Human Rights - The clinton years

Since 1989 the United States has faced a number of humanitarian crises, including ones involving the gross violation, either individually or collectively, of human rights. In 1994, for example, some in the Hutu majority in Rwanda orchestrated massive killings of Tutsis beginning in April. The brutal massacres clearly violated the UN's Declaration of Human Rights, but governments around the world refused to intervene to stop the killing. The administration of William Jefferson Clinton purposely avoided using the word genocide because to have uttered it publicly might have obligated the United States to take action under the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, approved in December 1948 but not signed by the United States until 4 November 1988. Instead, the administration used phrases like "acts of genocide." When questioned as to the difference between genocide and acts of genocide, Christine Shelley, a State Department spokesperson, responded that "clearly not all of the killings that have taken place in Rwanda are killings to which you might apply that label." When pressed as to how many "acts of genocide" were needed to constitute "genocide," Shelly answered, "That's just not a question that I'm in a position to answer." In other words, better to avoid the issue through linguistic parsing than acknowledge what was truly happening and doing something about it. President Clinton apologized for America's inaction while visiting Rwanda in 1998, but that was years after 800,000 people had been massacred.

The proliferation of independence movements in the wake of the Soviet Union's collapse apparently arose in partial response to Woodrow Wilson's call at the end of the First World War to support such efforts. To their surprise, however, those groups seeking U.S. assistance in their attempts to form independent governments ran into traditional American worries about instability possibly ensuing. In 1999, to cite one example, the leaders of Kosovo traveled to Rambouillet, France, to discuss its status within Yugoslavia. Meeting with American secretary of state Madeleine Albright, they found the United States much less keen than they had hoped regarding their desire to separate from Serbia and what remained of the Yugoslav republic. From the American perspective, supporting independence for Kosovo would set a dangerous precedent: What of the Kurds in Iraq and Turkey, the Tibetans in western China, and the Taiwanese? If those peoples also publicly asserted their desire for independent states, the consequences could possibly involve the United States in a major war, especially in the case of Taiwan. Hence, the Clinton administration remained exceedingly cautious about supporting the collective human rights of the Kosovars, despite their obvious suffering at the hands of the Serbian authorities led by Slobodan Milosevic.

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