three weeks after the genocide started. It was an op-ed in The Globe and Mail by Alison des Forges who later that year published the classic Leave None to Tell the Story: Genocide in Rwanda under the auspices of Human Rights Watch. Samantha does not cite any of the press reports in the first three days that she claims, “spoke of the door-to-door hunting of unarmed civilians”, though, of course, there had been reports of the hunting down of the moderates in the government by the extremist military and Hutu militias. But that could be a military coup, not genocide. Samantha is correct that, by the end of the second week, Alison, and others, badgered the U.S, government insisting that a genocide was underway in Rwanda.
If Samantha had read Michael Barnett’s critical analysis of his own work at the UN, it is clear that he, and many others, did allow genocide to happen, but they did not do so passively; they actively urged that the U.S.A. not become involved. So why did Samantha come to conclude, in line with her future husband’s views but before she ever knew him, that “without strong leadership the system will incline toward risk-averse policy choices”. Our study had concluded that the American leadership was actively promoting risk-averse policy choices as were many others lower down in the hierarchy. Barnett’s impressive study was an analysis of why this was the case.

Samantha also wrote that, “We also see that with the possibility of deploying U.S. troops to Rwanda taken off the table early on—and with crises elsewhere in the world unfolding—the slaughter never received the top-level attention it deserved.” The fact is that deploying American troops to Rwanda was not even a consideration. The subject was never on the table. This was a UN peacekeeping force. Americans did not provide UN peacekeepers. They just helped pay the costs. And America was no longer willing to pay those costs. That had been the established policy a year before the Rwanda genocide broke out.

The United States was not inattentive because the deployment of American troops was an undesirable consideration. That possibility was never considered. The American government was deliberately inattentive. As one CIA policy analyst told the UN when American surveillance photos of Rwanda were requested, “We do not have any. Why should we waste our money taking aerial pictures of Rwanda? It is not a security interest of ours.” Americans were not, as Samantha claimed, asserting that they were doing all they could or should. The issue was not the choice among possibilities, as the title of Osnos’ article suggests, but choices among very different objectives which issued from moral norms. American officials were insisting that they were doing all they were willing to do, a very different proposition than all they could or should do, for it was not a proposition based on moral imperatives but on realpolitik.

A reporter had asked Samantha after she had been instrumental in creating the new Atrocities Prevention Board (APB) in the White House, how the Board’s work became operational in crises like Syria or the Central African Republic. Samantha, then Ambassador to the UN, answered that the board was “a symptom of his [Obama’s] larger commitment” to discover new tools to bring to bear on these crises. As tools she mentioned sanctions on people using new technologies to commit atrocities, the Rewards for Justice for tipsters to help arrest Joseph Kony or focusing on the Central African Republic “that history shows would not necessarily rise within a bureaucracy on their own”. Of course. Joseph Kony has not been arrested. The sanctions on users of technologies preceded the creation of the APB. Finally, the precise problem was that the Board was just symbolic. There was so little evidence that anything had been delivered on the ground, but more on this in later blogs.

Contrast the APB with a program funded mostly by the American government – FEWER, the Forum on Early Warning and Early Response under the auspices of IGAD in East Africa. I have been unable to find out whether she knows about this early warning system and the parallel early warning system in West Africa, CEWARN. The latter led to the arrest of Charles Taylor and prevented the resumption of a civil war in Liberia. FEWER led to preventing low level outbreaks of atrocities in the criminally-organized tribal rustling of cattle, but has thus far been ineffective either in inter-state or large-scale inter-ethnic conflicts within states such as in Kenya and, more recently, in South Sudan. There have been concrete operational successes by American-funded programs that she could have cited, but they both preceded and had nothing to do with the high profile symbolic APB and its enormous focus on bureaucracy rather than detailed work on the ground.

When she almost boasts about the administration uncovering the Christian-Muslim violence unfolding in CAR, I want to scream. Much to our surprise, this was the first revelation of our first early warning trial run in Nigeria in the late nineties. Tom Axworthy told us that he could not renew our funding because the results did not present any findings that were “actionable” by the Canadian government. When Samantha boasts that, “We’re trying to get an African Union force in there [CAR] as quickly as possible and to sound the alarm in venues like this one,” I want to guffaw, for the African Union, with American financial support, has been active in early warning and intervention for over a decade. As much as I am a supporter of Barack Obama, there is little evidence, unfortunately, that his administration has done anything significantly different or on a larger scale in this arena. I would have loved to be proven wrong in probing Samantha’s accomplishments, but the evidence is not there and she has done little to supply it.

The fact is, Samantha is just dead wrong. Rwanda did not fall through the cracks in the bureaucracy during the Clinton administration as she contends. It is an example of sloppy research and analyses leading to misplaced policies. The focus on organization, messaging and constituencies of this administration may be very useful for spin, but it does almost nothing to help the people on the ground and ameliorate the humanitarian disaster in Syria and Iraq, CAR or South Sudan. What is the good of hearing the complaints of the NGOs if there is nothing that comes out the other side? Further, the problem in Rwanda was not that Alison des Forges lacked access, but that there were other agendas; the ears of government were deliberately closed.

Summary: Not Guilty of Genocide Denial

Summary: Not Guilty of Genocide Denial


Howard Adelman

Are Jane Corbin, Allan Stam and Christian Davenport guilty of genocide denial with respect to the slaughter of Tutsi in Rwanda in 1994? Are they akin to David Irving’s denial of the Holocaust. He claimed that Jews were not killed to the extent members of the so-called Holocaust industry said. According to Irving, the vast majority of Jews died because of other motives and circumstances. Are Corbin, S&D akin to the Turkish government which has consistently denied that a genocide of Armenians took place before and during WWI? Are they similar to those who deny that the slaughter at Srebrenica did not constitute genocide or to those who insist that the government of Sudan should not be charged with committing genocide against the agriculturalists of Darfur?

No. Why?

There are many types of genocide deniers. I am a genocide denier when it comes to Darfur. I do not deny the extent of the slaughter. Nor do I deny that the events in Darfur constituted a crime against humanity. I disagree with the application of the term genocide to that slaughter because the intent of extermination was not there. Others who place the emphasis on the destruction, not only of the people physically, but also on the agricultural way of life of the Fur, Zaghawa and Masalit tribes, believe that the use of the term genocide is quite appropriate to what took place in Darfur. Though I disagree on the appropriateness of the use of the term, I am not labeled a genocide denier.
The latter is a case of academic disagreement over the breadth of the use of the term “genocide”. It is not a disagreement over what happened. Allan Stam and Christian Davenport offer a much narrower definition of genocide than even I do and, in doing so, minimalize the number of Tutsi killed for genocidal reasons. But they also minimize the actual numbers killed. Further, they muster a whole series of arguments for their conclusion that the Hutu killed constituted the much greater proportion of those slaughtered. They also suggest that it is the Kagame government that is guilty of denial because of its interest in promoting Tutsi deaths as a mode of covering up the role of the RPF in the death of tens or even hundreds of thousands of Hutu.

It is important to note that the charge of genocide denial is not really about differences over the breadth of the use of a concept. It is over how history should be memorialized, what should be memorialized, and why it should be memorialized. It is no accident that Jane Corbin begins her BBC documentary of the Rwanda genocide with the twentieth anniversary commemoration of the Rwandan genocide in Kigali. For Israel Charny argues that genocide denial is but the last phase of committing genocide by denying the victims their place in history and exonerating, or, at the very least, minimalizing the crime committed by the perpetrators. In the case of Rwanda, the effort at minimalizing is not intended to exonerate those who failed to intervene, for S&D find them, or, at least, the USA, guilty, not simply of criminal neglect, but of collaborating with the murderous opposition. The evidence is also used to charge Paul Kagame and the RPF with guilt for its failure to confront the genocidaires as the RPF pursued its war against the FAR. Was targeting the memorializing of the victims – a clear intent of the BBC documentary, an exercise of, at the very least, collaboration with genocide deniers? The effort to denigrate the recollection and ceremonies of remembrance at the very least feeds the agenda of the deniers.

However, there is a difference between minimizing a death toll absolutely and claiming the death toll seems smaller in relationship to a larger overall picture of death and destruction. However, neither Jane Corbin nor S&D claim that hardly any Tutsi were killed, or that they were killed simply in self-defense or as a result of the fog of war, or that there was no intent to exterminate the Tutsi in Rwanda. All three concede the numbers were large, though not nearly as large as previously claimed, that many Tutsi were killed deliberately as part of an extermination effort, and that a cabal of extremists was behind such an effort. It is over the latter issue that they seem to cross the border into denial because they engage in distraction and the use of red herrings by claiming that the Habyarimana government was not guilty of genocide even when no reputable scholar makes such a claim. But Corbin and S&D do not cross the line in denying that there was a large scale genocidal intent by authorities who controlled the levers of power – even as they claim that the scale was not nearly as large as the accusers make out.

Intention is as important in determining genocide denial as in determining whether an action constituted genocide. Corbin and S&D do not reveal telltale signs of the genocide denier such as decrying scientific analysis or blatantly misusing it to the extent of fraud. Their use of journalistic standards or of statistical analysis may be very faulty, but the errors arise more from a determination to establish originality than to corrupt the whole research process even as their scholarship and application of their methods are so questionable. They do not accuse scholars, who hold that genocide took place to a far greater extent than they grant, of being fraudsters – though they imply that Kagame is one. Nor do they insist that delving into the past is a waste of time and a distraction. Quite the opposite! They argue for more and better research into the issue. They certainly misuse history, omit key evidence and engage in a myriad assortment of distortions, but I would argue that this is due to their mathematically-based political science or journalistic pig-headedness.

The most telling evidence for the charge of genocide denial for many, however, is the way typical understandings are inverted. Instead of the normal range of interpretation of the meaning of genocide, their very narrow definition lies outside that range. Further, they claim that, rather than extremist Hutu being the greatest perpetrators, Kagame et al (Tutsi) are. Hutu, they insist, are, by far, the most numerous victims. This reversal, however, is not made in the name of denying that a genocide took place or that it was not extensive. It is made with the intent of minimalizing its extent by combining the fallacious historical interpretations and misuse of statistical evidence with narrow definitionalism that goes far beyond the normal range of meanings and interpretations considered acceptable for the application of the concept. If that is the case, isn’t this genocide denial?

Note the similarities and differences between the approach of S&D to the approach of the American government in the first few weeks after 6 April 1994. Then the American government refused to recognize that a genocide was underway. They did not want to incur the expenses nor engage in another rescue mission like the one in Somalia as portrayed in the movie Black Hawk Down. This was the so-called Mogadishu Syndrome. However, though the American leadership were in denial that a genocide was underway, and though their motives for denial were very suspect, they generally have not been accused of being genocide deniers.

Why not? If a motive of not wanting to be involved is responsible for one’s mind blindness, is this not genocide denial? The denial helped relieve them of any sense of responsibility for intervention. However, in the BBC documentary, and as also suggested by S&D, America’s and Britain’s current support for the Kagame regime is used to explain why the allegedly much greater evils committed by Kagame and his RPF cohorts are not confronted. America and Britain were in denial of one genocide in 1994; they are currently guilty of denial of crimes against humanity in 2014 committed by the other side according to Corbin and S&D. Just as Western governments usually refuse to endorse the Armenian genocide lest they alienate their ally, Turkey, they are now doing the same for Kagame’s crimes. In this mind-set, it is not Corbin and S&D who are in denial,
but Kagame’s supporters.

Is denial of a genocide because of inattention or self-interested motives genocide denial proper? If it is, then America and Britain were guilty then and are now guilty of denial of crimes against humanity. However, the failure to recognize a genocide or a crime against humanity, I argue, does not make one a genocide denier. And the effort to minimalize genocide by using the contrast of the crimes committed by the other side is also not genocide denial. Genocide denial is a deliberate effort to relieve the killers of responsibility and to blame the victims. The creators of the BBC documentary and S&D do not do either.

The logic of their minimalization is not the logic of deniers. The logic of Corbin and S&D is determined by an effort to claim originality, not to abuse victims further or relieve perpetrators of guilt. They may practice poor journalism. They may betray scholarly and research standards. But they are not deniers, even though they attribute the vast majority of deaths to non-genocidal motives, a common effort of deniers. They do not blame the Tutsi citizens of Rwanda for their victimization, but, instead, blame Kagame for instigating the genocidaires and for failing to intervene to protect the victims in his pursuit of victory. Further, though they claim that most deaths were the result of the fog of civil war and though they claim that the perpetrators of the genocide were motivated by the invasion of 1990 and the suspicion that Tutsi citizens in Rwanda were or could be a fifth column, they do not use that numerical comparison, however much it is mistaken, or the overdetermination of the motivation of the perpetrators, to excuse their actions. They concur that the Rwandan genocide was planned and directed by extremists who gained control of the central government, the media, the army and the armed militias.

They do not seem to be motivated by an eagerness to deny or even minimize the genocide, though the effects of their work do precisely that. Their vested interest is their professionalism, not the message of denial or even minimalization, even if the latter is the result of their sloppy work.

One last but not irrelevant note on the massacres perpetrated by the RPF at Kibeho. The BBC documentarians are on the side of the maximalists who claim that those slaughtered by the RPF in emptying the IDP camp of over one hundred thousand was four thousand and not the official figure of 300+ claimed by the government. In my own investigation (“Preventing Massacre: The Case of Kibeho.” in The Rwanda Crisis: Healing and Protection Strategies, Sally Gacharuzi, ed. Kensington, MD: Overview Press, 1997), I suggested a figure of about 800. I may have been wrong in my conclusions about numbers. But I do not believe I was wrong about the context, the situation and the motives. A colleague very recently wrote me that she had been at a conference and ran into someone who had been with one NGO and with others from MSF at Kibeho along with 15 Ghanaian peacekeepers. They were amidst lots of Hutu civilians in the camp when it started raining, turning the hills into muddy slopes. The Hutu started running for shelter under the trees. The RPF soldiers thought the civilians were running away and started shooting. This set off a much greater panic. More flight further exacerbated the level of shooting by the RPF.

Whatever the number of dead, this is a very different account than a tale which insists that Kagame deliberately ordered the killing of Hutu civilians. For if one takes into account the fact that genocidaires were hiding amidst the one hundred thousand Hutu civilians, that they had weapons, that they were using coercion and fear to keep the Hutu in the IDP camp, that the NGOs repeatedly agreed to disperse the residents and escort them back to their homes but also continually postponed the date of initiation, that during the week of the slaughter there was a serious communication error among the peacekeepers, the NGOs and the RPF, and the heavy rains that had turned the hills into muddy slopes obscured what was happening, all of which may explain why the slaughter cannot and should not be characterized as a deliberate effort to kill Hutu displaced persons. This does not exonerate the RPF from a charge of negligent homicide, but it does argue against a charge of deliberate murder.
Similarly, though Corbin and S&D have committed a myriad of errors that undermine their professionalism, they are not guilty of genocide denial. They just come very close.

Part V Genocide Denial – D: Statistical Analysis

Part V Genocide Denial – D: Statistical Analysis


Howard Adelman


The BBC video is available at


The most important effort of Allan Stam and Christian Davenport (S&D) was not spent on conceptualization or on history, but on their statistical analysis. In that effort, the most significant part was not the aggregation of numbers to establish that just over one million people were killed in Rwanda – a figure I for one accept and which is not very controversial – but the disaggregation of that total to make the following claims:

  1. Far more Hutu than Tutsi were killed;
  2. The number of Tutsi killed was 200,000;
  3. Only half that number were killed with the intent of extermination.

This revisionist thesis of the proportion of Hutu and Tutsi killed has to be suspect. It would mean that the three mass graves that we investigated of over seventy identified at the time with thousands buried (see the 1995 Lansat map below – less than 5% of the sites of mass graves) held 33% of the Tutsi victims, a preposterous assumption. The absurdity can be put another way. Those three graves held two-thirds of the S&D proposed 100,000 Tutsi murdered for genocidal reasons. And we only examined areas that had recently been excavated to assess accuracy of counting, not totals; more were uncovered later. We had no doubts that virtually all those killed in those three sites had been Tutsi who had been forced together in churches and schools and systematically slaughtered over a period of days.

This is a 1995 Landsat TM mosaic for the country of Rwanda after the genocide.

The national border in the Lansat map is shown in white. Genocide sites of mass graves (“lieus publics“) are shown in blue. Memorials (“lieux de culte“) are shown in red. Resistance sites (“collines de résistance“) are depicted in green.

The Rwandan government’s documentation centre tried to identify as many of the victims as possible using photos, audio-visual interviews, and other official records based on methods pioneered in the Israeli memorial in Jerusalem at Yad Vashem. We never examined the vast majority of sites. In the BBC documentary, Murambi is identified as a site where 15,000 Tutsi were killed. The official numbers are actually 45,000 killed there and 20,000 killed trying to escape. Nor did we examine sites at Nymata, Ntarama, Bisesero, Nyanza and Nyarabuye. We did not go through the Aegis Trust interviews, but only read early summaries of a small number of individual interviews. Further, 85% of graves were classified as mass graves if they only held 20 people, while we focused on the 15% of the 466 sites where corpses were calculated in the hundreds and thousands.

Our excuse in not being as thorough as we would have liked is because that was not the focus of our study. Yet we seem to have paid attention to sources that S&D did not, though they claim in their study that they had access to a wide variety of documentation in Rwanda. Further, they had access to much more sophisticated sources that were developed subsequently to our study. The surprise is that they did not use these to attempt to falsify their own presumptions.

In their methodology employing event cataloguing, in which they coded the events during the 100 days of massacres using indicators such as time, place, perpetrators, victims, the weapons used and the particular form of military action, and correlated them to discover a pattern, they claimed to uncover an original interpretation – that the violence did not take place all at once but took place in a sequence, though they did not initially make any claims about the pattern of that sequence. The truth is that every single scholar who studied the genocide has said that the killing did not take place all at once. Alison Des Forges in the first large scale study documented that sequence and explained it in part mostly because of the politics of place. For example, the prefecture in certain places like Butare refused to go along with the genocidal campaign of the new military government run by extremists. The prefect was eventually dismissed from his post and the genocide subsequently went forth in that area.

The two academics argued (not in the BBC program but in their scholarship) that the vast majority of the population had been on the move in 1993 and 1994. It is true that, as we and many other had documented, large numbers of Hutu in territories conquered by the RPF fled the advancing military force, believing the extremist Hutu propaganda that they would be slaughtered. Others were on the move because they were forced by the killing machine of the militias into schools and churches to be slaughtered. The number S&D offer is 450,000 to 750,000. This too was not a new revelation, only the twist S&D gave it that there was at least as many Hutu and Tutsi in these mass graves. S&D created maps that showed that, while killing took place in different parts of the country, it did so at different rates and magnitudes. Again, this was not a new discovery, though using dynamic and layered mapping to show it was helpful. But as I have shown, more static maps without the temporal dimension had previously been created.

The conclusion that most of the over a million killed in the genocide were Hutu is contentious at the very least. The calculation is not based on any dissection of those killed to determine who was a Hutu, who was a Tutsi and who was of mixed background, or who was Twa for that matter. It was primarily based on the argument that the number of Tutsi in Rwanda at the beginning of the war was only 500,000. S&D use a figure of over 300,000 Tutsi who survived the war. (Gérard Prunier claimed the figure to have been 130,000, though others claimed 150,000), Therefore, according to S&D, only 200,000 were killed. The other over 800,000 had to have been Hutu.

According to S&D, the number of Tutsi in the country prior to the war was only 500,000. Tutsi made up only 6.5% of the population, whereas demographer William Seltzer using the same faulty 1991 census data, arrived at a figure of 657,000 or 8.4% of the population, again versus a large number of scholars critical of the 1991 census who focus on the “hidden” or self-disguised Tutsi, and estimated that Tutsi constituted 12-14% of the population. The total pre-genocide population in 1990 was said to be over 7.12 million in 1990 and by 1994 before the genocide was said to have reached 7.6-8 million. Critics assert that the number of Tutsi was underreported in that census and in the prior census of 1978 because the Habyarimana government wanted to minimize the importance of Tutsi in the population.

Whether or not census data were purposely altered to reduce the number of Tutsi, the figures underestimated the Tutsi population because an undetermined number of Tutsi arranged to register as Hutu in order to avoid discrimination and harassment. Although many Rwandans know of such cases, there is at present no basis for estimating how many Tutsi were counted as Hutu because of this. Nevertheless, the 1991 data show Tutsi as forming 8.4 percent of the total population, not 6.4%. This figure seems to accord with extrapolations from the generally accepted census data of 1952, taking into account the population loss due to death and flight during the 1960s and the birth rate, which was lower for Tutsi than for  .

If the 14% figure is used out of a total of 7.8 million, then the pre-genocide Tutsi population was almost 1,100,000. If the 12% figure is used out of a total of 7.8 million, then the pre-genocide Tutsi population was 936,000. If the 8.4% of the 7.8 million population is used, then the pre-genocide population was over 650,000. If the number of Tutsi survivors is 150,000, then the number of Tutsi killed would be 950,000 based on the pre-genocide figure of 14%, 786,000 based on the pre-genocide figure of 12%, and 500,000 based on the pre-genocide figure of 6.4%. This excludes those of mixed parentage who constituted a significant part of the Rwandan population who were also targeted by the genocidaires. S&D offer an even lower percentage of the population of Tutsi in Rwanda before the genocide and a much higher number of survivors. They justify the latter by misrepresenting their source, which used the figure of 300,000 to refer to both Hutu moderates who survived and Tutsi. Combining the misrepresentations of both the original Tutsi population (diminished) and the number of Tutsi survivors (enhanced), leads to their conclusion that only 200,000 Tutsi died. Of these they guess – not estimate – that Hutu were targeted as Tutsi and that, of the 200,000 Tutsi, only half were targeted.

S&D, in spite of their insistence on being evidence-based and their stress on quantitative analysis based on data, ignored most of the caveats and guidelines in the William Seltzer and Margo Anderson 2001 classic paper, “The Dark Side of Numbers: The Role of Population Data Systems in Human Rights Abuses”. More specifically, the use of the 1991 census is usually accompanied by a disqualifier about its unreliability vis-à-vis the distribution of the population between Hutu and Tutsi.

One fundamental error is that S&D use as their base line the 1991 Rwanda census. Even though many demographers use the 1991 census, the vast majority, including William Seltzer, consider the 1991 census as unreliable, especially with respect to the number of Tutsi. The government of Habyarimana had a vested interest in minimizing the count of the numbers of Tutsis in the country to offset the accusations against him by the extremists that he was soft on the fifth column within the country. The Tutsi themselves had a vested interest in disguising their identity since anti-Tutsi extremism was already mushrooming in Rwanda in 1991 following the RPF invasion. As Alison Des Forges wrote, “Whether or not census data were purposely altered to reduce the number of Tutsi, the figures underestimated the Tutsi population because an undetermined number of Tutsi arranged to register as Hutu in order to avoid discrimination and harassment.”

In contrast, S&D claim that they used other sources to confirm the accuracy of the 1991 base line as their foundation. “(W)e took information from before the questionable census of 1991 and projected forward diverse population growth rates (which is standard practice in demography) and found figures that were comparable to what was discussed in 1991 therefore allowing us to use it in our estimations.” They then compounded their error about the ethnic disaggregation of the pre-genocide data with misrepresenting their sources as referring to Tutsi survivors, whereas the definition included Hutu political survivors. To be charitable and unwilling to claim bad faith, the two were so busy counting trees that they missed seeing the forest, an inversion of a more typical error.

Further, did the RPF kill up to a 150,000 Hutu within Rwanda? Or did the RPF’s aggressive pincer- like military advance propel the FAR into killing as many Tutsi as possible before they were forced to withdraw. And, as S&D so correctly point out, the RPF had a singular focus on winning the war, not on saving Rwandan Tutsi. As so many scholars have concluded, the genocidaires made their priority killing Tutsi, not winning the war.

However, the two American scholars had a different message; they concluded that a significant proportion of the killings took place in RPF controlled territory, a much more expansive thesis than simply arguing that pogroms against the Tutsi were provoked by the RPF, initially by their invasion in 1990 and then by the flight, forced displacement or ethnic cleansing – depending on how you interpret the Hutu population movement in the territory it captured. Kuperman’s conclusions may at first appear to be similar to S&D’s since S&D imitate and expand upon his methods. However, S&D state that, “The killings in the zone controlled by the FAR seemed to escalate as the RPF moved into the country and acquired more territory. When the RPF advanced, large-scale killings escalated. When the RPF stopped, large-scale killings largely decreased.” However, in Kuperman’s book and articles, he noted that some of the initial massacres took place in southwest Rwanda furthest from the RPF front line. Yet S&D claim that the data revealed in their maps was consistent with FAR claims that it would have stopped much of the killing if the RPF had simply called a halt to its invasion. The illogic of such a conclusion is astounding!

The data indicates no such thing. It is an inference. Many others could be made using the same data. If I drink four glasses of gin on ice one day and get drunk, then drink four glasses of rum on ice the second day and get drunk, then four glasses of scotch on the rocks on the third day and get drunk, then four glasses of rye whiskey on ice on the fourth day and get drunk, can I conclude that the it was the ice that made me drunk? Further, even if one assumes that the RPF advances instigated an increase in the pace and amount of killing, this does not mean that the RPF was responsible for the increased numbers killed. The correlation could have been the result of FAR trying to finish its work before fleeing.

S&D had a second string in their quiver echoed in the BBC documentary. Their thesis was a counter to the regime’s contention that the civil war was continued to stop the genocide. However, every decent scholar that I have read knows and writes that the RPF was single-mindedly focused on defeating the FAR and the Interahamwe militias. Stopping the genocide was a by-product of that success. The faster defeat came, the quicker the slaughters would stop. The strategy of using a pincer movement against a stronger, more numerous and better equipped military foe would almost certainly have imploded if the RPF diverted their energies to countering the genocide directly. The RPF had a much stronger explanation for not dispersing their troops to stop the genocide, quite aside from Kagame’s willingness to sacrifice Tutsi lives for his goals. The Kagame regime may now say that the invasion was intended to stop the genocide, but that was one of the overall goals and not the intent of specific operations. The RPF victory did bring an end to the genocide even if that was neither a prime original intention nor a continuing immediate objective.

Though S&D – and many other scholars – hold Paul Kagame to be guilty of war crimes and crimes against humanity, they do not deny that a genocide took place. They do not deny the enormity of the genocide targeting Tutsi. Unfortunately, accusations against Kagame and genocide denial often go together and the two charges are often compressed into a single claim. S&D do not argue that the genocide did not take place, merely that it was only part of the story. “We have never denied that a genocide took place; we just noted that genocide was only one among several forms of violence that occurred at the time.”

It certainly was. But in their own calculations, mass graves consisted of 400,000 to 750,000 corpses, with most scholars leaning towards the upper end. To get around this problem, S&D claim that half the bodies in these mass graves were Hutu, but they provide no evidence for their claim except that this would have to follow from their other false premises instead of falsifying the conclusions based on those false premises. However, such a claim is so inconsistent with direct observations and testimony of survivors that it is a wonder that they can hold their heads up and make such a claim.

Thus, though they claim that their data is “only as precise as their background data,” their inattention to that background data is grossly negligent. Then they admit that, “Sometimes relative accuracy…is better than absolute accuracy.” Their final estimate of the Tutsi population in Rwanda in 1990 is based on an educated guess, not a reasonable calculus, and the estimated percentage of that population killed is an outright guess.

Further, if their estimate of the total number killed is over 1,000,000, and if the totals of the disaggregated ranges range from 625,000 to 1,350,000, it would be extremely difficult to arrive at a figure of 100,000 Tutsi killed. The calculation would be as follows:

S&D                             HA

Range                          Mid-point     Hutu   Tutsi

Those individually named                               25,000 – 100,000          62,500     50,000 12,500

Those killed at roadblocks                               25,000 – 100,000          62,500     31,250  31,250

Mass killings                                                     400,000 – 750,000         575,000    57,500 517,500

Local violence                                                    25,000 – 100,000          62,500       31,250  31,250

RPF violence (an admitted total guess)       100,000 – 150,000       125,000    125,000        0

Totals                                                               575,000 – 1,200,000       887,500     245,000 580,000

The large spread in the ranges already make the figures very suspect. Guessing those killed by the RPF with no foundation is a statistical prohibition. The first estimate of numbers slain by the RPF was made by Gersony in his supposedly suppressed 1994 report. He concluded that the RPF killed between 25,000 and 45,000, not 100,000 to 150,000. Seth Sendashonga, former minister of the interior and an early member of the RPF, estimated that the RPF in Rwanda killed some 60,000 people between April 1994 and August 1995, with more than half killed in the first four months of that period. He never suggested that many were killed under the earlier occupation. Further, these much lower estimates could include persons killed in the course of combat, both civilians and militia.

The total figures cannot be reconciled. Analyzing any suggests a different distribution. Named lists consisted mostly of moderate Hutu rather than Tutsi. On the other hand, S&D’s suggestion that, since the killers in the Interahamwe largely could not read the ID slips of paper, since it was often dark at roadblocks, therefore the proportion of those killed at those roadblocks should be taken roughly as the Tutsi and Hutu proportion of the population or, at most, equal numbers of each. This is pathetic reasoning. However, for the sake of argument, use the equal figure. On the other hand, the vast majority of those murdered en masse were Tutsi – I presume above 90%. Assume equal numbers were killed in local violence, again an assumption that veers strongly in favour of enhancing Hutu totals. There is no way one can arrive at a figure that a majority of those killed were Hutu. The calculations are totally misleading. Even in S&D’s best case, almost two-thirds had to have been Tutsi. And if the grand total is upped to one million, at least 630,000 Tutsi were killed in the genocide.

However, this is a mugs game that ends up mostly with guesses, perhaps some educated ones, when counting bodies in mass graves is probably the best indicator of the number of Tutsi killed since evidence indicated the vast majority of these were Tutsi. And that yields an even higher total than 630,000.

How do S&D reduce their total to 100,000 Tutsi killed through a deliberate genocide? They argue that those killed were a mixed category of all other types of random killing, revenge killing, mistaken killing, etc., but do not disclose anywhere that I could find the basis for such reasoning. Further, the counts of the mass graves, a source they seem to totally dilute with the use of those other methods, belie such a conclusion. They never seem to question the reliability of witness testimony, the results from interviews and focus groups, which they used as an important method in their calculations. How many Germans after WWII admitted to participating directly or indirectly in the slaughter of the Jews? Or even admitted they knew of the death camps? More importantly, look at how many said that most of those killed were results of war and violence and not deliberate efforts at extermination. If the “evaluation of killing designated by territorial control” concludes that the vast majority of those killed resided in FAR controlled territory and not in either the battle zone or the RPF-controlled areas, then the real issue is disaggregating that figure. The authors have no methodology that can do that with any degree of rigour.

If “we cannot be clear on how much of the violence (i.e., what proportion of all acts considered were legally classified as genocide), and that is because making such a judgment requires extremely detailed information about the victims, the perpetrators and their motives, motives, naturally being the hardest to document as they reside within an individual’s mind,” then presumably that should make us very cautious about reaching a number like 100,000, especially when the authors have used the very narrowest definition of genocide, one that excludes actions by non-state actors, such as so-called voluntary militias under the control of extremists, and especially when the authors ignore most other sources of information about the perpetrators and their motives.

Their reasoning is just fallacious, quite aside for the myriad of unsupported assertions. Most scholars refuse to accept the questionable 1991 census as a base line. The large team we worked with uniformly rejected such a presumption. Further, S&D conflate the criticism of the 1991 census data with the argument that this data was needed to enumerate and/or identify targeted Tutsi victims. As they say elsewhere in their work, the identification of the Tutsi targeted for killing was carried out by locals based on intimate local knowledge of who was a Tutsi and who was a Hutu. This had nothing to do with the issue of large numbers of refugees on the move. Those refugees were overwhelmingly Hutu fleeing areas conquered by the RPF.

Deliberate misrepresentation of ethnicity complicates assessing how many of the victims were actually Tutsi. At a reburial ceremony for a family slain during the genocide, the only two survivors, both priests, talked separately to S&D’s researchers. One maintained that his family was Tutsi, but claimed to be Hutu looked like Tutsi, while the other declared that the family was really Hutu, but was said to be Tutsi by neighbors who coveted their wealth. All this can be admitted without the need to deform the overall proportions so as to minimize the number of Tutsi in the population prior to the genocide and maximize the number of survivors.

Does this gross misuse of statistics and numbers constitute genocide denial?