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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.”1 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, the basic shortcomings of the present system are glaringly obvious.

In Deliver Us from Evil, William Shawcross describes those shortcomings and the UN’s effort to overcome them in dealing with various recent calamities. Shawcross has traveled extensively with the Secretary-General and has visited many UN operations. An acute and well-informed observer, he writes vividly about the difficulties and dangers faced by the people wrestling with desperate situations in the field. While in no way glossing over mistakes and failures, Shawcross spends less time on judgment and denunciation than on analyzing the nature of the problems and describing the difficulties of dealing with them. This is a refreshingly sensible approach.

As his title indicates, Shawcross is under no illusions about the terrible forces the international community is beginning to try to deal with. “In a more religious time,” he writes, “it was only God whom we asked to deliver us from evil. Now we call upon our own man-made institutions for such deliverance. That is sometimes to ask for miracles.” The recent human catastrophes in such places as Kosovo or Sierra Leone were not at all what the UN was set up to deal with. In 1945 they would have been seen as occurring within sovereign territory, tragic, perhaps, but not amenable to international intervention.2

A new idea of “human security” has now taken its place alongside the much older concept of “international peace and security.” It has emerged as the result of a vaguely defined and fitful international conscience on the part of the liberal democracies, and it has been encouraged both by the prodigious growth of nongovernmental organizations and by the communications revolution. However, the rules and the means for protecting human security are still tentative and controversial, not least because virtually any situation threatening human security is likely to raise questions of national sovereignty. No government wants to set up a system which may, at some point in the future, be invoked against itself.

Shawcross opens his book with a portrait of Fred Cuny, the relief worker from Texas who disappeared while on a mission in Chechnya in 1995. Cuny is a patron saint of the relief business, a man whose courage was matched only by his ingenuity and determination; by opening his book with a memoir of him Shawcross suggests that international work depends on the quality of leaders as well as on institutional arrangements. Immensely effective and unpredictable, Cuny plunged into some of the worst human disasters—among them the civil wars in Nigeria in 1968 and in Cambodia in 1975, the flooding in Bangladesh in 1970-1971, the earthquakes in Guatemala in 1976 and Armenia in 1988, the Kurdish uprising in northern Iraq after the Gulf War, the clan war in Somalia in 1992, and the siege of Sarajevo in 1993. His experience, originality, and intuition enabled him to achieve extraordinary successes in most of these places, for example in arranging for both heat and water to be delivered to the beleaguered citizens of Sarajevo. He was the envy of his more cautious colleagues—a heroic, almost mythic figure, who illuminated with embarrassing clarity the more plodding and unimaginative methods of traditional relief operations.

Shawcross also makes no secret of his high regard for Kofi Annan, whose activities he follows throughout the book. He describes him as

a West African chief…an international civil servant who had not become a bureaucrat. He dealt with people in a familiar yet persuasive way and managed to retain both dignity and authority…. He is not a tall man, but he has an unusual presence and a dignity that seems to come from an innate sense of calm and politeness. He speaks softly and rarely appears angry or even flustered…. He is quite different from anyone else I have met at the United Nations or in most other places.

Attempting to analyze the essential elements of the effort to keep the peace in the post-cold war world, Shawcross writes about UN operations in Iraq, Bosnia, Cambodia, Somalia, Rwanda, Haiti, the Great Lakes region of Africa, Nigeria, Sierra Leone, and many other places. The warlords who have dominated the headlines in the past decade—among others, Saddam Hussein, Slobodan Milosevic, Radovan Karadzic, Mohammed Aidid, Jonas Savimbi in Angola, Raoul Cedras in Haiti, Foday Sankoh in Sierra Leone—emerge as the new challengers to a peaceful international order. But Shawcross’s real interest is in the problems of a less strident, more faceless group—the men and women whom the international community sends to corral the warlords and help the afflicted.


Although he does not hesitate to criticize the failures of the UN Secretariat, Shawcross concentrates on a less well publicized subject, the responsibilities, irresponsibilities, and mistakes of governments, both singly and in groups. The members of the UN Security Council are the object of much of this criticism. Certainly the horrors of the 1990s—horrors that have taken place within states—have not always brought out the best in the Council.3

Deliberately worked out policy is seldom the dominating factor in Shawcross’s story. The UN Security Council is a largely reactive body, and once a mission is launched its subsequent course is often determined more by domestic pressures or critical events than by coherent strategy. The disastrous failure of the US Rangers mission to Mogadishu in October 1993, for example, had a devastating effect not only on US policy but on the UN mission in Somalia and on the future capacity of an American-led Security Council to react to future disasters, such as Rwanda. When mortars were fired into Sarajevo’s Markale marketplace in 1994, the televised pictures of the dead and wounded became the catalyst for the final phase of the Bosnian war.

Shawcross makes it clear that there are times when the diplomats on the Council are more concerned with responding to pressures from home, and giving the illusion of action by producing a resolution that all its members can vote for, than they are with finding a workable solution to the dreadful problems they are discussing. When faced with the task of carrying out its announced aim of protecting the six “safe areas” in Bosnia, the Council played with words in order to arrive at a consensus. The verb “to defend” was replaced with “to deter attacks.” Enforcing withdrawal of hostile forces became “to promote withdrawal.” As Shawcross puts it, “For many members of the Security Council adoption of the resolution was enough. Implementation was a detail with which they seemed less concerned.” This game, combined with the determined refusal to authorize and provide the additional troops requested by the Secretary-General for securing the safe areas, was to prove fatal to the inhabitants of Srebrenica, and a severe humiliation for the UN and some six hundred Dutch soldiers stationed there.

In Rwanda weeks of killing went by without the United States and other governments using the word “genocide,” because that would have obliged them to take action under the Genocide Convention. Small wonder that the hard-pressed UN commander in Rwanda, Major General Roméo Dallaire, with his armed strength dwindling and without supplies, ammunition, or medical stores, should, as Shawcross writes, have later denounced the “inexcusable apathy by the sovereign states that made up the UN that is completely beyond comprehension and moral acceptability.”

Once again previous events, not principle, were dictating policy. Four months after the US Rangers disaster in Mogadishu there was no enthusiasm or even willingness to provide troops for real intervention in Rwanda. Dallaire and the remnants of his force were not withdrawn only because, in the reported words of the British ambassador, it would have a “negative impact on public opinion.” Kofi Annan, who was then head of the UN’s peacekeeping department, in vain approached about one hundred governments seeking troops for Rwanda. He agreed with Dallaire that with five thousand UN troops, hundreds of thousands of lives could have been saved, but, he said in 1998, “the will to provide men, the will to act, was not there.” The UN Secretariat, for its part, contributed to the disaster by failing to take any effective action in response to an authoritative and detailed warning of the plans for the genocide, which it had received three months before it started.

  1. 1

    The New York Times, January 21, 2000, p. 8. A superb analysis of the relationship of the United States and international organizations can be found in Edward C. Luck’s recent book, Mixed Messages: American Politics and International Organization, 1919-1999 (Brookings Institution, 1999).

  2. 2

    Article 2.7 of the UN Charter reads: “Nothing contained in the present Charter shall authorize the UN to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state or shall require the Members to submit such matters to settlement under the present Charter….”

  3. 3

    David Malone’s Decision Making in the Security Council: The Case of Haiti (Clarendon Press/Oxford University Press, 1998) provides a detailed and fascinating analysis of the way in which the Security Council deals with a catastrophic situation.

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