The Role of International Organizations in the Rwandan Genocide

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“Rwanda will never ever leave me, it’s in the pores of my body. My soul is in those hills, my spirit is with the spirits of all those people who were slaughtered and killed that I know of, and many that I didn’t know”. General Roméro Dallaire, commander for the United Nations assistance mission for Rwanda speaks of the haunting effects the failure of his peacekeeping mission in Rwanda had on him. Their role of peacekeeping failed, so what role did these international organizations play in the Rwandan genocide? In this essay will explore the decision-making policies of these international organizations, their role in the Rwanda genocide, and the effects it has had within the global governance arena.

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The 1994 Genocide against the Tutsis in Rwanda represents one of the fastest and most atrocious cases of genocide in modern history. Roméro Dallaire was given the title of commander for a UN peacekeeping mission in the heart of Africa. His job seemed simple, or so he thought. In August 1993, the international community, involving Dallaire, brokered a power-sharing deal, known as the Arusha Accords, between President Habyarimana’s regime, Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), and Hutu moderate parties. However, Dallaire and his troops had gone to Rwanda with very little knowledge or information on the history of the Rwandan conflict and its severity. With an informant rising from a third force, a Hutu extremist group, crucial information regarding the extremists’ plan to derail the peace agreement and kill its enemies and UN Belgian troops was attainted. The Hutu extremist group believed if they killed the Belgium troop, who were the backbone of the peacekeeping operation that Belgium would remove its troops, forcing the UN to abandon its mission. UN leadership ignored this information and ordered Dallaire to take no action and to avoid using force at all costs. As a result, they were ill-equipped to cope with the violent mass killings and were unable to enforce a peace agreement, ultimately leading to the death of 800,000 people.

The U.N. was given the role of establishing the necessary environment within Rwanda so that the Arusha Agreement could be successfully implemented. The UN intervention’s promotion of peace was based on liberal ideals of democracy and market economies, which were reflected in framing documents such as the UN’s Agenda for Peace. However, the intervention failure in Rwanda revealed that accompanied by a frequent lack of political will in the international community, the UN’s peace intervention toolbox – including diplomacy, peace-making, peacekeeping, and peacebuilding strategies – was ill-equipped for managing intrastate conflicts, such as Rwanda. The prolonged delay in putting the transitional institutions in place not only prevented UNAMIR from carrying out its tasks in accordance with the implementation schedule approved by the Security Council but also contributed to a deterioration of the security situation in the country and posed a threat to the peace process. Inevitably making it almost impossible to stop the genocide. Why didn’t the international community do more? I believe this is still a question they ask themselves today. First, the events of Mogadishu where 18 American soldiers were killed in a UN peacekeeping mission, were still looming and made states as well as the UN Secretariat unwilling to engage in another Peace Operation in Africa. The UN was adamant in refraining from the use of force in an attempt to prevent a remake of the tragedy in Somalia. There was also no balance of power in the Rwandan genocide. The Hutu extremist group had the upper hand. 

Directly following the April 6, 1994 airplane crash, the UNAMIR Commander present in Rwanda immediately called U.N. headquarters in New York, requesting the support necessary to handle the situation. Again, no further support was granted. It became clear the UN was not up to this mission. The lack of power granted within the UNAMIR mandate became sadly evident and the international community’s role became increasingly unclear. So, what role did they play? Most of the world stood watching as the events of Rwanda played out, hoping to avoid a remake of the tragedy that occurred during the Mogadishu mission. They didn’t care that innocent Rwandan civilians were being murdered, as long as their soldiers were safe. The negligence shown over Rwanda undermined every one of the UN’s founding principles and rendered quite worthless the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, as well as all the celebrated human rights treaties including the 1948 Genocide Convention. The phrase ‘Never Again’ appeared futile.

The genocide of the Tutsi of Rwanda was the defining calamity of the age, a moral test everyone failed. The abandonment of the people of Rwanda by the UN Security Council in April 1994 defined for a generation the cost of not intervening in the face of mass human rights abuses. They had failed. The failure of the Rwandan peacekeeping mission had a huge effect within the global governance arena. Since the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) came to power in July 1994, after its armed wing ended the genocide, keeping or getting outside observers out has been a constant concern. By the end of 1995, 38 international NGOs had been expelled and the activities of 18 others suspended, their assets frozen, and their equipment impounded. In 2001, a round of efficient lobbying ensured the support of the African group in the UN Commission for Human Rights for striking Rwanda off the agenda, thus putting an end to formal international concerns with human rights in Rwanda. The failure of the peacekeeping mission also introduced realist ideologies back into the equation with many states becoming reluctant to intervene in conflicts, especially in Africa.

The most important point to take away from this essay is that failure to intervene in mass human rights abuses is a failure to humanity and a failure of morality. The international community had a role and duty to protect the Rwandan people and maintain peace, instead, they gave a hand in the mass killings of 800,00 people. The question of what more could they have done?’ should be more ‘how they executed their peacekeeping plans’. Put simply the UN were ill-prepared for what the Rwandan conflicts had in store for them. They gave false hope and did not carry out the role they set out to do.

Reference list:

  1. Abimbola, O. T., & Dominic, D. N. (2013). The 1994 Rwandan Conflict: Genocide or War? International Journal on World Peace, 30(3), 31–54.
  2. Barker, G. (Producer), & PBS, (Director). (2008). Ghosts of Rwanda. United States. PBS.
  3. Faggart, C. (2008). U.N. Peacekeeping after Rwanda: Lessons Learned or Mistakes Forgotten 2008 Global Legal Practice Symposium: Comment. Penn State International Law Review, 27(2), 495–518.
  4. Leonardsson, H., & Rudd, G. (2015). The ‘local turn’ in peacebuilding: A literature review of effective and emancipatory local peacebuilding. Third World Quarterly, 36(5), 825–839. https://doi.org/10.1080/01436597.2015.1029905
  5. Luft, A. (2015). Toward a Dynamic Theory of Action at the Micro Level of Genocide: Killing, Desistance, and Saving in 1994 Rwanda. Sociological Theory, 33(2), 148–172. Retrieved from JSTOR.
  6. Melvern, L. (2019). A People Betrayed: The Role of the West in Rwanda’s Genocide. Zed Books Ltd.
  7. Reyntjens, F. (2011). Constructing The Truth, Dealing With Dissent, Domesticating The World: Governance In Post-Genocide Rwanda. African Affairs, 110(438), 1–34. Retrieved from JSTOR.
  8. United Nations Security Council. (1994). Second Progress Report of The Secretary-General on The United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda. Retrieved from https://documents-dds-ny.un.org/doc/UNDOC/GEN/N94/154/22/pdf/N9415422.pdf?OpenElement.
24 May 2022

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