The UN and the Rwandan Genocide

By Joshua Bradford

A historical criticism of the United Nations is that it has been slow to respond in times of crisis. The spectre of the Rwandan Genocide loomed large in the public consciousness throughout the 90s and early 2000s, and remains a black mark in U.N. history to this day. As a result of Rwanda and similar debacles, the public perception of peacekeeping operations is mixed, to say the least. While the U.N. has certainly made its mistakes, it is uncharitable to view its peacekeeping operations in a negative light when we consider what we expect from them. As an organization dedicated to world peace, the U.N. has delegated itself an impossible task. Its predecessor, the League of Nations had previously strived to fulfill this duty, and while the League scored many humanitarian victories, lasting peace was not one of them. The fact that the U.N. has worked to promote stability for decades now is impressive in itself. So when we assess the success and failure of “the World’s Policeman”, we must be understanding that it takes time to martial the required political will and material support for armed intervention.

Though we need to acknowledge this delay in action as a political reality, that doesn’t mean there aren’t ways to work around it. The best method to circumnavigate this is for the U.N. to cooperate with regional security organizations. Aside from NATO, the U.N.’s longest regional partner has been ECOWAS, the Economic Community of West African States. U.N. cooperation with ECOWAS demonstrates how regional security organizations can act as a stopgap measure in keeping the peace while the U.N. marshalls its collective response. The outbreak of the Liberian Civil War in late 1989 had caught the U.N. flat footed. Distracted by rising tensions in the Middle East and the impending Gulf War, Liberia was allowed to destabilize further. Thankfully, Liberia was a member state of ECOWAS, and its neighbors stood ready to intervene on behalf of the Liberian people, and for the sake of regional stability. When the U.N. was finally ready to address the Liberian Civil War in 1993, its peacekeeping mission, UNOMIL, would work alongside ECOWAS forces for a period of four years, withdrawing only after a new government had been established.

Despite the “success” of this cooperation, peace was a fleeting visitor in Liberia. Another civil war would break out only in 1999, only two years after the conclusion of UNOMIL. This negative outcome likely reflects the challenges faced during the course of the U.N.-ECOWAS partnership. The dual-deployment of two peacekeeping forces at once resulted in a byzantine command structure that hindered operations across the board. High tensions between ECOWAS and U.N. peacekeepers remained constant, largely due to the blue helmets’ better equipment and better pay. The lack of material support provided by ECOWAS to its soldiers resulted in looting, leading Liberians to claim that ECOWAS’ mission ECOMOG, stood for “every car or movable object gone.” Because of their close association with what many viewed as a partial, and somewhat predatory force within the conflict, the U.N.’s prestige was lowered in the eyes of many Liberians.

Fortunately, these issues did not discourage the U.N. from working alongside ECOWAS once more. At the conclusion of the Second Liberian Civil War, two peacekeeping missions were launched by the U.N. and ECOWAS, named UNMIL and ECOMIL respectively. These missions unlike the previous ones, were meant to keep the peace rather than establish it. Both forces would work together in a shared mission to rebuild Liberia, a mission that only recently concluded in March of this year. The outcome of this second partnership has been much more positive. For the first time in decades, Liberia has seen consecutive rounds of peaceful elections, as well as Africa’s first democratically elected female head of state.

As conflict continues to plague the world and the U.N. finds itself stretched across multiple zones of deployment, collaboration with regional security organizations seems to be the way forward. To succeed in future cooperative endeavors and establish effective dual-deployment, the U.N. will have to take note of lessons learned with ECOWAS during the first and second Liberian Civil Wars.

About Stephen Norris