KIGALI, RWANDA — As quickly as Rwanda began its descent into genocide 10 years ago, the world community began its retreat from any serious effort to help stop the frenzy that killed nearly 1 million people in just 100 days.
Now, amid somber commemorations of those events, one question looms large: If a similar atrocity exploded now, would the international community again "pass by on the other side" while hundreds of thousands were killed?
Many observers say it probably would. Places like Rwanda are still far removed from the center of world events. With no oil and no terrorist cells, its strategic value to the world is small.
Nonetheless there are subtle signs that the world is more prepared to act on reports of mass killing.
"Genocide prevention is being taken more seriously by governments. There is, at least, much greater awareness," says James Smith, head of the Aegis Trust, which is orchestrating commemoration events in Rwanda this week. But, he adds, "I'm skeptical of the idea that another genocide would be prevented by the international community."
There are, for instance, new anti-genocide structures: The UN and US now have officials devoted exclusively to the prevention of mass killings. New forums for crimes against humanity have emerged with the establishment of the International Criminal Court in The Hague last year, Belgian courts has tested the limits of "universal justice" in human rights cases, and the ongoing Yugoslav and Rwanda war-crimes tribunals. UN chief Kofi Annan is expected to announce Wednesday a new early-warning system to help prevent genocide.
More fundamental, resistance to keeping troops overseas has lessened drastically in a decade. Back in April 1994, when Rwanda's genocide started, Americans had just watched the bodies of marines being dragged through Somalia's streets after their Blackhawk helicopters were downed. It was one reason the US refused to condone a robust UN humanitarian mission to stop Rwanda's genocide.
Today American troops are deployed across the globe, and despite challenges in Iraq, the troops don't appear to be headed home soon. Recent French and American troop deployments in Ivory Coast, Liberia, and Haiti are further examples of a new willingness to deploy. "The stomach for war is much stronger," observes Anne Morris, country director for the international aid group, CARE, in Rwanda.
There's also a growing desire by Africans to intervene in their continent's conflicts. The new African Union plans to create a rapid-reaction force to help end wars. Through NEPAD, another Africa-wide organization, nations are undergoing "peer review" - criticism by their neighbors. It hints at a growing consensus to challenge the long-sacred concept of state sovereignty, which has traditionally been a key argument against interventions.
But many are skeptical that the global response would be different today. "If it all happened again, it would all happen again," says Gerald Caplan, the Canadian author of "Rwanda: The Preventable Genocide."
Indeed, there are plenty of signs of continued global indifference.
A small but symbolic one is the guest list for Wednesday's commemoration ceremonies in Kigali. The UN's Mr. Annan won't attend. Neither will a top American official such as Secretary of State Colin Powell. Rather, the US is sending its mid-level ambassador for war crimes, Pierre-Richard Prosper. Also on the guest list, Sudanese President Omar el-Bashir, who is, says one UN official, presiding over ethnic cleansing in western Sudan.
Rwandan President Paul Kagame testily raised another issue earlier this week as he accused the world of a "deliberate and convenient" failure to help stop genocide. "Do the powerful nations have a hidden agenda?" he pondered. "I would hate to believe this agenda is dictated by racist considerations or the color of the skin."
Whether the agenda is based on racism or other factors, many observers agree that black Africa has had little geostrategic cachet. But with up to 25 percent of US oil expected to be flowing from Africa within 10 years, that's starting to change.
Meanwhile, Rwanda's experience with genocide has, at least, given observers a better understanding of how such mass killings can begin. One of the central lessons: "Genocide never happens in exactly the same way," says Mr. Smith of Aegis.
While the world was braced to prevent a resurgence of concentration camps aimed at exterminating Jews, it wasn't ready for other methods of mass killings that have emerged instead.
Yet there are common warning signs, say experts. One is government training of militias. In 1994, Rwanda's notorious Interahamwe gangs were trained and armed by the government.
Today in Uganda, President Yoweri Museveni has recently been arming civilian militias to combat the rebel Lord's Resistance Army (LRA). Some Ugandan religious leaders have raised alarms about potential ethnic cleansing of the Acholi people, who live in LRA areas and sometimes support them.
For more than a year in Sudan, the government has reportedly been arming Arab militias in their fight against rebel African tribes. The militias have been systematically robbing and raping civilians, according to a recent Human Rights Watch report.
The UN's top official in Sudan recently charged the militias with "ethnic cleansing." Will such strong words have an impact? "It's possible it will result in a more robust response," says John Prendergast of the International Crisis Group in Washington, "But so far it's rhetorical."