Issue 26 - Article 3

The UN and the Rwanda genocide: could it ever happen again?

March 11, 2004

Those factors that led the UN and most of its member states to ignore the Rwandan genocide are as relevant today as they were a decade ago. Whether the UN would mount the same kind of mission as it did in post-genocide Rwanda is, however, a different matter.

Institutionally, significant changes have occurred since 1994, and the potential capacity of the UN to respond coherently and professionally to conflict and post-conflict situations has greatly improved since those early days of ‘complex emergencies’ and their grim aftermaths. Yet for all these improvements – impressive as they may be from the perspective of a decade – the same uncertainties, divergent interests and institutional constraints remain.

Rwanda in retrospect

The possibility of genocide was first broached by the commander of the UN Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR), Major-General Romeo Dallaire, in a cable dated 11 January 1994 to the UN Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) in New York. The cable noted that an informant from Rwanda’s mainly Hutu government had let it be known that he had been ordered to register all Tutsis in Kigali, and presumed that this was for the purpose of extermination.

The informant suggested that his personnel could probably kill up to 1,000 Tutsis 20 minutes after an order was given to proceed. For Dallaire at least, events in Rwanda were no longer the inevitable toll of civil war. Rather, the crisis was now about extermination, about genocide actively and deliberately pursued by the Rwandan government.

Dallaire reported regularly on the deteriorating security situation right up to the start of the genocide in April. Given these repeated warnings, why was the response so slow and uncertain? The answer is broadly three-fold, to do with the UN’s mandate and role; its peacekeeping and intelligence capacity; and the political calculations of its member states.

Mandate and role
Despite subsequent claims to the contrary, Dallaire’s cable was not ignored, nor was it treated it as standard field-to-headquarters traffic. Several senior DPKO officials – Iqbal Riza, the Assistant Secretary-General for Peacekeeping; Maurice Baril, a Canadian general and DPKO’s military advisor; and Hedi Annabi, the chief of DPKO’s Africa section – discussed it well into the night of 11 January. However, while in retrospect Dallaire was clear in his assertion that steps were being taken towards government-sponsored genocide, he also questioned the reliability of his informant, and proposed an arms seizure initiative that arguably went beyond the mandate of his mission, which was to support the implementation of the Arusha accords between the government and the Tutsi-led rebel movement the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF).

It has been suggested that Dallaire’s assertion that his informant may have been unreliable allowed officials to downplay his warning of genocide and focus instead on what was, from their perspective, the more important element of his message: his proposal to seize arms caches in Kigali. This would have constituted a pre-emptory act that would have compromised, as far as DPKO and others at headquarters were concerned, the neutrality and consent that underpinned ‘classical’ peacekeeping operations such as UNAMIR.

These issues were not trivial: ultimately, they touched on the essence of the UN’s role in peacekeeping, and they framed the immediate and subsequent responses to the 11 January cable and ensuing communications with the Force Commander. For headquarters in New York, Dallaire’s cable foretold not genocide, but the collapse of almost 12 months of arduous negotiations between the Rwandan government and the RPF. Staff at headquarters, right up to the Secretary-General, repeatedly insisted that nothing must be done to stand in the way of implementing the Arusha accords. As Michael Barnett puts it in Eyewitness to a Genoicide: The United Nations and Rwanda, officials ‘wanted to remind [Dallaire] that he was a peacekeeper and not a soldier’.

Peacekeeping and intelligence capacity
Issues of capacity also influenced the response within the UN. With the end of the Cold War, expectations had grown that the UN would play a central role in promoting peace and security in a new, multilateral world. Between 1991 and 1994, the organisation undertook as many peacekeeping operations as it had in the previous 40.

In 1989, the DPKO had a staff of nine; six years later, it had 50, dealing with 73,000 peacekeepers in 17 separate operations. As well as increasing in number, UN operations had also expanded in scope and complexity, and in the variety of contexts in which they were deployed, from ‘classic’ peacekeeping to operations in highly unstable environments.

The UN lacked the capacity to deal adequately with the glut of operations with which it had to contend. Few knew how best to undertake the rapidly changing and diverse roles being demanded of the peacekeepers, and there was significant anxiety about the organisation’s expansion away from the ‘classic’ model of intervention. Too little time and capacity were available to do justice to all the crises the UN faced by 1994.

The UN also lacked – and still lacks – a formal intelligence-gathering capacity, primarily because member states oppose it. Theoretically, the UN should have an effective information-gathering capacity in its extensive field networks. In practice, however, this is an unreliable resource: the expertise of field staff is variable, and the UN’s institutional culture avoids systematic intelligence-gathering. Instead, the UN relies on informal mechanisms, including the exchange of sensitive information through member states.

Inevitably, this means that the UN can only expect to receive the information that interested governments are willing (and/or able) to provide. In the case of Rwanda in 1994, intelligence was conspicuously lacking. The US committed virtually no in-country resources to what was considered a tiny state in a region of little strategic value. According to one analyst, the majority of information came from non-governmental organisations and news reports. These primarily concerned events in Kigali, and so hid the scale of the violence in the country as a whole. Without reliable intelligence to support and confirm Dallaire’s communications, headquarters staff were essentially working in the dark.

Political considerations
According to Samantha Power, one of the key analysts of the US response to the genocide, Rwanda was very low on the list of American priorities: ‘When [James] Woods of the Defense Department’s African affairs bureau suggested that the Pentagon add Rwanda–Burundi to its list of potential trouble spots, his bosses told him, in his words, “Look, if something happens in Rwanda–Burundi, we don’t care. Take it off the list. US national interest is not involved and we can’t put all these silly humanitarian issues on lists … Just make it go away”’.

There is little doubt that mean political calculation and institutional cowardice played a key role in the failure of the international community to respond to the unfolding genocide in the early days of April 1994. Deliberations over Rwanda followed hard upon a string of peacekeeping failures: Bosnia, Somalia and Haiti had all in one way or another gone sour; UNAMIR was established just two days after 18 US troops were killed in Mogadishu. Using the small UNAMIR force to intervene in yet another episode of African ethnic violence would have pitted the Secretary-General against the majority of Security Council members. That was a risk neither Boutros Boutros-Ghali nor his Under-Secretary-General for peacekeeping, Kofi Annan, was prepared to run.

The US, shaken by its experience in Mogadishu and disillusioned with the whole peacekeeping process, insisted that UNAMIR should be shut down. This threat was echoed by the UN Secretariat, though in an attempt to persuade the belligerents to abide by the Arusha accords; the UN at least still felt that the peacekeeping presence had value.

Although the UK brokered an extension of UNAMIR, the downing of the Rwandan president’s aircraft on 6 April 1994 – the trigger for the genocide – prompted the Security Council to rethink UN involvement in what was still seen as a civil war, and attention shifted to the evacuation of international personnel. UNAMIR was reduced to a token force of 270, around a tenth of its original size, and the Rwandan horror was allowed to run its course.

Rwanda in prospect?

Could another genocide on Rwanda’s scale happen again? Secretary-General Annan recently called for the creation of a UN commission and a Special Rapporteur to forestall future acts of genocide. His proposal would, he said, ensure that when ‘confronted with a new Rwanda … the world would respond effectively’. Annan’s hope is a logical extension of much that has happened in the UN over the past decade, particularly when it comes to the UN’s peacekeeping role.

There is little doubt that the international community is now more focused on issues of conflict prevention than it was a decade earlier. The Millennium Goals emphasise the need for a far more integrated approach for dealing with the root causes of conflict. Greater integration and more effective peacekeeping are the leitmotif of the Brahimi Report on UN peace operations, published in August 2000.

Following Brahimi, field-based missions and headquarters will now plan operations together, with mission officials joining their counterparts at headquarters. There will be UN stand-by arrangements to ensure that adequate forces are sent to crisis areas when required. There will also be links between mission planners and their human rights counterparts in the UN. Information systems will be improved, and ‘lesson-learning’ will be strengthened, in terms of analysis, dissemination and understanding.

Recent operations in Kosovo and Sierra Leone might suggest that UN member states, and the Security Council in particular, are willing to respond with greater alacrity to threats of ethnic cleansing, genocide and social collapse. While one can only hope that this is the case, Rwanda also suggests lingering hazards. Political interest and calculation, the possibility of misperception and the constraints and limitations of institutional behaviour all remain perverse but inevitable determinants of action.

In the final analysis, it is a question of will. Does the international community care enough to respond to the threatened slaughter of a small community in a remote part of the world – does it care enough that a response is its single most important priority?

Randolph Kentis a Senior Research Fellow at the International Policy Institute, Kings College London, where he is leading a UN-sponsored project on ‘Humanitarian Futures’. Prior to this appointment, he was UN Resident and Humanitarian Coordinator in Somalia. He has also served with the UN in Rwanda, Kosovo, Sudan and Ethiopia. He has recently completed a study for the UN on humanitarian reform, entitled Changes in Humanitarian Financing and Implications for the United Nations. His email address is:

Reference and further reading

Samantha Power, A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide (New York: Basic Books, 2002).

Michael Barnett, Eyewitness to a Genoicide: The United Nations and Rwanda (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2002).

Alan Kuperman, ‘Rwanda in Retrospect’, Foreign Affairs, vol. 79, no. 1, January–February 2000.

UN Security Council, Report of the Panel on UN Peace Operations: Comprehensive Review of the Whole Question of Peacekeeping Operations in All Their Aspects, S/2000/809, 21 August 2000.

Report of the Independent Inquiry into the Actions of the United Nations during the 1994 Genocide in Rwanda, December 1999,


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