The U.N.’s Role in the Rwandan Genocide

Or the role they unwittingly occupied by doing nothing.

Cynthia Leung
Jan 17 · 5 min read
Photo by Amir Kh on Unsplash

My senior thesis course focused on the atrocities committed in war and their devastating effects. We studied international conflicts that occupied the largest impacts on human history. This included the Nazi occupation of Germany and the burning of a millennium of books by Mao Ze Dong. In both events, they are examples of the cataclysmic erasure of entire peoples, which directly affects the very existence of the victims’ cultures, religions, and languages.

For a third of the course, this is what we honed in on. Genocides.

The United Nations defines genocide as an international law crime.

This U.N. definition says that genocides are the systematic elimination of a group of people to raze their culture, language, and religion from planet Earth. To qualify for this term, there must be an intention present to systematically murder the members of a group.

The Rwandan Genocide

In our focus on genocides, a major event we learned about was the Rwandan genocide. Or more like, watched in agape horror, despair, and general loss of hope for humanity as we learned about the events that would unfold and endlessly mar humanity for centennials to come.

In 1997, the Hutu caste (or class) in Rwanda brutally murdered and raped 500,000 to 600,000 Tutsi caste members in the span of 3 months. The day after the assassination of the first Hutu Rwandan president, neighbors, and friends who had known each other since they were in preschool hunted each other down with machetes.

Videos of the genocide show members of the Hutu armed with machetes and chopped the victims into pieces alive.

This was a result of the wide dissemination of propaganda to pit the two castes against each other. Members of the Hutu were trained from a young age and armed with machetes against the Tutsi people.

The United Nations and Its Failure to Act

The U.N. never formally condemned the actions of the Hutu people or the Rwandan government. There are two primary reasons for this: the necessity of force associated with it and the U.N. qualification of what a genocide is.

If the United Nations, a collective of sovereign states, and the United States, the international police, called the Rwandan Genocide a “genocide”, then it would have demanded a response via a military incursion, increased aid package, and/or the use of their alliances to intervene in the conflict.

The United Nations did not do this.

Instead, it repeatedly released statements that the Rwandan Genocide did not fit their term of what qualifies as a “genocide” at the time. The U.N. excuses their official inaction on the event using bureaucratic compliance. In doing this, they effectually buck passed the responsibility from the Rwandan government to the international police, thus enabling this horrific event.

If this event was called a “genocide”, the death toll would likely have been curtailed and human suffering lessened.

Neutrality always benefits the oppressor, never the oppressed.

After the U.N. and other world powers did not denounce the Rwandan Genocide as such and the Genocide ended in July of 1997, the U.N. amended its qualifications of what a “genocide” was. This included parameters that would recognize future genocidal events that occurred with the same conditions as the Rwandan Genocide.

However, the damage was done.

At a critical juncture, the United Nations failed its primary directive. To ensure that the systemic extermination of a group of people does not happen again. To proclaim injustice against any person or people who attempt to exterminate a group of people based on their social, religious, or national backgrounds. To act, decisively and antithetically, against any threat, foreign or domestic, who seeks to destroy human lives.

This quote by Wiesel resounds even now, a quarter of a century later.

It awakens in us the need to speak out against injustice when we see it and reminds us that neutrality will only benefit the oppressor, and never the oppressed. That is why our international organization, a symbol for the antithesis of the foment that led to Nazi Germany’s rise, must never stay silent, even in the face of an immediate necessity to act on it.

But the geographic location of the International Criminal Court at the forever neutral Hague, Switzerland is telling of its actual purpose.

To remain neutral for as long as possible.

Switzerland did this throughout both World Wars and rose out of their inaction to become one of the wealthiest nations in the 21st century. Based on the U.N.’s inaction, it seems they have the same goal for its member nations.

The Ineffectiveness of the United Nations

After a year and a half, the Uighur Muslim population is finally being called a “genocide” in China. The Muslim population in China is placed in concentration camps where the minority group is forced to eat pork, drink alcohol, and conduct manual labor 18 hours out of the day. Through this, the intent is clear to erase their religious identities and practices in favor of forced integration into Chinese society.

Even with a clear condemnation of the genocide and calling it a “genocide”, the U.N. is only an international cooperative.

It is not a military complex or a government agency. The U.N. does not have the power to execute military incursions or strong-arm foreign governments to fulfill their resolutions.

The U.N. operates on resolutions based on aid, and there is no specific fund that allows their resolutions to be enforced through military action. The ineffectiveness of the U.N. maintains stability on a much higher level between nations, but call into question their ability to actually effect change when genocides occur.

When disturbing events like this repeat, it is easy to wonder what kind of solution can be presented to avoid or solve issues like this in the future. Or, more importantly, if the only viable solutions available will be faithfully executed by the body that was formed on the promise that it would.

But what’s in a name? And are we giving the United Nations more credit and honor than it deserves when it fails not only in its inaction but also in its active enablement of continuous acts of genocide?

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