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.

When the Security Council did decide to take action elsewhere, the results were not always much better. The second UN Angola Verification Mission (UNAVEM II) in 1992 was designed to monitor the demobilization of each side in the civil war, but the Council deferred to the demands of both sides that the UN be denied the necessary forces, equipment, and funds to do the job. The war started again and continues to this day. UNAVEM II was later described in a report Shawcross quotes as “a textbook example of the sort of peacekeeping operation that should not occur.”

In Rwanda, Shawcross writes, the Council eventually sanctioned two simultaneous operations, one for peacekeeping—Dallaire’s UNAMIR—and the other for enforcement—the French Operation Turquoise. This caused a violent reaction against UNAMIR from the Tutsi Rwandan Patriotic Front, which had retaken Kigali and was enraged at the arrival of the supposedly pro-Hutu French. It was, Dallaire thought, an example of “individual states running roughshod over the Secretariat and even the Security Council.”

Shawcross also demonstrates that the power-driven nature of the UN leads to striking inequities in the treatment of different tragedies. In East Timor, a country never recognized as part of Indonesia, Indonesian ethnic cleansing was allowed to take its predictable course before the Council, and Indonesia, were finally shamed into belated action in September 1999. About the repression in East Timor, there was no outraged rhetoric of the kind that was used about Kosovo and nothing comparable to the NATO bombing of Serbia. “Indonesia,” as one diplomat quoted by Shawcross puts it, “matters, and East Timor doesn’t.”

To paraphrase Orwell, some atrocities are more atrocious than others. This tendency may be somewhat mitigated, at least as far as Africa is concerned, with the arrival of Richard Holbrooke as US representative at the UN and the subsequent concentration on African problems in January, when he was president of the Security Council.

The UN has been entrusted with the unenviable job of reconstructing what is left of Kosovo and East Timor. No doubt it will be a useful scapegoat if the attempts to construct a legal and political system and bring about public order in Kosovo finally break down. The members of the “international community,” uneasy with long-term commitments that no longer dominate the headlines, have already scaled back their promised financial and practical support for the rebuilding of these two man-made disaster areas.

Shawcross shows how foolish government policies can make difficult situations worse. Despite the warnings of the two negotiators, Lord Carrington and Cyrus Vance, and Secretary-General Javier Perez de Cuellar, Germany insisted on recognizing Croatia before the future of its Serb and other minorities had been agreed on. Predictably, this recognition led to the demand for independence by Bosnia. The deadly fighting that occupied the next three years then followed. Shawcross refers to the Clinton administration’s “disjuncture between…rhetoric and practice” and its floundering for “a Bosnia policy that both sounded courageous and was yet free of risk.” The dismal result was to put a lightly armed UN peacekeeping force into a war situation in which there was no peace to keep and in which it would mostly serve as a whipping boy for failing to carry out a mission—stopping the Serbs—that the Security Council had never given it.

The UN Bosnian force (UNPROFOR) engaged in a desperate attempt to carry out the incompatible tasks of peacekeeping, selective enforcement, and humanitarian relief. In this quagmire, UNPROFOR’s commanders and staff made many errors and misjudgments, but the most important mistakes were made by governments and the UN Security Council. Only when the fighting finally stopped was the lightly armed UN peacekeeping force replaced by a much larger and more heavily equipped NATO enforcement mission (IFOR). This was typical of the international community’s topsy-turvy approach to the problems of the former Yugoslavia. “The United Nations as a whole,” Shawcross writes, “was to be branded for its apparent failure in Bosnia, when the failure was, in fact, that of the Security Council and its permanent members in particular.”

Other missions were less confused. Unlike the Bosnian mission, the Cambodian operation (UNTAC) in 1992 and 1993 was not just responding to cataclysmic events. With the full support of the Security Council, the mission was carrying out the prenegotiated Paris Agreement. Shawcross is critical of UNTAC on many grounds—the contrast between its lavish salaries and equipment and the impoverished local conditions, the overoptimism of some of its officials, and the uneven quality of its military contingents. UNTAC made little or no progress with the rehabilitation of Cambodia. It also failed to disarm the contending factions and to take over the civil administration, as it was called on to do by the Paris Agreement. It did, however, repatriate 370,000 refugees, initiate an important human rights movement, and organize Cambodia’s first nationwide election, in which 90 percent of the electorate voted in the face of intimidation and violence, providing an opportunity for Cambodia to move toward more decent and accountable government. Hun Sen, the loser in the election, soon overthrew the results. And, as UN missions do, UNTAC departed long before essential civil institutions had had a chance to grow, leaving Cambodia’s divided leadership to face the country’s vast problems.

In Haiti, also, initial hopes have been disappointed. Extreme poverty, lack of leadership, political intransigence, and crime have managed to negate much of the international effort, although at least the systematic abuse of human rights has been largely brought to an end. The establishment of democracy appears to have foundered because of the manipulations of former president Aristide and the unwillingness of politicians to abandon Haiti’s old autocratic, predatory political tradition. Shawcross concludes that, as in Cambodia, “the international community can put nations into the process of transition, but effecting the transition depends on the indigenous leaders and political class.” This is one of the central—and universally applicable—insights that emerge from Shawcross’s book.

Shawcross is also acute in exposing the cruel contradictions in some of the “humanitarian” missions of the last decade. Humanitarian action as it emerged in the aftermath of World War II was principally concerned with refugee resettlement and the reconstruction of war-shattered countries. In those innocent days, humanitarian relief was seen as a nonpolitical activity, dictated by the needs of the afflicted and by the resources and expertise available to meet them. It is worth recalling that the vast American-led United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration was able to work in the Soviet Union and China as well as in the rest of the world. UNRRA was the ancestor of subsequent relief organizations, including the UN High Commission for Refugees and the World Food Program. That relatively nonpolitical concept of humanitarianism has come to a brutal end with the rising importance of warlords and the conflicts within states of the post-cold war world. The international sponsors of humanitarian aid are no longer dealing with more or less responsible governments.

As The Washington Post’s John Pomfret accurately observed, “Warlords, rebel leaders, and imploding governments from Bosnia to Brazzaville now manipulate aid agencies as never before.” In the new situation of 1990s peacekeeping, humanitarian assistance still saved hundreds of thousands of lives but it could also provide warlords with the means to continue and expand the conflict. This dilemma became very clear in Somalia, where aid delivery had to be negotiated with the different factions and was bedeviled by corruption and theft. When the aid policy changed to become an attempt at cutting down the warlords’ influence, the entire mission had to be abandoned.

A variant of the same dilemma undermined the belated humanitarian effort to help Rwanda. By the time the international humanitarian machine became active, there were nearly two million Hutu refugees in Burundi, Tanzania, and Eastern Zaire. The UNHCR had no military or security forces to police these camps,4 which were soon dominated by the Hutu extremists who had carried out the genocide. Selling international aid supplies to buy weapons, they were now planning their revenge on the Tutsi Rwandan Patriotic Front, which had taken over Rwanda. This situation precipitated the war in the Congo which now involves six neighboring countries.

Not surprisingly these problems created controversy both within and outside the humanitarian community. Sadako Ogata, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, referring to the Rwandan refugee problem, maintained that where refugees were in need, “we didn’t have the freedom to leave them, however complicated the group was.” But organizations such as Médecins Sans Frontières and the International Rescue Committee pulled out in protest against the takeover of the camps by brutal Hutu groups. “The whole aid community has been overtaken by a new reality,” the IRC stated. “Humanitarianism has become a resource…and people are manipulating it as never before. Sometimes we just shouldn’t show up for a disaster.”

In Bosnia, the dilemma was different. UNPROFOR had a split personality. Its humanitarian mission required it to be impartial, while its responsibility to protect “safe areas” implied that it should be prepared to take action against the Serbs. UNHCR, responsible for 26 million refugees worldwide, found itself stuck in the middle of the conflict in Bosnia, and although it brought food, clothing, and shelter to hundreds of thousands of people, it could be, and was, blocked at will or manipulated by the different factions. It was even said that by providing camps for refugees, UNHCR was an accomplice to ethnic cleansing.

In the 1990s, humanitarian workers were in the front line as never before and were increasingly dealing with factions, warlords, and thugs who had no respect for international personnel or organizations. For the first time, aid workers were more at risk than military forces, and the death toll rose alarmingly all over the world. In the African Great Lakes region alone, UNHCR, by 1997, had lost twenty-six staff, killed, dead, or disappeared. In 1998, for the first time, more UN civilian workers were killed in the line of duty—twenty-four—than peacekeeping soldiers.

The experience of the 1990s demands that much of the international humanitarian approach be reconsidered. There still seems to be a consensus that the world must react as effectively as it can when large numbers of people are suffering; but the problems as well as the costs are now likely to be much greater.5

On the face of it, the cloak of impunity provided by national sovereignty may still seem to be in place. But there are also the beginnings of new ways of dealing with the question of evil. Evidence of this change are the two War Crimes Tribunals, on Yugoslavia and Rwanda, and the setting up, in the face of opposition from the United States and some improbable partners (Iraq, Libya, Qatar, Yemen, China, and Israel), of an International Criminal Court. These may be only small and tentative beginnings, but the seeds of a new resistance to evil have been planted.


The United Nations resists change and is extraordinarily difficult to reform. The tragedies of Rwanda and Srebrenica, however, have produced a new element—brutally honest accounts of where and how the world organization failed. The first of these, about Srebrenica, is a report by the Secretary-General at the request of the General Assembly. The second, on Rwanda, is the result of an independent inquiry commissioned by Kofi Annan under the chairmanship of Ingvar Carlsson, a former prime minister of Sweden. Both are detailed and outspoken to an unusual degree, and both criticize the Secretary-General and the Secretariat, the Security Council, various governments and alliances, and, less vehemently, the local leaders who were responsible for the horrors in the first place. The Srebrenica report in particular is a remarkable feat of analysis and clear narrative writing.

Both reports assume without question that overriding responsibility in such cases resides in the international community and especially in the United Nations, which, in the words of the Rwanda report, “must be prepared to prevent acts of genocide or gross violations of human rights wherever they may take place. The political will to act should not be subject to double standards.” This assumption contrasts strikingly with the uncertainties about intervention often apparent in the Security Council and in national debates. It contrasts as well with the position on humanitarian intervention taken by the majority of the General Assembly members in the debate set off by Annan’s report on humanitarian intervention, that the UN should not intervene unless it is invited to do so by the government in power. The clear implication of Annan’s reports was that the time for stopping genocide would be before it started. How many governments would have agreed to such a preventive intervention in a sovereign state like Rwanda?

In Srebrenica, in the summer of 1995, there were, in the words of the International Criminal Tribunal’s prosecutor, Judge Riad, “thousands of men executed and buried in mass graves, hundreds of men buried alive, men and women mutilated and slaughtered, children killed before their mothers’ eyes, a grandfather forced to eat the liver of his own grandson.”6 Up to 20,000 people were killed in this UN “safe area.” There was a fatal discrepancy between the resolutions of the Security Council and the realities on the ground, a discrepancy made worse by the Council’s absolute refusal to meet the Secretary-General’s request for 32,000 additional troops.

The six hundred lightly armed Dutch UN soldiers in Srebrenica were cut off from supplies and support. They were facing two thousand heavily armed Serbs with tanks and artillery. If they were attacked, their main support would have been NATO air strikes, but the UN was reluctant to request air strikes because, as Annan explains, UNPROFOR was not authorized to go to war with the Serbs, and air strikes would have disrupted UNPROFOR’s humanitarian mission. Moreover, air strikes would—and did—cause Serb reprisals and hostage-taking. Annan now admits that this attitude was a mistake. “We tried to keep the peace and apply the rules of peacekeeping when there was no peace to keep.”

Two basic lessons can be learned from this. First, that UN peacekeeping forces must not be used in a shooting war just because the Security Council cannot agree on a forceful approach and NATO doesn’t want to get involved on the ground. Second, that “safe areas” established with neither the consent of the parties nor any credible military deterrent are a sham. Ruthless factions, like the Serbs, can be dealt with only if the necessary means and authority are provided and political will is strong enough to carry the job of intervention through. Otherwise it might be better to stay away. As the report points out, “by its prolonged refusal to use force in the early stages of the war,” the international community greatly contributed to the tragedy.

Approximately 800,000 people were killed in Rwanda within one hundred days. The Rwanda report is also brutally frank in criticizing virtually everyone involved—Annan (then director of UN peacekeeping), the Secretariat, and the people in the field, national governments, and the Security Council. In his statement on receiving the report, Annan acknowledges the UN’s failure and expresses deep remorse. “Of all my aims as Secretary-General,” he writes, “there is none to which I feel more deeply committed than that of enabling the United Nations never again to fail in protecting a civilian population from genocide or mass slaughter.”7

The Rwanda report castigates the UN and its member states for having failed to apologize to the people of Rwanda more frankly and much earlier.8 For the most part, however, its recommendations—except for the radical injunction to prevent genocide and gross violations of human rights wherever they occur—go over well-trodden ground. There should be plans to prevent genocide, the authors write, and the capacity of UN peacekeeping forces to respond rapidly must be improved. There is a need both for an early warning system and for stronger political will, and so on.

Without radical changes in the UN’s institutional nature, which only governments can make, and in the attitudes of the member governments toward international action and the means to carry it out, these recommendations could be merely another addition to the already towering pile of admirable but unacceptable plans for UN reform. If so, the new “transparency” that such reports bring to the UN may come to seem almost as cynical as the old apathy. It is too early to tell whether governments are willing to take seriously the Secretary-General’s appeal that they reflect on these reports and find ways to ensure that such horrors cannot be repeated.

After a clear-eyed and often critical assessment of the UN’s various efforts in the 1990s, Shawcross still concludes that “overall this is a hopeful story.” The international community, however spasmodically, is making some progress in its battle with evil and has attempted “to make the world a little less horrible in the last decade,” although it has not yet learned the importance of quick action and of backing its promises and good intentions with the necessary means, commitment, and determination.

The effort to internationalize human rights remains controversial and hotly contested. And yet the detention in Britain of General Pinochet, or NATO’s war against Serbia, would have been inconceivable only a few years ago. As Henry Grunwald has pointed out, the legal foundations for such actions are uncertain, and

skeptics wonder whether one can have legitimate world law without the backing of a legitimate world government. Either way, it will be increasingly difficult for the future nation state to argue that its treatment of its own citizens is a purely internal matter.9

This, surely, is some kind of progress.

One of the great merits of Shawcross’s down-to-earth book is to stimulate consideration of the fundamental problems of international organization. Is it possible to improve the international system, and especially the UN, by a radical and deliberate change in the balance between national sovereignty and international responsibility? Or will this improvement only come about in a hit-or-miss way over a long period of time? Shawcross writes that Kofi Annan personifies “the spirit of the international community, with all its hopes, heroism and disappointments,” but in fact Annan seems rather lonely in his appeals for reform. Perhaps the Internet, in strengthening the influence of activists and concerned citizens throughout the world, may reinforce his efforts to achieve changes in the behavior and attitude of people and of nations.

A constitutional international system with a shared but consistent responsibility for both international and human security; an enforceable system of international law; an international rapid reaction force prepared to take the necessary risks; an adequately funded United Nations with the resources and the authority to carry out the tasks assigned to it—all of these now seem to be dreams with little chance of fulfillment. And yet we talk incessantly of “globalization”; we know all too well the capacity of human beings for reaching the depths of self-destruction as well as the heights of achievement; we have at last agreed that the rights of the human individual are paramount; and we know that, as a practical matter, we are all more than ever in the same boat. What are we waiting for?

This Issue

April 27, 2000