Is the UN failing mankind… AGAIN?

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Flag of the United Nations. Source: Wikipedia

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While an interest in world news is something scholars and students of international relations share in general, one event at the beginning of this month was especially catching. On the 1st of march the OCHA, a body of the United Nations, held the high-level pledging event for the humanitarian crisis in Yemen.[1] The need for this pledging event is striking since 80% of the country’s population is relying on humanitarian aid.[2] António Guterres, Secretary-General of the United Nations, described the situation in Yemen as followed:

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Yemen is now in imminent danger of the worst famine the world has seen for  decades. In the absence of immediate action, millions of lives may be lost. … [We] risk a tragedy not just in the immediate loss of life but with consequences that will reverberate indefinitely into the future. 

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Yemen Humanitarian Crisis. Source: ICTJ

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Despite these urging circumstances was the pledging event not able to raise the required financial aid. While the target for the fund raise was at $3.85 billion, the money pledged by attending countries was only $1.7 billion.[3] 

Acknowledging some successes of the UN as an international organisation, no WW III for example, this recent failure of joint UN actions, one might start to wonder about other times the UN failed human in need. 

One striking precedent of such an incident would be the Rwanda incident and the lack of UN response to it. 

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Rwandan genocide. Source: The NY Times; Credit: Sebastiao Salgado

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To get a better understanding of the foul judgement and lack of responsiveness from the UN let us have a closer look into the Rwandan incident. From a historical point of view, three ethnic groups can be identified which populated the territory of Rwanda throughout the centuries, namely Twa, Hutu and Tutsi. Amongst these, the Twa comprise a small number of the population considered as the original inhabitants; the Hutu are the predominant population which arrived on the territory between the 5th-11th century; and the Tutsi account for the rest of the population and arrived around the 14th century.[4] A series of conflicts between these groups can be followed throughout the years which led to the aggravation of their relations and the situation escalating into a time of crisis.  

Now let us move fast forward to 1990s, where a certain event paved the way to unleashing terror within the country of Rwanda. During that year, on the 1st of October, the Rwandan Civil war commenced after an attack was initiated by the Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF), which consisted predominantly of Tutsi refugees, towards the National Revolutionary Movement for Developments (NRMD), a political party created by the then leader of Rwanda Major General Juvenal Habyarimana, consisting of Hutu representatives. After 3 years of war, an agreement was reached in August 1993, known as the Arusha peace agreement, which would see a government being created that would include both members of the Hutu and Tutsi communities.[5] Little did they know that this agreement was bound to fail.  

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Major General Juvenal Habyarimana. Source: Wikipedia

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This leads us to the ill-fated event at matter: the Rwandan genocide. It began on April 6, 1994, as on that date a plane carrying both Habyarimana and the Burundi president Cyprien Ntaryama was shot down leaving no survivors, with the culprits causing it still not conclusively determined.[6] 

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This act initiated a series of events leading to the slaughter of approximately 800,000 people around the country during a time in which Hutu extremist leaders took advantage of the occurring and stepped into power. In spite of this, the RPF did not give up the fight and by July 1994 their forces had gained control over the majority of Rwanda. Ultimately, the end of the genocide was marked by the RPF establishing a coalition government similar to the one agreed upon previously by the former leader Habyarimana, in which president became a Hutu, whereas a Tutsi was elected as vice president and defence minister.[7]  

Now you might ask how this relates to the UN. The answer is simple. The United Nations were aware of the occurring problem and tried assisting Rwanda in dealing with the issue but due to the slow response towards the situation the organization failed. To give you more context to this, the Security Council had established the United Nations Observer Mission Uganda-Rwanda (UNOMUR) in response to the start of the civil war. Moreover, the UN was asked by both parties participating in the conflict (NRMD and RPF) to assist with the implementation of the established in 1993 agreement, which led to the creation of another specialized subsection named the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR) with the purpose of ensuring, monitoring and supporting the implementation of the agreement.[8] At that point, the United Nations solicited troop contributions but by the time it reached the authorized strength of 2,548 five months had passed and, due to unresolved issues between the parties, the implementation was delayed and consequently, never took place. Soon after, the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi were killed, and the genocide began.

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UN blue helmets in Rwanda. Source: VWMA

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Further efforts were put towards managing the situation but, due to some countries unilaterally withdrawing their contingents, UNAMIR failed to make a difference. On 17 May 1994, the Security Council imposed an arms embargo against Rwanda which led to the increase of UNAMIR’s strength to approximately 5,500 troops but, by the time the Member States managed to provide the troops, a further six months had passed and the RPF had managed to take control of Rwanda. After the genocide had ended, UNAMIR continued its efforts towards ensuring security and stability by providing humanitarian assistance and helping the refugees resettle until March 1996 when it left.[9] 

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How can the UN act?

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While the United Nations as an organisation has a strong global influence, it is also bound by international law and certain principles of the international system. As a handbook for its actions the UN uses its charter. Within this charter one can find a list of all articles limiting and giving the UN power. In the case of the Rwanda incident the limiting article can be found in the charter under chapter I. §2 expresses the importance for the organisation and its members to follow the principle of sovereign equality.[10] This principle of sovereignty means that the state as an actor can act and control as it sees fit within its own borders.[11]

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UN Charter. Source: UN

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Following this principle and the related article from the UN charter actions from the UN within Rwanda would be not legitimate.

On the other hand, articles giving power can be found under chapter VII. §39 gives the UN the right to determine the existence of a threat and the right to make a recommendation about an appropriate response. What kind of actions this response can contain is stated under §43. There it is stated that once the security council has decided all members must support it with armed forces, assistance, facilities and/or the right of passage.[12] Opposing the first paragraph, these articles would be giving the UN a legitimacy to intervene in the Rwanda conflict.

To sum everything that has been said so far, the UN charter has both articles supporting interference in the Rwanda incident as well as articles opposing interference. While respect for another country’s sovereignty is of highest importance in the international system, the Rwanda incident and connected genocide would have needed a UN intervention. Respecting sovereignty should not be held more important than the safe being of civil society.

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The Rwanda incident through TWO lenses

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What happened in Rwanda and the UN charter are only part of a bigger concept we can find in the international system – the concept of cooperation. By definition, international cooperation is “the interaction of persons or group of persons representing various nations in the pursuit of a common goal or interest”.[13] The reasons, consequences and motivations behind this concept, however, can be interpreted in different ways. Within the study of international relations, we therefore find so-called lenses. These lenses might look at the same concept but explain and interpret it in different ways. Looking back at the incident of Rwanda, we will apply the perspective of two lenses: the realists’ approach and the liberal approach.

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Global Politics. Source: TES

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In order to understand the realist approach, we have to take one step back first and look at the entire international system. Following the realist approach, this system is in a state of anarchy meaning that all states are sovereign and that no state hold the position of a higher authority. And in this anarchic situation power is key for states to defend themselves and ensure survival. For realist states also act as rational actors meaning that they will do everything in their power to maximize their gain from any given situation.[14] In addition, realism claims that states are focused on their relative gain in comparison to what other states gain. When the gain of one is interpreted as a personal loss by another, cooperation becomes more complex and prone to conflict and failure.[15] Other realists claim that cooperation only works since the individual states expect a high enough payoff.[16] This assumption would be in line with the claim that states are self-interested in their situation. To sum up, realists understand cooperation as a mean for countries to maximize their own gain while acknowledging that the relative gain can break the deal of two or more countries.

The united nations, at least in its theory, would be one example of such international cooperation. Since all state members act in a state of anarchy where no one can act as a higher government, cooperation guided by an international organization was a solution. On the notion of the United Nations, realists see it as an example of states’ self-interests. While a membership with the UN brings global benefits, it also enhances each nation’s economic connections. Extreme realists might even claim that nations use their membership of the UN to strengthen the power over other nations.

On the other hand is the liberal approach. When searching the word liberalism many different results may appear due to the fact that it is a complex body which comprises of different aspects.[17] However, in a broad sense, it can be said that liberalism is:

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… based on the moral argument that ensuring the right of an individual person to life, liberty and property is the highest goal of government.

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In other words, liberals believe that the wellbeing of the individual is a fundamental building block of a just political system. This encompasses one of the main differences between realism and liberalism since, as already explained, realism focuses on the wellbeing of the nation-state, whereas liberalism is concerned with ensuring a good living for the individuals within.

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Furthermore, when referring to liberal theory it is worth mentioning the phenomenon known as the democratic peace, introduced by Doyle (1997). In short, the democratic peace describes the absence of war between the separate liberal states, which are defined as mature liberal democracies.[18] Moreover, among the cornerstones of liberalism is ensuring cooperation both within the country as well as on an international level.

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Liberalism. Source: CCN-CLIL

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Having said all this, the liberalism theory directly aligns on paper with some of the main principles of the UN, such as ensuring peace and safe cooperation between nation-states. Some may argue, as explained above, that the UN is an example of the realist theory and, in fact, they may be correct since there are different ways and perspectives to look at things. The realist lens sees the UN in a more pessimistic way, with each nation-state being a part of the organization based solely on self-interests and personal gain, whereas looking through the liberal lens the United Nations provides room for optimism that cooperation between countries would lead to world peace and prosperity.

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UN Security Council. Source: CFR; Credit: Shannon Stapleton/Reuters

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Specifically, within the Rwanda case, it can be pointed out that the UN undertook the liberal approach towards the situation since member states were invited to cooperate in order to ensure the safety of the country. When it came down to taking action, as explained, a number of troops was summoned to execute the peacekeeping duties but, since member UN states failed to take action in time, the plan did not go to plan. This can be interpreted as a result of the realist approach to the situation based on the members’ personal gain of the situation since their sovereignty was not on the line, hence, they were not in a rush to provide the necessary aid.

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What can we expect in the future?

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Flag of the League of Nations. Source: Wikipedia

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All in all, the concept of an international system can still be categorized as relatively new. The first attempt at making this possible came from the creation of the League of Nations, which was the predecessor of the United Nations created after World War I with the aim of bringing world peace and avoiding another conflict on a larger international scale. As history shows, it failed its mission as World War II came to be.

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Therefore, learning from past mistakes, various states opted towards combining efforts in order to create a new organization by the name of the United Nations which would build on the principles and goals of the League of Nations to ensure world peace and friendly relationships among nations.[19] Hence, the United Nations was established in 1945 and currently comprises of 193 countries.

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To give credit where credit is due, since the creation of the UN, the organization has successfully helped end numerous conflicts by conducting peacekeeping operations in dozens of countries, such as Cambodia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Namibia and so on.[20] Having said that, as of now, the UN has managed to partially fulfil its duties as it has managed to prevent the occurrence of another World War but examples such as Yemen and Rwanda, among numerous others, show that the UN has not always provided an accurate response to certain situations of humanitarian magnitude. With humanitarian disaster at stake, what the UN can do is learn from previously committed mistakes in order to handle future events in a more effective manner leading to the salvation of many lives on an international scale.

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Reference list:

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[1] OCHA. (2021). Virtual High-Level Pledging Event for the Humanitarian Situation. Retrieved from

[2] Robinson, K. (2021). How Severe Is Yemen’s Humanitarian Crisis? Council on Foreign Relations. Retrieved from

[3] Deutsche Welle. (2021). Yemen: UN donor conference raises „disappointing“ funds. Retrieved from

[4] University of Pennsylvania. (n.d.). East Africa Living Encyclopedia. Retrieved from

[5] Alluri, R. M. (2009). The role of tourism in post-conflict peacebuilding in Rwanda. Bern: Swisspeace.

[6] University of Pennsylvania. (n.d.). East Africa Living Encyclopedia. Retrieved from

[7] Britannica Academic. (n.d.). Rwanda genocide of 1994. Retrieved from Rwanda genocide of 1994 — Britannica Academic (

[8] United Nations. (n.d.). UNAMIR. Retrieved from

[9] United Nations. (n.d.). UNAMIR. Retrieved from

[10] UN. (2020, November 9). Chapter I. United Nations. Retrieved from

[11] Thomson, J. E. (1995). State Sovereignty in International Relations: Bridging the Gap between Theory and Empirical Research. International Studies Quarterly, 39(2), 213–233. Retrieved from

[12] UN. (2020, October 15). Chapter VII. United Nations. Retrieved from

[13] (n.d.). What does international cooperation mean? Retrieved from,International%20Cooperation,a%20common%20goal%20or%20interest.

[14] Slaughter, A. M. S. (2011). International relations, principal theories. Max Planck Encyclopedia of Public International Law. Retrieved from

[15] Powell, R. (1991). Absolute and Relative Gains in International Relations Theory. American Political Science Review, 85(4), 1303–1320. Retrieved from

[16] Majeski, S. J. & Fricks, S. (1995). Conflict and Cooperation in International Relations. Journal of conflict resolution, 39(4), 622–645. Retrieved from

[17] Meiser, J. W. (2018). Introducing Liberalism in International Relations Theory. Retrieved from

[18] Doyle, M. W. (1997). Ways of war and peace: Realism, liberalism, and socialism. New York: Norton.

[19] Goodrich, L. M. (1947). From League of nations to United Nations. International Organization, 1(1), 3-21. Retrieved from

[20] United Nations Peacekeeping. (n.d.). Our successes. Retrieved from,%2C%20Mozambique%2C%20Namibia%20and%20Tajikistan.


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