The world reaction to atrocities

The way that the media and the big powers react to event like those that took place in Rwanda were also well described I the film Hotel Rwanda. (See yesterday’s posting.)

As long as there were still western tourists and workers and missionaries still in Rwanda, there was some interest and media coverage. News crews were present and western governments sent in troops to make sure that those people got out safely. But once that happens, and westerners are no longer in danger, it is in the interests of the big powers that events like what happened in Rwanda quickly fade from the media screens. And it should be clear to any political observer that the US government is very adept at controlling which events receive high profile media coverage and which don’t.

In the film, the hotel manager who is the hero of the film tells the TV reporter who captured images of the slaughter that he is glad that he has done so and that when people in the west see the carnage they will demand action. But the reporter has to disillusion him, saying that people will simply say “how dreadful” and go back to eating their dinner. It is not that people don’t care, and some people care deeply enough to try to get action taken to solve the problem. But whether actions are taken by governments depends on more than human needs.

Most ordinary people in any country have genuine humane impulses that recoil from gross injustice, and if the events in Rwanda had received sustained media coverage, then there would have been demands that concrete action be taken, either unilaterally by countries that have the ability to do so (like the US) or through multilateral agencies like the UN. But the western powers have little or no interest in countries like Rwanda. It has no strategic, military, or economic value. So once the westerners and the media had been evacuated, it is easy for these governments to ensure that the subject more-or-less disappears from the radar screens of the west. This is done by responding to specific questions on the situation by saying that you regret what is happening, appealing for peace, saying that you are monitoring developments closely, referring the question to the UN, and ensuring that nothing gets done there beyond the passing of some resolutions. After awhile this kind of coverage gets ‘boring’ and the media attention shifts elsewhere.

This was what happened during the Clinton administration, who was president during the Rwandan crisis. Reports are now emerging that the Clinton administration was fully aware of the scale of the atrocities that were taking place in Rwanda in 1994 but pretended ignorance, carefully avoided public use of the word ‘genocide’, and buried the information in order to justify its inaction. The news report quotes a Human Rights Watch spokesperson who says “They feared this word [genocide] would generate public opinion which would demand some sort of action and they didn’t want to act. It was a very pragmatic determination.” And even now, you will find more coverage in the world press than in the US of this news of willful inaction, because the major US media never likes to admit how it is complicit in aiding the agenda of the US government.

Contrast this with what happens when the US government really wants something done, as was the case in Iraq before the invasion in 2003. Then the members of the administration talk about it day in and day out in every possible forum, playing up every atrocity in Iraq as a reason for immediate action. How many times have we heard about Hussein gassing his own people as one of the many, and shifting justifications for the attack? And recall that even this event, talked about repeatedly just prior to the war, actually occurred in 1988, when it was not news here. This was because Hussein was an ally of the US at that time and this kind of embarrassing fact had to be suppressed. The event only became newsworthy when it served an administration purpose.

Or take another classic example. Arguably one of the biggest mass murderers of the second half of the twentieth century was President Suharto of Indonesia. The slaughter he unleashed against his opponents in the late 1960s after taking becoming president of that country was incredibly brutal and widespread, with estimated dead between 500,000 and one million. And then later he invaded and annexed East Timor (which had gained independence from Portugal in 1975) with US government approval and slaughtered many people there too. But it is a safe bet that most people in the US have neither heard of him or the events I am referring to. In fact, during all these events, Suharto would come to the US and be treated deferentially as an honored guest. Why is this? Because Suharto was a good and faithful ally and it was inconvenient to have him brought to justice for his crimes. But how was attention to be diverted from his actions? To see how the US government can control how foreign leaders are portrayed in the US media, compare the way that Cambodia’s Pol Pot and Suharto were portrayed. Edward Herman (who is professor emeritus at the Wharton School of Business at the University of Pennsylvania) has a comparative analysis that is a must read.

Stephen Zunes, professor of Politics and chair of the Peace & Justice Studies Program at the University of San Francisco in his article US Double Standards in the October 22, 2002 issue of The Nation magazine shows how the US government managed to prevent any multilateral action against Suharto. He says:

For example, in 1975, after Morocco’s invasion of Western Sahara and Indonesia’s invasion of East Timor, the Security Council passed a series of resolutions demanding immediate withdrawal. However, then-US ambassador to the UN Daniel Patrick Moynihan bragged that “the Department of State desired that the United Nations prove utterly ineffective in whatever measures it undertook. The task was given to me, and I carried it forward with no inconsiderable success.”

Whether the UN acts or not is determined by what the US government wants in terms of its own geopolitical interests. The UN is still useful as a forum for exposing some things that might otherwise be hidden, so it serves some purposes, but we cannot expect it to act on purely humanitarian grounds, however deserving they may be. Once we understand that, we can get to grips with the question of why events like Rwanda in the mid 1990s and Darfur, Sudan now can occur, and the world simply averts its eyes.

We cannot depend on the media, especially commercial media, alone to focus attention for a long time on these situations. We also need other independent organizations, such as NGOs and humanitarian and religious groups, but such actions carry their own dangers, as we will see tomorrow.

POST SCRIPT: Unbelieving defenders of the faith

James Wolcott points out and comments on an interesting discussion going on in the National Review Online that illustrates how many self-professed ‘defenders of religion’ and supporters of so-called intelligent design creationism are themselves unbelievers but think that religion is useful for keeping in order what they perceive as the lower intellectual classes, those ‘beneath’ them.


  1. catherine says

    Just came from the Wolcott site; he’s got to be one of the most elegant writers around. And not only does he write well of his own opinions, but he always has such interesting links. I second Mano’s recommendation. I myself have wondered if all the fanatically-defensive Christians (the public ones) are really believers themselves.

  2. Barry says

    Guilty as charged. I’ve often looked down at fanatically religous friends with the “How could you be so naive?” mentality. My parents look at athiesm as “a phase” and I look back with an “I came from you?” expression on my face.

    Granted, my attitude has never been that of “Well, they’re dumb, so let’s use religion to keep them in line” if that makes a difference.

    Most people need religion for hope. Fear of the unknown forces most to look toward an omnipotent creator that is saying “Everything will be ok if you believe in me.” I can understand that even if I can’t agree with it.

    Yes, without religion, the masses would be in disarray. You can’t take the main source of hope for billions of people out from under them and expect stability.

    Sorry, I kinda wandered off into a rant of my own there.

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