Skip to main content.

Back to: >> Genocide

The United Nations and Rwanda
Book review with commentary
Michael Barnett - Professor of Political Science, Univ of Wisconsin - Madison.

All who care about the future of humanity should read this book. We give this book four stars on content, three on style -- it could be presented in a more dramatic fashion to attract more readers, and more readers is what this book deserves. It also misses the boat in terms of what can be done about it. Admiring the man who stands his ground and his principles is simply not enough. Dallaire could not do it alone, and neither can anyone else. A movement may well be required.

Refusing to face up to the UN limitations during peace-keeping operations in the face of challenge is not the way to peace. Neither is putting special interests ahead of humanity as a whole. Would not seeing the Authoritarian Personality for what it is and taking pains to limit its influence on the affairs of humankind seem to constitute a better apporoach? See John Dean for some of the dangers he sees America facing today. We agree.

Romeo Dallaire pointedly, accurately, and dramatically illustrated a glaring weakness in the UN peacekeeping policies. In a nutshell, the specter of Somalia was a fresh type-example of a failed mission. Its negative repercussions made the downside to action in Rwanda all too easy to calculate. The possible positive effects were nebulous by comparison. The bureaucracy elected to play it safe.

Like all bureaucracies, the UN has written rigid procedures that govern its peace-keeping operations. Like all bureaucracies, it is cumbersome and slow. It may not analyse information in hand peoperly, or even not recognize it in the first place. The civil war they could see and understand. Genocide was nopt a conscious though until a half million people had died. Genocide is a crime that requires UN action, for it wipes out countless innocents for the sake of one or more Authoritarian(s) seeking unlimited power. Reasons why run deep, deep like in genetics, buried deeply in the DNA of most of us. See Milgram for some ramifications in some ordinary people. See Dallaire for the problem he found on the ground. Dallaire's experience highlights some basic problems of Authoritarianism.

  • No society can be better than the person on top and that is NOT GOOD ENOUGH.
  • Authoritarianism is not democratic; it robs its society members of their individuality and self-expression not to mention their freedom and liberty. Even authoritarians want freedom and liberty -- but not for everyone.
  • Absolute power corrupts absolutely is more than a cliche; it is a timeless truism. Anything goes for the top dogs--anything at all. That this is also true in the wolf-packs reflects poorly on what is supposed to be good and unique about humanity. Political parties (and nations for that matter) are little more than territorial instincts in action and expression.
  • Autocracy cares more about itself than it does about its greater whole. In this way, mediocrity perpetuates itself. It is a child of Authoritarianism.

Feudalism cannot match modernism, else it would still be the means of governance everywhere. So why is it still around? It is around because the authoritarian personality is in competition with less violent types, and simply wins the day in societies that have no safeguards or traditions in law to deter it. Even those societies are vulnerable; see John Dean for an eye opening.

In an evolutionary context, the tough and violent people, who care not a whit for humanity, have advantages in reproducing their kind. This long view of origins fits when one traces the history of violence, war, massacres, and genocide along side the histories of other species where even the mammoth became extinct in the face of improving weaponry. Modern day extinctions abound for the same reason.

The level of violence now possible has been enabled by technology. Humanity has not yet achieved the converse, using technology to create and preserve the peace. Maybe it cannot. In that event, social approaches must be found. UN peacekeeping is merely one step in a very long road.

Instead of searching out the most fundamental roots of violence and dealing with them, however, the UN, like its member states, sought and still seeks to hide uncomfortable issues. Denying the existence of these issues merely perpetuates the facts of nature -- reflected in our genes.

In many cases, it was mere projection. The US and other nations viewed Rwanda in the simplistic authoritarian sense. To authoritarian eyes, it was a civil war, pure and simple. After all the world can only be black and white. It is safe to say that there is no such thing as black and white when it comes to human affairs--politics. Like in the rainbow, there are colors behyond colors unseen. They can be discovered but the UN authoritarians never looked. In fact, there were many signs that a movement, the Interahamwe was coming into being as a para military force. It was created, trained to kill, and led by a cliche in the Hutu government. The Interahamwe, along with the presidential guard and interim government, was well organized and fully armed with machettes at the ready and guns cocked for action as soon as the president's plane was shot down. This was genocide--much more than mere civil war. And it took weeks for the UN folks, as an institution, to face up to the fact that Rwanda was about much more than a civil war. The Secretariat knew many of the details, but never sent them on to the Security Council. Barnett suggests that failure was either a simple lapse or deliberate. We prefer the above rendition--authoritarians notoriously mis-read tea leaves. It is their nature.

The world can do better, and its citizens deserve better. Nevertheless, Barnett is even-handed and sympathetic to UN personnel. He explains the unprecedented situations they faced, their limited resources - including the lack of democracy or even consensus in the Security Council. UN bureaucrats saw their very existence as an institution at stake. Seeing its many notable successes threatened by Somalia-like failures, they acted to preserve the whole. Their knowledge of the situation on the ground was often inadequate, yet they rarely tried to deeply understand the history of "governance-creep" that foretold the coming human disaster.

Both the UN and its individual members essentially stood by. Only the Belgians seemed to know what was coming. But the political will to properly intervene on the world scene was just not there. Barnett carefully documents his sources that illustrate deeply troubling issues about modern world governance. Barnett quotes Ungandan President Museveni who accused the UN of wanting to "smother the problems--to put a canvas over the rotten eggs. And as long as the smell in the room is suppressed then the problem is solved."

For those who smugly believe America must come first, John Dean provides vivid evidence that the US may be only one Supreme Court appointment away from losing its treasured democracy. Could genocide happen here? We certainly hope not. But Dean and others see a spector in the Authoritarian Personality that should give pause to any serious reader of recent events.

In one sense, all this is nature's way. And Barnett provides chilling examples and explanations of how and why the UN stood by while some 800,000 - 1,000,000 innocents perished at the hands of the genocidaires and other factions. Perhaps for the first time in modern history, one "population" slaughtered another by hand with machettes--their own kind genetically and historically. This feature alone shows how egg-shell thin our various systems of governance are.

What can we do about that? It just may be up to you and me.

Of course there is more to the story, as Barnett clarifies. Some people at the UN knew vey well what was going on, and so did some of the nations involved. But with the very real and recent bad experience in Somalia, the bureaucrats were reluctant to give Dallaire the kind of support he needed and perhaps even more, they were also reluctant to recommend action to the Security Council that might be a repeat of Somalia--it might endanger the very concept of peace-keeping as a UN function. They were being realistic and did the best they could. Barnett explains how bureaucratic thinking gets boxed-in, and cannot see the forest for the trees. The UN in fact is a bureacracy founded on bureaucracies.

Whether the bureaucracy learned much from this experience remains to be seen. As currently constituted, the Security Council is too burdened with special interests to be effective. What else is new?

Barnett addresses this issue in his last chapter, The Hunt for Moral Responsibility." He concludes, in part, that even our humanitarian organizations of whatever ilk have become institutionalized and bureaucratic. (In Rwanda, they rarely coordinatied.) While their sincere goals are to be applauded, the institutions contain the seeds of disappointment:

  • Decent and well-meaning people become timid and fearful when faced by the baseness of powerful benefactors who only want the facade of humanitarianism. Sound familiar?
  • Mixing ethics, politics and power can lead to programs bearing little resemblance to their original intent.
  • Humanitarian institutions designed to realize our highest hmanitarian asperations can generate ethical principles disconnected from those in whose name they act.
  • Ethical practices are not rock solid. They vary with context and environment.

These may well be true. But Barnett repeatedly describes a bureacracy out of touch with events on the ground. While this gave top officials wiggle room in assessing blame, the fact remains that the most vital link in the peacekeeping operation was broken. That is only partly morality; it is also managerial. The third factor, and arguably the most important, was simply politics.

The genocide aftermath fared no better. Hundreds of thousands fled from both the genocidaires and the Rebel army to neighboring countires. Genocidaires also fled and promptly took control of the refugee camp. Only the NGOs managed to fucntion, and then not too well. According to Barnett: "Those delivering aid were ofter racked with a guilt that came from knowing they were delivering relief not only to bona-fide refugees but also to the perpetrators of the genocide." Killings in the camps continued and it took a while before the genocidaires egan meeting a fate of their own making. Barnett cites Robert Block, a jounalist who described the later sitution. "The slaughter in Rwanda may have been an expression of the bestiality of man; what is happening in Zaire today is surely the wrath of God. Epidemics of biblical proportions sweep the land. Water is poison... dead are evereywhere.... It is as if Mother Earth did not want to accept the remains of the Hutu refugees from Rwanda." A self-absorbed world in denial stood by. See Umutsei for a ground-view of the refugee ordeals.

Barnett goes to great length in his last chapter, "The Hunt for Moral Responsibility," looking for moralty and finds it largely lacking. Those most responsible for delaying action were those most adept at diffusing culpability and "democratizing" blame. It was lack of awarenenss by the institution in other words. Barnett described both Boutros Ghali and Bill Clinton in almost pure authoritarian terms. Each seemed to put their political lives ahead of anything else. At the same time, these individuals were indeed not alone. Neverheless, for contrast, Barnett quotes Max Weber:

    "It is immensely moving when a mature man--no matter whether old of young in years--is aware of a responsibility for the consequences of his conduct and really feels such responsibility with heart and soul. He then acts by following an ethic of responsibility and somewhere reaches a point where he says: 'Here I stand; I can do no other.' That is something genuinely human and moving."

We certainly agree. But unfortunately, Barnett does not address the question of "how to fix." With a hat-full of features in bureaucratic-peace-keeping behavior illustrated, Barnett has nicely described the basic symptoms. He leaves the antidotes to others.

This job is one of our mandates. See Research Summary for a current rundown.


No comments yet

To be able to post comments, please register on the site.