Essay: Humanitarian intervention: united nations in rwanda

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Humanitarian intervention: united nations in rwanda

Humanitarian Intervention: United Nations in Rwanda


The concept of humanitarian intervention can be traced back to medieval theorists like Thomas Aquinas and international legal theorists such as Vitoria and Grotius. According to these thinkers, a prince's right to rule his people could be breached if human wellbeing was severely compromised due to natural disasters or the prince's own depravity (Morgenthau 1967). Under these situations, foreign princes had a right or, rather, an obligation, to intervene in order to alleviate human suffering, by force if need be. As the notion of state sovereignty came increasingly to dominate International Law after 1648, humanitarian intervention fell out of favour. But in the post-Cold War order, the concept appears to have emerged once again, so much so that some have declared that 'sovereignty is no longer sacrosanct' (Copra and Weiss 1992 cited in Ayoob 2002: 84; Krasner 1995).

Since its establishment more than fifty years ago, the United Nations (UN) has organised and deployed numerous operations in response to crises throughout the world. In establishing and managing these operations, the UN has demonstrated remarkable institutional innovation and political resilience, developing a variety of institutions, structures, functions, and procedures to surmount obstacles in the Security Council and deal with the diverse causes and complex nature of inter-state and intra-state conflict. There is no explicit legal framework within the UN Charter authorising the undertaking of these operations, but rather an ambiguous and ambitious program for coercive collective security (United Nations 2008; Murphy 2007). However, this essay will demonstrate that UN as an organisation can only deal with what it has in terms of troops, resources and political will at its disposal, in tackling each case of intervention. This essay aims to demonstrate the failures of UN in handling the Rwanda situation but emphasises that the reasons for this are based on external and internal factors.

Some UN humanitarian missions are looked upon as successes (e.g. El Salvador and Sierra Leone) while other missions are considered failures, such as Bosnia-Herzegovina, Somalia and Rwanda (Bratt 1996). Early studies identified that factors for success and failure were extracted from literature to explicate the disparities contributed by UN humanitarian missions, and after conducted research, of various cases, nine factors for success and failure were derived from them (Bratt 1996; Lijn 2008). According to these nine factors the likelihood that a humanitarian mission makes a positive contribution to resilient peace enhances if: the parties involved are willing and sincerely cooperating with the implementation of the mission; the mission is capable of providing ample security to the parties; there is sufficient awareness for the causes of the conflict in depth and in breadth; the mission receives cooperation from significant external forces; the mission is timely deployed and at the right time (Kriesberg 1987); is implemented by competent personnel under skilled leadership, and with clear command structures; the mission is part of a long term approach; the policy tools implemented are coordinated within the operation, as well as externally; and the operation provides ownership (Seybolt 2007; Lijn 2008; Feil 1998).

Rwanda's Case

For Rwanda, the partial success of the Arusha Accords and the establishment of UNAMIR I may be attributed to employing a combination of strategies that were well suited to the situation (United Nations Security Council 1993: Resolution 872). While pressure was used to bring the disputants to the negotiating table, once there was a peace to keep, the UN deployed a peacekeeping force to monitor the cease-fire. This intervention reflects an accurate assessment of the conflict at that time (Barnett 2002). The problems later encountered by UNAMIR I developed as a result of hesitancy of the UN to change the operational mandate and rules of engagement to fit the rapidly changing conditions on the ground (Feil 1998).

The downfall of UNAMIR I was due to the assumption that there would be sustained collaboration amid the parties and the UN in carrying out their commitments under the Arusha Accords. Deeply entrenched distrust, delaying strategies and constantly shifting political alignments, however, undermined implementation of the transitional arrangements (Barnett 2002; 1997). Moreover, UNAMIR I faced serious problems from its establishment, primarily its Chapter VI mandate, which restricted UN troops from forcibly responding to occasional violations of the cease-fire agreement (Lessons Learned Unit, Department of Peacekeeping Operations 1996; Dallaire and Bruce 1995).

The characteristics of a successful UN mission is distinguished by various principles, including that it is sent to areas where peace has been recognised or when war has not yet broken out, or is deployed early after the outbreak of civil war; the host state is democratic, ethnically polarised, and very poor; it has been deployed for a considerable period of time; and the force commander is not from the region of the conflict. UNAMIR I failed in most of these imperative aspects. It was sent to a country where peace was not secured in a strained civil war. Rwanda was not a democratic society, and UNAMIR I had only been deployed for a short period of time. It can therefore be questioned whether UNAMIR I truly had an chance to succeed considering the malign milieu it was deployed in (Khan 1996; Barnett 2002; Kuperman 2001).

Still, these explanations do not address more fundamental questions on the actions of the UN, both the UN headquarters and UNAMIR I, during the Rwandan genocide. At least three questions need to be evaluated in terms of UN response to the genocide. Firstly, pro-action (before the genocide plot was implemented on April 6, 1994) (Bernett 2002; Khan 1999); were UNAMIR I and the UN headquarters proactive enough in dealing with the genocide that arose among the Hutu extremists before the genocide was implemented? Secondly, prevention (before April 6 but after the deployment of UNAMIR I in October 1993) (Barnett 2002; Kuperman 2001; Khan 1999); why did UNAMIR I fail to prevent the genocide once it had begun to be implemented and when information of such a plot was beginning to reach the UN headquarters? Finally, intervention (during and shortly after April 6) (Barnett 2002; Kuperman 2001; Khan 1999); did the UN headquarters seriously attempt to intervene to stop the genocide once it had actually started? The international community missed all these three opportunities to contain the genocide.

The prevailing causes of the failure were, on the one hand, the lack of resources of UNAMIR in field, and, on the other, the limited political will and commitment of UN member states and international community to act (Murphy 2007: 296, Seybolt 2007: 73 Rall 1996; Barnett 1997). The mandate of UNAMIR I appear to have been based on an over-optimistic judgment of the peace process at the time, and thus insufficient to meet the needs of the condition in Rwanda (Dallaire et al 1995). There were also problems of command and control due to a lack of precise communications between the UN headquarters and UNAMIR I (Barnett 1997; Feil 1998). Additionally, UNAMIR I was often called an orphan operation, one which suffered from being created in the aftermath of Somalia (Carlsson 2000). UN member states, fearing for the lives of their solders, were reluctant to send their forces to Rwanda. As a result, UNAMIR I was unable to assemble the quantity and quality of troops it required. Furthermore, the lack of coordination and discipline, confusion over the rules of engagement, and insufficient planning were constant impediments to UNAMIR I from the beginning of its deployment (Barnett 2002; 1997).

When the genocide began, UNAMIR was a UNPKO1 numbering 2,500 personnel that should have been able to prevent or at least limit the genocide. A few weeks after the killing began, the Security Council withdrew all, except 270 forces from Rwanda. This decision was taken regardless of clear evidence of genocide and the collapse of the Arusha Peace Agreement (United Nations Security Council 1994: Resolution 912; Hindell 1996). The lack of political will of member states to send troops and material is another major cause of failure (Murphy 2007: 296; Seybolt 2007: 73; Kuperman 2001). Most member states appeared mainly concerned about their troops, and the potential domestic political ramification of deceased soldiers returning to their respective countries (Barnett 1997). Even after May 17, 1994, when the Security Council decided to put a halt to the genocide, it was intricate for the UN Secretariat to receive troop contributions from member states. Furthermore, none of the member states were willing to take a lead in providing aid or preventing further deterioration of crises, since such humanitarian actions (e.g. the provision of relief to civilians and the protection of their basic human rights) are costly.

Another critical issue relating to Rwanda was that the UNAMIR I mandate did not keep pace with the development and was neither accurate nor relevant to the existing circumstances. Once the killing was in progress, UNAMIR I did not function as an organised operation. The UN failed to realise that genocide and civil war occurred concurrently in the country. The Security Council only provided the conventional prescription for civil wars (Dallaire et al 1995). For instance, there was a Chapter VI mandate that called for a cease-fire, reconciliation and return to the Arusha Accords when the imminence of genocide required a heavily armed, peace-enforcing Chapter VII presence Finally, in July 1994, the Council approved a Chapter VII presence for Operation Turquoise, the French-led multinational operation, but by then, the genocide had been virtually completed and the civil war was over as the FPR2 had defeated the government (Khan 1999; United Nations Security Council 1994: Resolution 929; Seybolt 2007: 73; Hindell 1996).

The partial success of Operation Turquoise may be attributed to the fact that military force was used to achieve limited goals and the endeavour to conduct the mission as impartially as possible (Seybolt 2007:75; Hindell 1996). France did not hesitate to use force when it saw its objectives threatened; those military goals, however, were limited in geographic scope. The safe area established by France primarily affected the FPR's ability to advance, but France refused the Hutu government's appeal to use the French forces for military gain (Seybolt 2007). France did not permit itself to be drawn into the conflict, nor did it see the pursuit of a development of national reconciliation as one of its goals (New York Times 1994a). Instead, it used military force in a limited, effectual fashion to address human rights concerns (Hindell 1996). UNAMIR I had no such mandate and consequently, their influence was far less than that of Operation Turquoise (Seybolt 2007; Bonner 1994; Dallaire et al 1995).

The limitation of Operation Turquoise arose from the desire by the intervening force to minimise its contribution both in terms of the scope of activities undertaken and the extent of the mission. By establishing a safe zone (McQueen 2005) in just the south-western division of Rwanda and declaring that troops would be there for only two months, the impact of the intervention on the protection of civilians and the formation of conditions for national reconciliation was drastically reduced (Seybolt 2007; Hindell 1996; Kuperman 2001).

France left Rwanda at a time when millions of people remained displaced, when the newly recognised government had yet to establish effective mechanisms for peace and stability and when Hutu extremists had fled to the mountains or to neighbouring countries while remaining a powerful guerrilla threat. Not only was the humanitarian crisis far from over, but the French withdrawal itself fostered a greater sense of insecurity among the Rwandans that had sought shelter in the safe zone (Hindell 1996; Kuperman 2001; McQueen 2005); it also provoked a wave of refugee flows into neighbouring countries. As a consequence, while the strategy of peace enforcement was a partial success, its short duration and restricted scope limited the effectiveness of the intervention.

The scale and speed of the Rwandan genocide raises the interrelated problems of how timing and strategy could have been combined more effectively to stem the tide of violence (Seybolt 2007; Kriesberg 1987). Information was available that would have permitted policy makers to draw the conclusion that genocide might occur (Barnett 2002).

The failure of early warning is attributable to many factors. Firstly, the UN was poorly organised to gather and assess information about human rights violations and genocide. Secondly, a predisposition existed among a number of key actors to deny the possibility of genocide, because facing up to it would have required them to alter their course of action. Thirdly, the focus of success of the Arusha accords and the failure in Somalia together cast long shadows and distorted an objective analysis of Rwanda. Fourthly, crises occurring in other areas of the world preoccupied world leaders (Feil 1998, Barnett 2001). Finally, a general desensitisation developed regarding the mass slaughters in Rwanda, and the possibility of genocide essentially occurring appeared inconceivable.

Furthermore, UN lacked a system for drawing on existing information sources, in the region and outside, from specialist in state agencies, academic institutions, human rights monitoring organisations, and the various bodies of the UN itself (Feil 1998). The UN lacked a specialised unit, without operational responsibilities for analysing such information and translating this knowledge into evolving strategies options that could be channeled directly to the secretary-general (Hindell 1996).

Two lessons can be drawn from the Rwandan tragedy. First, there can be no neutrality in the face of the threat of genocide or massive violations of human rights. The UN and its peacekeepers must be allowed as well as required to react by shifting from peacekeeping to peace enforcement without requiring a new mandate. Nevertheless, it must be recognised that for this purpose the concept of genocide must beclarified in order to provide the international community with a clear guideline of when such a shift is warranted. Second, it is crucial to recognise that the presence of a UNPKO, whether or not its mandate includes the protection of civilians, will create an expectation of security among the civilian population that they will be protected by the UN. In this context, the issues before the UN are how it reconciles with Rwandan people who cannot understand why most of the UNAMIR I forces would withdraw while people were being massacred and what happened in Rwanda must never occur again.

Cambodia: success or failure?

On the contrary, the Security Council characterised the Cambodia mission at its conclusion as a major achievement for the United Nation. Judged in terms of its mandate, the resources allocated to it and the difficulties under which it operated, UNTAC3 can at the very least be said to have been a qualified success (Doyle 1995; Sorpong 2000; Hughes 1996). Its triumphs were the organisation and conduct of the May election (which were 'free and fair', although the election campaign was not), its refugee repatriation programme and its promotion (although not its protection) of human rights (Doyle 1995). UNTAC's Electoral Component and UNHCR deserve special mention as examples of what the UN can do with adequate resources and planning (Doyle 1995; Frost 1996: 9). Other elements of UNTAC's mandate were fulfilled satisfactorily. It verified the Vietnamese departure, thus satisfying Chinese and United States concerns. It cantoned and disarmed those military forces to which it was given access and began the process of reconstructing Cambodia's infrastructure, administration and economy. It employed tens of thousands of Cambodians, who gained important skills that can be applied to reconstruction and development (Doyle 1995; Findlay 1995; Sorpong 2000; Farris 1994).

UNTAC set in place the rudiments of a civil society, leaving Cambodia with a more open political process, a free press and a more politically aware populace than when it arrived (Call and Cooks 2003: 242; Suntharalingham 1997: 102; Jeldres 1993). In place of an unelected, authoritarian regime originally imposed on the country by a foreign power, it left a democratically elected legislature and coalition government of the three most favoured political parties in the country (Doyle 1995; Jeldres 1993).

UNTAC also avoided some of the failures of previous and coexisting peacekeeping operations. It avoided being drawn into a shooting war with obstinate parties, using force only in self-defence and even then with great restraint, largely preserved its impartiality, suffered no catastrophic administrative disasters and came in under budget (Doyle 1995;Song 1997; Findlay 1995; Sorpong 2000).

However, the Paris Accords failed to bring peace to Cambodia. In the implementation of the Accords, its major failures were its incapability to control and supervise the SOC4 Administration (Hughes 1996); its reluctance to deal forcibly with human rights infringements, especially because of its unwillingness to establish a system of justice to deal with the most egregious of these; and its management failures, including poor management and co-operation (Doyle 1995, Sorpong 2000). Aspects of UNTAC's performance which were not entirely within its control but in which it could have done better were the slowness of its deployment and installation; its strategic planning; the poor performance of its CivPols; initial neglect of the adverse economic effects of its own presence and the slowness of its rehabilitation and demining programmes (Doyle 1995, Sorpong 2000).

In Cambodia's decentralised, traditional society, democracy must be a long term project rather than an 18 month, immense, internationally imposed undertaking. The commencement of proper democracy in Cambodia must allow people to become more confident to articulate their own opinions, acknowledge disagreement peacefully and enjoy the freedom to oppose traditional leaders. One of the biggest problems with the UN sponsored democratisation approach has been a general disregard of the target state's existing political structure, history and culture (Doyle 1995). The UN attempted to establish one sanctioned form of democracy across a widely disparate group of states. It assumed this electoralist model could be successful because the organisation had come to accept the tenets of the New Orthodoxy. UN attempts at democratisation in peace building contexts met with varying degrees of success (Doyle 1995). In Cambodia however, neglecting the specifics of the case doomed the exercise to failure.


The most obvious lesson from this Rwanda is that the capacity of the UN in the field of peacekeeping needs improvement. Success depends on being given the resources and political will necessary to fulfill their mandates. Over the past decade, much has been said regarding the need to improve its capacity for prevention. The real challenge will be to bring the lessons into the everyday planning and implementation for peacekeeping. Learning the lessons from Rwanda is a question of putting prevention into practice; and of combining the will to act in time with the capacity to do so (Kriesberg 1987). For this, the UN should show the same determination to exercise its responsibility to comply with international law, to promote peace and security in individual conflicts, to mobilise the political will of member states, and to discourage short term budgetary or other financial and political consideration from overshadowing acute needs in conflict zones.

Rwanda is an example of the complicated and disjointed policy making process that often dictates the timing, strategy and outcome of intervention efforts by third parties. The aftermath of the genocide in Rwanda has continued to present complex problems for the country, the region and multitude of international actors. The Rwanda government is faced with the task of broadening its constituency and establishing its legitimacy both with the majority population and international donors in order to garner the human and material resources necessary to rebuild the country. The international community must carry out its commitment to break the cycle of violence.

Each peacekeeping mission is different and Rwanda was unique in its size, cost and complexity. The world views Cambodia as a success for completing the elections and establishing a legitimate government, yet it failed to fully implement democracy, as it did not acknowledge the historical and political culture and tensions existent in Cambodia. By realising the extent of intricacies of individual nations, the United Nations attempt at peace keeping and building should not be refuted, as this organisation has helped as much as it could with the available resources, to minimise the impact of the conflicts it was confronted with. The reflection of its effectiveness would be to know the true impact of such genocides and conflicts among nations and the outcome it would have achieved had there been no UN intervention.


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