Film class — week 15

2 December 2006, 0350 EST

Film #15: “Hotel Rwanda” (2004). We viewed it Tuesday.

Reading for Thursday: Gareth Evans, “The Responsibility to Protect: Rethinking Humanitarian Intervention,” Address to The American Society of International Law, 98th Annual Meeting, Panel on “Rethinking Collective Action”, Washington DC, 1 April 2004.

The class returned to the question of humanitarian intervention (HI) in this final week of the semester. Back in week #5, we viewed “Black Hawk Down,” which was the story of a military mission in Somalia gone horribly wrong.

The Battle of Mogadishu featured in the movie actually followed a successful mission to feed starving people, but the take-home lesson for America and much of the west was quite different: Nation-building and peacekeeping are impossible during a period of internal violence and civil war.

Rwanda is a case of western non-intervention, and some characters in the film specifically reference the Somalian experience. In this instance, however, the failure to intervene was incredibly costly. Hutu militias killed hundreds of thousands of Tutsi civilians. This massacre was followed by attacks on the Hutu by armed Tutsi factions. In all, the film notes that Rwanda faced a million corpses.

Gareth Evans, former Australian foreign Minister, argues that the international community had a “responibility to protect” innocent people in Rwanda — and in other places where states fail to provide basic human security for their own citizens. During class, we recalled our previous discussion of Tilly’s essay — and discussed what it might mean if some states are unable to work the “protection racket.”

The dilemmas are obvious. On the one hand, great powers might feel obliged to help innocent victims of genocide or other crimes against humanity. On the other hand, intervention is risky and is not costless. Even superpowers like the US can be forced to pay unacceptable costs (which may seem ridiculously low to critics).

While Evans says that states fail to act because of concerns about sovereignty (and many states in the South certainly do), for great powers the real problem is their potential failure to identify sufficiently with the victims. In the film, Nick Nolte’s UN officer very strongly implies that the west exhibited racism by failing to act.

Perhaps the biggest problem, however, is the great power commitment to longstanding traditions of national, rather than human, security. The hero of this film, the Hutu hotel manager, clearly prioritizes human security over the political interests some other characters try to push on to him. He embraced a “responsibility to protect” more than 1200 Rwandans, Hutu and Tutsi alike.

In 1998, President Bill Clinton briefly visited Rwanda and apologized for failing to do anything to stop the genocide. President George W. Bush often very strongly implies that the U.S. has a responsibility to provide basic security for Iraqis.

Yet, the current sitation in Darfur illustrates the magnitude and ongoing nature of the HI problem. Secretary of State Colin Powell first used the word genocide in September 2004 in describing the situation in Darfur. President Bush agreed in June 2005.

Filed as: