The Twilight Between Knowing and Not Knowing: The United Nations and International Apathy

This is the second part of a three-part examination of the failure to recognize genocide in Rwanda. The first part is available here.

In December 1999, Kofi Annan released a report that indicted the United Nations for its role in the Rwandan genocide.[1] The Secretariat, Security Council, and the entire membership of the UN were subject to stinging criticism, yet the report failed to answer the question of why the UN failed to actually recognize the genocide.

In letters to the Security Council in early April 1994, the Rwandan Patriotic Front reminded member states that, “When the institution of the United Nations was created after the Second World War, one of its fundamental objectives was to see to it that what happened to the Jews in Nazi Germany would never happen again.”[2] This is what observers have struggled to reconcile: How could an institution shaped by the United Nations Genocide Convention (UNGC) and with peacekeepers deployed during the entire genocide stand by and do nothing. This question has never been satisfactorily answered as it is rooted in the UN’s own (in)ability, or (un)willingness, to recognize the genocide. Part two of this series evaluates the UN’s failure to recognize and respond to the genocide in Rwanda by examining the actions of the Secretariat and the Security Council.

“When the institution of the United Nations was created after the Second World War, one of its fundamental objectives was to see to it that what happened to the Jews in Nazi Germany would never happen again.”

The Secretariat

The Secretariat played a vital role during the Rwandan genocide through generating recommendations for the Security Council to act upon. In a similar vein to the 2016 dispatch of a special adviser on genocide to South Sudan, in early April 1993 Boutros Boutros-Ghali sent a Special Rapporteur to report on extrajudicial, summary, and arbitrary executions in Rwanda. He reported that there had been numerous breaches of international humanitarian law and that the massacres were primarily perpetrated by the government against the Tutsi minority. The report exposed a disturbing history of anti-Tutsi violence and persecution led by government and military officials, and should have triggered a more robust United Nations response. Critically, it found that the abuses could be precursors to genocide.[3] Unfortunately, this report was largely ignored by an over-stretched Secretariat whose focus was on nations that already had a UN presence.

The Secretariat’s Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO)—the body with primary responsibility for overseeing developments in Rwanda—was faced with numerous institutional limitations. After expanding rapidly between 1990 and 1993 to keep up with the escalating post-Cold War demand for peacekeeping missions, DPKO’s growth had stagnated, and in 1994 it had only 200 personnel to oversee 70,000 military and civilian staff in the field. This staff was paltry when considered in the context of contemporary military headquarters that oversee deployments of a similar size.[4] This capacity limitation reinforced pre-existing and ill-informed personal biases, leaving officials in this department with a distorted view of events in Rwanda. They characterized it as a failed state, which automatically skewed their perceptions of the unfolding crisis.[5]

As discussed in part one of this series, the January 11 cable and its reply from DPKO have been viewed by many observers as the first and most obvious warnings of the looming genocide, warnings DPKO inexplicably ignored.[6] Equally troubling was DPKO’s failure to inform the Security Council of the message. While the document certainly takes on a more chilling character in hindsight, it is important to note that DPKO officials believed they were experts in interpreting this sort of information based on experience with other operations. DPKO viewed the cable’s recommendations as having the potential to lead to Somalia redux, and due to the UN’s failure there it could ill-afford another peacekeeping disaster. Therefore, officials looked at the report and many that would follow with an eye toward calculating the consequences for the UN should anything go wrong rather than the benefits that would accrue should successful intervention be achieved. This attitude was the foundation upon which the Secretariat’s inability to act upon the genocide was built.

Romeo Dallaire (left) walks with UN envoy Igbal Riza (right) May 26, 1994 in Kigali, Rwanda. (Scott Peterson/Getty Images)

Cables sent by General Roméo Dallaire, the commander of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR), from late February through to the outbreak of the genocide should have left little doubt in the Secretariat about the inevitability of a serious humanitarian disaster. Furthermore, reporting from the media and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) provided additional pressure on the international community to recognize the genocide because unlike UNAMIR they were able to transcend their physical location in Rwanda by projecting their message globally. Indeed, the head of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Rwanda, Philippe Gaillard, became perhaps the most outspoken proponent of the “genocidal view” which, given the ICRC’s staunch neutrality policy, was unheard of at the time.[7,8] Gaillard is particularly critical of the “we didn’t know excuse,” arguing that because of the information coming out of Rwanda, everybody should have known.[9] However, the UN had conditioned itself to not see the violence for what it was, but to characterise it as a recurrence of tribal animosities. This ensured a major gap between what Dallaire and others were reporting to the Secretariat and what the Secretariat in turn was passing to the Security Council. The international civil servants simply told the Security Council what they believed it wanted to hear, based upon the belief (which was not without foundation) that there would be no appetite to act anyway.[10]

From April 17, 1994 Alison Des Forges from Human Rights Watch (HRW) started using “genocide” to describe what was occurring in Rwanda in her communications with the UN and others.[11] At this time, approximately two weeks after the outbreak of genocide, the UN itself admitted “...the violence appears to have both political and ethnic dimensions.”[12] A week later, after UNAMIR had been ordered to withdraw, a letter from Boutros-Ghali to the Security Council President states, “ many as 200,000 people may have died during the last three weeks.”[13] Although neither of these were explicit recognitions of genocide, they did begin to identify the intent and scale of the killings.

State sponsored genocide did not fit well into Western stereotypes of African political violence, commonly described in terms of tribal hatreds and tribal warfare. Genocide demanded action; tribal warfare did not.

It is also obvious from the end of April that the UN as a whole was starting to become uncomfortable about the information it was receiving, and the potential for embarrassment should it continue to ignore the genocide. This led to the portrayal of the killings as chaotic and spontaneous, resulting from the breakdown of a ceasefire, depicting the situation as reciprocal and multi-sided. State sponsored genocide did not fit well into Western stereotypes of African political violence, commonly described in terms of tribal hatreds and tribal warfare. Genocide demanded action; tribal warfare did not.[14] Therefore, by obscuring the actual facts from the UN General Assembly, the UN bureaucracy further increased the likelihood that it would not have to respond.

The United Nations Security Council (UNSC)

While the Secretariat had an important role to play in ensuring UN members understood what was occurring in Rwanda, it was the Security Council who made the critical decisions. The 1999 UN Report asserts that the failure to acknowledge the genocide rests squarely with the Security Council, who chose to view events in Rwanda as the breakdown of a ceasefire rather than genocide. This misunderstanding shaped the actions and considerations of the entire UN bureaucratic apparatus.[15] In 1994, Rwanda itself was a non-permanent member of the Security Council. This allowed the genocidal regime to influence other members’ view of the situation. Indeed, Rwanda’s submissions to the council implied  the massacres were isolated incidents, perpetrated by a minority in response to the President’s death.[16]

Two camps emerged within the UNSC. One, led by Nigeria, New Zealand, and the Czech Republic, demonstrated greater understanding of the situation and favored vigorous action. The other, led by the US and UK and joined by the muted voices of France, Russia, and China, insisted upon withdrawing UNAMIR and ignoring the problem as they believed their interests were ill-served by entanglement in another African quagmire. In line with the view of the five permanent members of the UNSC, the choice was  to focus on Rwanda’s civil war. This choice elevated the necessity for a ceasefire, which presumed a multi-sided conflict rather than the systematic slaughter of one ethnic group by another.[17] This view was also the catalyst for the UNSC’s withdrawal of all but 450 UNAMIR soldiers at a time when it was becoming increasingly clear that genocide was occurring. Still the UNSC refused to call it such for fear of being compelled to act. This collective silence demonstrated the absence of political will to intervene based on a clear determination that it did not suit individual national interests.

Rwandan Internally Displaced Persons near the border with Zaire (Democratic Republic of Congo) (Klaas Fopma/Medicins San Frontieres)

New Zealand’s ambassador and then-President of the UNSC, Colin Keating, described the Council as a bunch of diplomatic amateurs ill-equipped to deal with the challenges of acting to prevent genocide.[18] He received a briefing on April 25 from a returned Medicins San Frontieres doctor who told him categorically that genocide was occurring and implored him to use his position to end the carnage.[19] Other members of the UNSC, most notably Karel Kovanda, have stated they learned more from the information provided by NGOs than from sitting through the Council’s secret meetings.[20]

Despite signalling the intention to “remain actively seized of the matter,” the UNSC adopted a deliberate policy of plausible deniability, demonstrated by its attempts to water down language referring to events in Rwanda as genocide.[21] This stemmed from the fact that while the genocide convention did not require a military response, the Council did not expect such a literal reading from the international public. Sir David Hannay, the British Ambassador who did not favour recognition or intervention, even warned that the Council would be a “laughing stock,” if it called Rwanda genocide and then failed to act.[22] This was despite the efforts of NGOs like OXFAM who became increasingly disheartened at the lack of international action, leading to this Press statement of 26 May:

Governments generally, including those of the United States, Britain and other European countries have made a series of excuses for their supine inactivity. This amounts to a callous ignoring of genocide which, morally and legally, every government has a duty to prevent.[23]

When Did the UN Recognise the Rwandan Genocide?

One of the most important UN documents relating to the recognition of the genocide was the April 30 statement by the President of the Security Council. Quoting directly from the genocide convention it stated, “The Security Council recalls that the killing of members of an ethnic group with the intention of destroying such a group in whole or in part constitutes a crime punishable under international law.”[24] This was de facto recognition that genocide had been committed, without officially acknowledging it, and came only as a result of some very careful crafting by Britain’s delegation in response to Colin Keating’s desire to use the word “genocide” in the original statement. And it was not until a May 4 episode of Nightline that Boutros-Ghali first uttered the word “genocide” in a public forum, opening a small crack in the UN’s wall of silence.[25] Increased media coverage of the situation had gradually intensified the pressure on the UN to recognise the genocide, and on May 31, two months after the killings began, the UN categorically stated in its official documentation that genocide was occurring:

On the basis of the evidence that has emerged, there can be little doubt that it constitutes genocide [my emphasis], since there have been large-scale killings of communities and families belonging to a particular ethnic group.[26]

From this point onward, the use of the term became widespread in UN documentation, however, it took the UN bureaucracy months to establish the committees and compile the reports necessary to establish, to the UN’s satisfaction, that genocide had officially taken place. On October 4, 1994, long after the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) had overthrown the genocidal regime, the UN finally confirmed what was known months before: “Acts of genocide against the Tutsi group were perpetrated by Hutu elements in a concerted, planned, systematic and methodical way.”[27]

Why Was the UN Unwilling/Unable to Recognize the Genocide?

"I was not realising that there was a real genocide…For us, genocide was the gas chamber…We were not able to realise that with the machete you can create a genocide…"
—Boutros Boutros-Ghali[28]

It is important to understand the factors that prevented the UN from recognizing the Rwandan genocide. Arguments suggesting the genocide defied imagination, or that shock created a generalized sense of impotence, are inadequate explanations for a body possessing so much information and influence. The inescapable conclusion from all sources, including the UN’s own documentation, is that the UN responded with willful ignorance and indifference because a response did not suit the national interests of those nations with the power to act. As Barnett argues, “States allowed an almighty “Realpolitik” to smother their faint humanitarianism… reinforce[ing] the time worn view that cold-hearted strategic calculations always trump noble ideas.”[29] Confronted by the greatest of all moral imperatives, the UN provided barely a murmur of a response because the national interests of the majority of member states were not directly at risk, nor were they in the political position to advocate for the scale of military intervention required to stop it.

It is important to note that UN staff also favored avoiding the risks associated with intervention. In their assessment, the combination of chaos on the ground and the UN’s structural weaknesses made it likely the UN would not succeed in Rwanda, receiving no thanks for trying and suffering fresh and increasingly harmful recriminations from Washington and others.[30] In the UN, a bureaucratic culture had come to shape individuals, which in turn formed their reality, and their view of reality shaped their policy recommendations. Recognizing genocide and intervening to prevent it were inextricably linked, and by refusing to see it, the bureaucrats knew they would not have to intervene.[31]

Ultimately, the UN was simply not designed for action. Its bureaucratic rigidity required commissions and investigations, without allowing it to listen to or interpret effectively the advice of those on the ground providing the information the UN needed. The May 31 1994 Secretary General’s report clearly exposed these problems: “...the continuing hostilities impede a full investigation of these massacres and regrettably, in any case, procedures in the United Nations do not lend themselves to immediate action in such circumstances.”[32] This demonstrates the UN bureaucracy’s problem in reconciling what those on the ground were telling them with what they had taught themselves to believe. The UN system was poorly organised to collect and flag information about human rights abuses, let alone genocide. This ensured the failure of the system to link reports received by UNAMIR, NGOs, and the media to an overarching, objective, and dynamic analysis of the situation which may have provided an array of policy choices to better inform the development of the UN strategy.[33]


The UN knew its response to the warnings about Rwanda was inadequate. It was afraid of another Somalia, not about the potential for genocide in Rwanda. Its response was shaped by what it believed the five permanent members of the UNSC would support rather than an objective assessment of what the situation required. This meant UN staff began to deny their own responsibility and capacity to act. In a fundamental misrepresentation of the situation, the UN convinced itself there was nothing it could do to stop two determined ethnic groups from killing each other—when in fact it was only ever the Hutu slaughtering the Tutsi and not a reciprocal endeavor. Indeed, the UN failed at all levels to understand what was taking place; this allowed it to keep up the pretense of knowing nothing, while doing even less.[34] It took the UN far too long to see that genocide was occurring, and its institutional and bureaucratic impediments ensured it was not just unwilling, but unable to respond. By the time the genocide was finished, so was any pretense that the UN would, or could, prevent genocide as its own genocide convention avowed. In making choices it believed were moral, the UN ultimately tolerated the immorality of genocide.[35] The UN was deliberately blind, overly cautious, and far too rule-bound. Its consent-based policies proved dysfunctional and cleared a path for the genocidaires.

Nyamata Memorial Site, skulls. Nyamata, Rwanda. (Fanny Schertzer/Wikimedia)

The final article in this series will look at the critical role the United States played in shaping the international community’s failure to respond to the Rwandan tragedy. The role played by the US does not, however, alter the fact that in failing to adequately respond to genocide in Rwanda, the UN failed live up to its founding promise of “Never Again.”

Mark Gilchrist is a serving Australian Army officer and is a Featured Contributor at The Strategy Bridge. The views provided here are his own, and do not reflect any official position.

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Header Image: Tutsi Pastor Anastase Sabamungu (left) and Hutu teacher Joseph Nyamutera visit a Rwandan cemetery where 6,000 genocide victims are buried. (John Warren/World Vision Magazine)


[1] Carlsson, Jung-Soo and Kupolati, Report of the Independent Inquiry into the actions of the United Nations during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, United Nations Press, (New York, 15 December 1999)

[2] Samantha Power, A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide, (London: 2003), p. 357.

[3] Special Rapporteur Report on extrajudicial, summary or arbitrary executions in Rwanda 8-17 Apr 1993, E/CN.4/1994/7/Add.1, (11 August 1993). Note: all documents referenced from the period have been drawn from The National Security Archive of The George Washington University,

[4] While an imprecise comparison, the NATO led ISAF HQ in Afghanistan in 2009 had 2200 people in it to oversee approximately 56,000 military and civilian personnel.

[5] Howard Adelman and Astri Suhrke, ‘The International Response to Conflict and Genocide: Lessons from the Rwanda Experience’, Journal of Humanitarian Assistance, (March 1996), p. 44.

[6] This argument is evident throughout the PBS Frontline series The Triumph of Evil and Ghosts of Rwanda. It has also been perpetrated in many academic accounts of the genocide, especially by Linda Melvern and Adelman and Suhrke.

[7] Throughout the ICRC’s long and distinguished history they have always avoided taking sides in conflicts that they are involved in. This neutrality has also meant that they do not issue statements that could be seen to favour a single group.

[8] PBS Frontline, ‘Interview with Philippe Gaillard’, Ghosts of Rwanda, (12 September 2003).

[9] Phillipe Gaillard, Rwanda 1994, Speech given at the International Museum of the Red Cross and Red Crescent, (Geneva, 1994).

[10] Michael Barnett, Eyewitness to a Genocide: The United Nations and Rwanda, (London, 2002), p. 3.

[11] Alison Des Forges, Leave None to Tell the Story: Genocide in Rwanda, (New York, March 1999, p. 52.

[12] Special Report of the Secretary General on UNAMIR, containing a summary of the developing crisis in Rwanda and proposing three options for the role of the UN in Rwanda, S/1994/470, (20 April 1994).

[13] Letter from the Secretary General to the President of the Security Council requesting that the council re-examine the revised mandate given to UNAMIR in resolution 912 (1994) and consider what action it could take in order to restore law and order in Rwanda and end the massacres, S/1994/518, (29 April 1994).

[14] Jo Ellen Fair and Lisa Parks, ‘Africa on Camera: Television News Coverage and Aerial Imaging of Rwandan Refugees’, Africa Today, vol. 48, no. 2, (Summer 2001) pp. 35-57.

[15] Carlsson et al, Report of the Independent Inquiry into the actions of the United Nations during the 1994 genocide in Rwanda, p. 38.

[16] Letter from the Permanent Representative of Rwanda to the United Nations addressed to the President of the Security Council, transmitting a note from the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Cooperation of Rwanda explaining the political situation in Rwanda since the assassination of its President on 6 April 1994, S/1994/428, (13 April 1994).

[17] The civil war and the genocide were related but separate events. The civil war was between the Rwandan Patriotic Front (which was largely Tutsi)  and the Habyarima regime (which was exclusively Hutu), the cessation of which led to Arusha Accords. Simultaneously the Hutu elite were planning the genocide as the final solution to the Tutsi problem. The Arusha Accords gave them the time and space to finish planning while the agreement confined the RPF to barracks. It was this separation of the warring factions that created the conditions for the genocide, but the genocide itself should not, as the UN did, be considered as part of the civil war.

[18] Linda Melvern, A People Betrayed: The Role of the West in Rwanda’s Genocide, (London, 2000), p. 68.

[19] Linda Melvern, ‘Genocide Behind the Thin Blue Line’, Security Dialogue, vol. 28, no. 3, (September 1997), p. 341.

[20] Karel Kovanda was the Czech Republic’s Ambassador to the UN during this period. ‘The Media and the Rwanda Genocide’, A symposium hosted by the School of Journalism and Communication, Carleton University, (Ottawa, 13 March 2004), p. 64.

[21] Letter from the Permanent Representative of Cameroon to the United Nations addressed to the President of the Security Council, transmitting a statement of the African Group at the United Nations, dated 11 April 1994, concerning the situation in Rwanda, S/1994/420, (12 April 1994).

[22] Barnett, Eyewitness to a Genocide, p. 135.

[23] Oxfam International, ‘Rwanda Genocide 1994, Questions and Answers’.

[24] Statement by the President of the Security Council condemning the slaughter of civilians in Kigali and other parts of Rwanda, S/PRST/1994/21, (30 April 1994).

[25] Barnett, Eyewitness to a Genocide, p. 133.

[26] Report of the Secretary General on the situation in Rwanda, reporting on the political mission he sent to Rwanda to move the warring parties towards a ceasefire and recommending that the expanded mandate for UNAMIR be authorised for an initial period of six months, S/1994/640, (31 May 1994).

[27] This document, supposedly produced by a committee of experts took four months from its inception to confirm the horrible truth that genocide had in fact occurred, but the question still begs as to why any report need take so long when bodies still littered the streets? Letter dated 1 October 1994 from the Secretary General to the President of the Security Council transmitting the interim report of the Commission of Experts on the evidence of grave violations of international humanitarian law in Rwanda, including possible acts of genocide, S/1994/1125, (4 October 1994).

[28] Boutros Boutros-Ghali on PBS Frontline, ‘Interview with Boutros Boutros-Ghali’, Ghosts of Rwanda, (21 January 2004).

[29] Barnett, Eyewitness to a Genocide, p. 4.

[30] Barnett, Eyewitness to a Genocide, p. x.

[31] Ibid, p. 9.

[32] Sec Gen Report, S/1994/640.

[33] Shaharyar Khan, The Shallow Graves of Rwanda, I.B. Tauris Publishers, (London, 2000), p. 196.

[34] As discussed in Part 1 of this series, UNAMIR was deployed to deal with the Arusha Accords—it had no mandate to deal with massacres. UNAMIR was reduced dramatically during the genocide itself which removed any ability to respond, even if they had had a mandate. Only after the genocide, and largely out of guilt in my view, did the UN deploy UNAMIR II which had a mandate to prevent the massacres and provide aid to the victims. This was, however, after the RPF had defeated the genocidal regime to bring an end the killings. Therefore, in my mind the UN did worse than nothing at the time, they actively undermined their ability to do something when the resources were actually available to provide at least a deterrent effect.

[35] Stephen Bradshaw, ‘When Good Men do Nothing’, Four Corners, (1 Mar 1999)