The UN Can’t Stop Genocide; It Can Write Reports

From: Adam LeBor To: Shmuel Rosner Dear Shmuel, Many thanks for your thoughtful letter. Yes, you are right, Complicity with Evil is a very depressing book. Depressingly compelling, and even essential, I hope. It chronicles the United Nations' failures in … Read More

By / June 9, 2008

From: Adam LeBor

To: Shmuel Rosner

Dear Shmuel,

Many thanks for your thoughtful letter. Yes, you are right, Complicity with Evil is a very depressing book. Depressingly compelling, and even essential, I hope. It chronicles the United Nations' failures in Bosnia, Rwanda and, even as you read this, Darfur. So catastrophic are these that we may rightly ask what is the point of the United Nations' continued existence? It was founded by the Allies in 1945, in the shadow of the Holocaust, and with the noblest of ideals, as its charter details: to "save succeeding generations from the scourge of war" and "reaffirm faith in fundamental human rights." The United Nations’ key documents—the Charter, Universal Declaration of Human Rights and genocide convention—are the most advanced formulation of human rights in history. And they have been flouted by UN member states for decades.

Much of the blame for the UN's failures in Rwanda and Bosnia lies with the permanent five members of the Security Council: the United States, Great Britain, Russia, China and France—the victors of the Second World War. If they had wanted to stop the slaughter, they could have. Was there any more shameful decision in modern American history than President Clinton's demands that the UN actually pull out the 2,500 UN peacekeepers deployed in Rwanda in early 1994? None of whom were even American? After pressure from the Clinton administration just 250 remained, under the command of the Canadian General Romeo Dallaire.

To understand these tragic events we need to peer inside the UN building in NYC and examine the role of the Secretariat, the body of permanent officials who advise and serve the member states—for as you say, the devil is in the details. Secretariat officials often claim to be impartial. But they are not. And I wanted to investigate how, in the age of mass communications and transport, two genocides occurred: one lasting months, in Rwanda, and one that just took a few days, in Srebrenica, and how we—the world—could stand by and do nothing. No one involved can say they did not know; both genocides took place where the United Nations had deployed both peacekeepers and relief workers, in regular contact with their headquarters in New York.

Many of the answers were quite easy to find in the United Nations' own reports into Rwanda and Srebrenica. The reports on the UN's role in the genocides in Rwanda and Srebrenica are in the public domain; they are extremely detailed, offering a day to day, sometimes hour by hour, chronology account of these grisly events. The United Nations is no good at stopping genocide but its officials are skilled at recounting and explaining its failures. The Rwanda report details the decisions made by Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO) officials in New York, led by Kofi Annan, then DPKO chief. It shows how his and his colleagues' obsession with guarding the UN's neutrality—rather than enforcing the humanitarian principles on which the organisation was founded—was part of the chain of events that led to the deaths of 800,000 people.

By January 1994 General Romeo Dallaire, the commander of UNAMIR, the UN peacekeepers in Rwanda, had received detailed information about the planned mass murder of Tutsis from a source inside the Hutu militia, known as "Jean-Pierre." General Dallaire asked the DPKO for authorisation to raid the Hutu arms caches. On January 11 he cabled New York: "Since UNAMIR mandate the informant has been ordered to register all Tutsi in Kigali. He suspects it is for their extermination. Example he gave was that in 20 minutes his personnel could kill up to 1000 Tutsis." Annan's office replied, in a cable signed by his deputy, Iqbal Riza: "No reconnaissance or other action, including response to request for protection, should be taken by UNAMIR until clear guidance is received from Headquarters." When Dallaire repeated his request, Annan again refused. "The overriding consideration is the need to avoid entering into a course of action that might lead to the use of force and unanticipated repercussions," his cable concluded.

Srebrenica was one of five UN-declared 'safe areas' in Bosnia, islands of besieged,
government-controlled territory, surrounded by the Bosnian Serbs. The term had been agreed after much finely-calibrated diplomatic wrangling in the Security Council, but was meaningless. The Serbs launched their final attack early on Thursday 6 July 1995 and Srebrenica fell the following Tuesday. UN commanders refused the Dutch peacekeeper's repeated requests for air-strikes—on one occasion because they had completed the form incorrectly. It was common knowledge at the DPKO in New York that Srebrenica was not viable. DPKO officials had even been briefing the UN press corps that something might happen. They said that the Serbs might attack the southern part of the enclave, and attempt to capture a road. So it was not surprising that initially, the Serb attack on Srebrenica caused few ripples at the half-empty DPKO office.

Despite the judicious leakings, Annan was away as the Serbs advanced. So was Secretary-General Boutros-Ghali, traveling in Africa. Shashi Tharoor, the DPKO team leader on Yugoslavia, was on leave. So was General Rupert Smith, the British commander of peacekeepers in Bosnia. On Saturday July 8, Boutros-Ghali, Annan, General Smith, and other senior UN officials met in Geneva. They barely discussed Srebrenica. Incredibly, they sent General Smith back on leave. By the time Shashi Tharoor finally returned to his desk on the Monday, Srebrenica had virtually fallen. The killing started immediately and over the next few days up to 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys were slaughtered by the Bosnian Serbs.

None of which hindered the careers of any of the DPKO officials. Annan, as we know, served two terms as secretary general. Shashi Tharoor was repeatedly promoted, and with Annan's behind the scenes backing, nearly succeeded him as secretary general. Iqbal Riza, who signed off the cable to General Dallaire, became Annan's chief of staff, one of the most influential positions in the UN. So in answer to your question, Shmuel, as to whether I would like a more efficient UN, or a more robust response to genocide from countries like the US, I would first of all like to see a system of internal UN accountability that calls to account those officials involved in the UN's failures. And one which stops promoting them.

Very best,


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