U.N. Rattles Skeletons in Washington's Closet

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Somewhere in the corridors of power in Washington stands a metaphorical closet jam-packed with Rwandan skeletons. President Clinton admitted as much last year when he apologized to Rwanda for the West's failure to act in 1994 when faced with overwhelming evidence that genocide was under way in the central African country. But a U.N.-commissioned report released Thursday makes the point more sharply: The United Nations chose to ignore reports of the impending bloodbath, and its inaction was due in no small part to the desire of Washington and its allies to turn a blind eye.

"While it was very clear that action was needed, Washington played a major role in influencing the decision to take no action," says TIME U.N. correspondent William Dowell. "Having just come out of the Somalia debacle, which had been badly managed by both the U.S. and the U.N., Washington didn't want to get involved in another complex conflict in Africa." Of course, while the solutions were complex, the numbers were devastatingly simple: 800,000 people were killed in one month in Rwanda as Hutu mobs butchered their Tutsi neighbors.

Although the report is extremely critical of the United Nations' failure to intervene, its authors acknowledge that the international body ultimately implements the policy of its member states. "A couple of months ago stories were appearing in the media that laid most of the blame at Kofi Annan's door," says Dowell. "But that's not particularly fair, since Annan is ultimately an administrator. He can't order any U.N. action that's not authorized by the member states." And the most influential of those, the U.S., wasn't prepared to go ahead with a decisive response. "The best we can hope for out of this," says Dowell, "is that the lessons of Rwanda are remembered the next time the international community gets wind of an impending massacre."