In the Name of Humanity

Report of the Secretary-General Pursuant to General Assembly Resolution 53/55 (1998) (Srebrenica Report)

United Nations Document

Report of the Independent Inquiry into the Actions of the United Nations During the 1994 Genocide in Rwanda

by United Nations Document

What is to be done when hundreds of thousands of people in a hitherto little-known region of the world are hounded from their homes, massacred, or starved to death in a brutal civil war, or even in a deliberate act of genocide? To our credit, we no longer turn away from the face of evil, but we still don’t know how to control it. As the new century dawns, one of the biggest problems for international organizations and their member governments is to learn how to react to the great human emergencies that still seem to occur regularly in many parts of the world.

A well-run, democratic sovereign state, with a respected constitution, legislature, and executive, a judicial system, law enforcement, and police, and a standing or reserve army, is usually prepared to deal with evil. Such a state can be expected to forestall potential disasters within its territory and to react swiftly to those it cannot prevent. The constitutional system provides for accepted and allotted responsibility and speedy and effective decision-making; and the resources of the state are likely to be adequate for emergency action. Such constitutional systems have usually taken centuries to evolve; they often fall short of their obligations, but their citizens on the whole support them.

The so-called “international community” is anything but a constitutional system. As far as it is organized at all, it is an institutional arrangement, unpredictable and slow to act. It usually responds only when disaster has already struck and when its members, usually in the UN Security Council, can agree to take action. Even then, since the UN has no standing forces or substantial resources of its own, its action, if it can be agreed upon, is likely to be too little and too late.

In his opening address to the Gen-eral Assembly on September 20, 1999, Secretary-General Kofi Annan made an impassioned plea for UN intervention in cases of gross violations of human rights. The reactions of governments to Annan’s remarks showed very clearly how far the world still has to go before evil can be systematically dealt with internationally. Most comments on Annan’s speech were critical and stressed the paramount importance of national sovereignty; some even saw humanitarian intervention as a cloak for American or Western hegemony or neocolonialism. Only a small minority of Western countries supported Sweden’s position that the collective conscience of mankind demands action. Four months later, Senator Jesse Helms told the UN Security Council that “…a United Nations that seeks to impose its presumed authority on the American people, without their consent, begs for confrontation and… eventual American withdrawal.” He did not say whether this doctrine should apply to other sovereign countries—Iraq or Serbia, for example.

National sovereignty, with the cloak of impunity it provides for the domestic misdeeds of governments, is still very much alive at the UN. It is therefore highly unlikely that the UN will make much progress toward constitutionalism any time soon. In the meantime …

This article is available to online subscribers only.
Please choose from one of the options below to access this article:

Print Premium Subscription — $94.95

Purchase a print premium subscription (20 issues per year) and also receive online access to all all content on nybooks.com.

Online Subscription — $69.00

Purchase an Online Edition subscription and receive full access to all articles published by the Review since 1963.

If you already have one of these subscriptions, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. If you subscribe to the print edition, you may also need to link your web site account to your print subscription. Click here to link your account services.