The School for Ethics and Global Leadership

Fall 2014 confronts Rwandan genocide

Date: Sep 15nd, 2014

The 1994 Rwandan genocide is one of the darkest times in modern history. It is also a remarkable learning opportunity: not only for current world leaders still reeling from the collective decision not to intervene, but for future world leaders who will no doubt confront similar challenges in the future.  Because of this, SEGL students have confronted Rwanda every semester since the school’s inception.  Through studying several key responses to the violence, they can better understand the complexities of leadership in times of international crisis.  And they can discover what it takes to be effective under this type of pressure.

Our case study began last Friday evening with a showing of the PBS Frontline documentary Ghosts of Rwanda.  The documentary is challenging to watch and fostered an intense (and, at times, tearful) discussion about the right way to respond to mass atrocities.  Must the U.S intervene when a compelling national interest is not clearly present?  Is there a way to slice through institutional bureaucracy in critical moments?  How should we respond to current and future genocides?

Our students meet each semester with three leaders interviewed in the documentary.  Each of these leaders provides a unique perspective that gives students a nuanced, more complex understanding of the genocide.  We also benefit from a special mid-week tour of the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, which shows the causes and effects of the world’s most famous genocide.

The first of these leaders is Carl Wilkens, whom we met(via videoconference) on Monday morning.  Wilkens, the only American to stay behind during the 1994 Rwandan genocide (and the 2012 winner of the SEGL Golden Mug Award), answered 90 minutes of thoughtful questions: Why did he decide to stay? What did he think of the United States government when it chose not to intervene?  How did the experience impact his faith? Why is there evil in the world, and how can we combat it?  Wilkens, who has spoken with each SEGL group since our founding, provided a hopeful message sharing ways to prevent genocide and the thinking that leads to it. (Later this semester we will also meet with Laura Lane, another favorite SEGL speaker, who was in charge of evacuating all the other Americans from Rwanda in 1994. Juxtaposing Wilkens and Lane is always poignant, and we look forward to sharing how students receive her visit.)

On Wednesday, before traveling to the Holocaust Museum we metFormer Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs George Moose; in that role, Moose was one of the lead State Department officials managing the U.S. response to the genocide.  Moose, now Vice Chair of the Board of the United States Institute of Peace (USIP), discussed the many difficult priorities and ethical considerations that made intervening in that conflict particularly complex.  He faced some particularly difficult questions (and follow-up questions!) from students seeking to learn more about the trade-offs, inter-agency discussions, and tough prioritizing that leaders face.  Along with Ann-Louise Colgan, the director of USIP’s Global Peacebuilding Center, he also spoke about USIP, whose current work is designing and monitoring the warning systems that identify potential future genocides.  

We concluded the week with a conversation with someone who is currently working to prevent such atrocities from occurring today: Lawrence Woocher, the Senior Atrocity Prevention Fellow working with the USAID Human Rights Team. Over the past decade, he has played a leading role in U.S. efforts to prevent genocide and other cases of mass atrocities around the world, particularly through his leading work on the Genocide Prevention Task Force (co-chaired by former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright and former Secretary of Defense William Cohen). Our students had the opportunity to ask him many questions about just what it means to work to prevent genocide: What are the warning signs?  What are the steps should we take when we see these signs?  Is the U.S. really any better equipped or more incentivized to confront genocide than in 1994?

Did the case study conclude on a hopeful or sober note?  We’ll let our students speak for themselves, but there is no doubt that the U.S. Capitol building now looms larger as our students stare out at it from their new front yard.