Beyond ‘Do Something’: Revisiting the International Community’s Role in the Rwandan Genocide


Kofi Annan’s death in August reignited a long-running debate about the Rwandan genocide and intervention. Annan’s time as the head of the Department of Peacekeeping Operations during the Rwandan genocide produced reflections on his personal responsibility in failing to halt the killing, while his subsequent role as an architect of the Responsibility to Protect as the UN Secretary-General highlighted international efforts to atone for these past sins with new approaches to mitigate emerging atrocities.

The Rwandan genocide has become, to some extent, a parable with a clear moral lesson about how failure to intervene produces mass civilian death. But the story we usually tell about the international community’s inaction in Rwanda is incomplete — and accordingly so, too, is its straightforward policy lesson about the relationship between inaction and mass civilian death.

Rwanda is emblazoned in the popular consciousness as a failure to take action — a case in which political will was the key stumbling block to action. As Samantha Power famously wrote in A Problem from Hell, “American leaders did not act because they did not want to.” Other examples of this framing abound: Twenty years after the genocide, Amnesty International wrote, “The international community has collectively failed to act on the lessons of the Rwandan genocide … ‘In 1994, the world was shamed when it turned a blind eye to the desperate cries for help coming from Rwanda. Africa and the rest of the international community wrung their hands as hundreds of thousands were slaughtered.’” More recently, narrating the debate within the Obama White House over whether to use force in Syria, former Deputy National Security Advisor Ben Rhodes observed that “Obama had written about how we should have intervened in Rwanda, and people like me had been deeply influenced by that inaction.”

That the genocide itself unfolded against brutal indifference from the international community is inarguable. And for Rwandans themselves, of course, there is no question that the abandonment was complete. A statue at the Gisozi Genocide Memorial in Kigali encapsulates the tragedy: a figure holds a telephone in despair, and the accompanying text describes Rwandans calling on the international community to save their lives but receiving no answer.

But indifference is not the full story. Civilians in Rwanda also died for reasons that are endemic to other mass atrocity situations — because policymakers frequently misunderstand the problems before them, even with substantial information; choose the wrong policy tools; are slow to realize when their policies have clearly failed; and then cannot muster the political will to adopt alternative policies.

If failure in Rwanda was simply attributable to lack of attention or of political will, the counterfactual would be that more attention and appetite for robust intervention would produce fewer future mass atrocities. The familiar “do something” refrain stems from this belief. But in fact, the international community did do something in Rwanda: it invested in the Arusha Peace Process, a little-discussed, lengthy set of negotiations, which preceded the genocide and helps to explain — though not excuse—international inaction during the genocide itself. Accordingly, the relevant counterfactual is: What could the international community have done differently in Rwanda to forestall disaster?

This article offers an in-depth examination of Arusha based on archival documents and scholarship. It seeks to complicate the familiar parable about the genocide by presenting a fuller picture of international actors’ involvement in Rwandan peacemaking. Evaluating what the United Nations and the international community did do in Rwanda is critical both to understanding the limits of subsequent policy reforms, particularly the Responsibility to Protect doctrine, and to explaining how even well-intentioned decision-makers repeatedly fail to save civilians under threat of violence.

However stark the international community’s moral failure was during the genocide, examining the preceding negotiations reveals a more ambiguous, more common picture. In one of the few detailed scholarly accounts of the Arusha Peace Process, Bruce Jones writes, “Conventional wisdom would have Rwanda be a story of the failure to take action; it is in fact a story about the failure of actions taken.” Examining the Arusha Peace Process reveals that even long-term, serious negotiations and heavy international involvement can produce catastrophic outcomes, and that focusing on political will for robust intervention is an insufficient solution to complex, contingent violent processes.

Inaction or Wrong Actions? The Arusha Peace Process

The Second Rwandan Civil war began in October 1990, when a movement of Tutsi Rwandans in exile united under the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF) banner and invaded Rwanda from southern Uganda. There was nearly immediate international involvement: Rwandan President Juvénal Habyarimana was at the UN at the time of the invasion, and flew to Europe to request military support from Belgium and France. Six hundred French army officers arrived in Kigali by the end of 1990, and the Organization of African Unity (OAU) became involved in mediating.

An extensive, two-year long negotiation process with active involvement from the OAU, the United States, France, Tanzania, and Belgium culminated in the Arusha Accords. As Jones reports, the United States and France sent mediation teams to support the negotiation process. The process comprised three phases: regionally led efforts that began within days of the invasion; a formal negotiation phase led by Tanzania, with heavy involvement from the United States and France, that culminated in the signing of a peace accord in August 1993; and finally an implementation phase, led by the United Nations. This phase technically followed the formal signing of the peace agreement, but required further negotiations to establish the transitional government that the agreement called for. The specificity of the resulting accords, which include such banal but hard-fought minutiae as provisions about the transfer of social security contributions for returning Tutsi refugees, certainly seemed to indicate that, despite distrust on both sides, continuing military recruitment by the RPF, and clear spoilers within the Rwandan government’s coalition, many actors did actually expect to execute the peace agreement if and when it was signed.

UN Peacekeepers were deployed to uphold the Arusha Accords, but the Security Council authorized UNAMIR, the mission to Rwanda, in October 1993, just three days after the Black Hawk Down incident in Somalia, where American troops serving as part of a UN mission suffered casualties and an enormous, globally broadcast blow. The Security Council’s reaction to Black Hawk Down is well-documented: The permanent five members drew back from peacekeeping immediately, and they authorized UNAMIR as a much smaller, less resourced mission than originally envisioned. Here already we see part of a recurrent pattern: although two members of the P5 had invested heavily in negotiations, the Security Council failed to allocate adequate resources to actually implement the agreement.

From the beginning, UNAMIR was staggeringly underresourced and poorly supported by UN headquarters. Between October 1993 and March 1994, stakeholders such as the government of Rwanda, the RPF, the UN staff on the ground, including multiple aid and humanitarian agencies; the World Bank and IMF; the OAU, and American, Belgian, French, and German delegations all struggled to implement the agreement, given the contentious coalitional politics unfolding in the country and UNAMIR’s low logistical capacity.

Implementing the agreement centered on two processes — the integration of the government and the RPF’s armies, and the repatriation and resettlement of refugees. The negotiating parties could not finance or manage either process on their own. Rumors of demobilization sparked mutinies, violence, and fatalities among civilians and soldiers as early as 1992. A compromise solution built aggressive pension and retraining plans into the Arusha Accords that neither party to the conflict could afford. The difficult (and ultimately impossible) task of fundraising the pensions fell to UNDP and the World Bank during the implementation period. Here again, we see not inaction but tragically frequent funding shortfalls. As the US Embassy in Kigali cabled back to Washington immediately after negotiations had concluded:

the costs associated with implementing Rwanda’s peace accord will be enormous … World Bank and IMF participation will be critical. [As] implementation proceeds, the Rwandans will [inevitably] have to lower their sights and alter their procedures.

The cable proved prescient. In January 1994, UNAMIR’s force commander Roméo Dallaire sent a fax to UN headquarters, citing informant evidence of arms caches and plans for a genocide and requesting authorization to raid the arms caches. UN officials, including Annan, rejected Dallaire’s request. In his memoir, Annan wrote:

Our greatest fear at the moment, given the precarious position of peacekeeping at the time, was for another military disaster to befall a peacekeeping operation leading to significant causalities. In Dallaire’s cabled request … we saw the ingredients of a disaster akin to the failed raid on Aidid in Mogadishu three months earlier.

Despite having information about potential violence in Rwanda, Annan worried that another failed robust intervention would doom the entire peacekeeping enterprises. His primary concern was for the UN’s well-being — a pattern Michael Barnett found repeated across the UN. Moreover, Rwanda was seen as an easy case — a war that had already ended with diplomacy. Annan wrote:

… at the time, UNAMIR seemed to exhibit none of the risks that had caused the disaster in Somalia and the continuing problems in Bosnia. A three-year civil war had ceased and a full peace deal had been agreed to. Unlike in recent controversial operations, the force would not be deploying to an environment where there was no peace to keep.

Writing in 1993, Madeleine Albright, then the U.S. ambassador to the United Nations, agreed: “This is one case where both parties actually seem to be displaying the will to lay down their arms and move towards a peaceful settlement, as opposed to other areas (e.g., Angola, Bosnia, Georgia) where the goodwill of the protagonists is questionable.”

Key decisionmakers appear to have decided that the problem in Rwanda had been solved, and accordingly they selected tools to end war and ease transition to peace, not to prevent mass killing. Their approach emphasized implementing the peace agreement, putting together the transitional government, and funding the expensive processes of integrating the armed forces, reconstruction, and refugee repatriation. This failure to reframe their approach to Rwanda, even amidst mounting evidence the peace agreement was hurtling towards failure, helps explain how horrifically the international community managed subsequent events in Rwanda.

Dallaire’s genocide fax was the first of a series of urgent calls from Rwanda the US and the UN would leave unanswered. The bureaucratic torpor and apathy that gripped the Security Council as the genocide unfolded have been well-documented, but they cannot be understood independent of earlier decisions to invest heavily in diplomacy, a peace process, and implementing a peace agreement. The Security Council had made a set of policy decisions about Rwanda before the genocide began and proved unwilling to change course once facts on the ground began to change rapidly. Powerful actors compounded predictable bureaucratic inertia with malfeasance at clear decision points, choosing to actively draw back at moments when they could have chosen to take straightforward action.

In April 1994, Habyarimana was assassinated in a plane crash alongside the president of Burundi, and extremist factions within the government of Rwanda undertook a concerted campaign of exterminating Tutsis and Hutu moderates. Genocide engulfed the country. After the killing of 10 Belgian peacekeepers — a tactic specifically designed to collapse UNAMIR — the Security Council, led by the United States, famously responded by voting to draw down the UN mission and pull out the most well-equipped troops at the height of the genocide. Jockeying to avoid calling the unfolding horror a genocide, and thereby to avoid the perceived obligations of action under the genocide convention, replaced discussions about how to halt the killing.

By the time mass killing was roiling the country, inaction was the order of the day. Ninety days after the genocide started, between 550,000 and 800,000 Rwandans were dead, including approximately 75 percent of the Tutsi population and nearly the entirety of the country’s moderate political elite. Two million refugees fled the country; one million Rwandans were internally displaced; the country’s infrastructure was largely destroyed; and conflict had spilled into neighboring countries, where it has endured for years.

Calculations about robust intervention can require weighing whether unintended consequences might in fact kill many people as well. There is some debate about whether intervention in Rwanda during the genocide would have been effective — but on balance, it seems as though armed intervention during the genocide would have been comparatively straightforward. Among other factors, Rwanda is a small country, and machetes were the primary weapon of genocide. Subsequent research indicates that killing lessened where local officials stood firm, and some testimony from those on the ground indicates that even unarmed peacekeepers sometimes successfully deterred genocidaires. But the Security Council chose to draw down its mission and turn away. At this last juncture, powerful international actors’ decisions to do nothing doomed Rwandans.

Political Will and Political Won’t

So what did the UN and its member states do in Rwanda? They invested in negotiations and diplomacy; authorized a peacekeeping mission; attempted to implement the peace agreement; struggled to find funding to do so; and then when the peace agreement collapsed, they abandoned both their hollowed-out peacekeeping mission and millions of Rwandans.

The processes that ultimately led to genocide in Rwanda are common. It is important to reckon not just with the international community’s colossal failure, but also with the systematic way in which powerful states fail to address the complex problems before them, choose the wrong interventions; are slow to realize when their policies have clearly failed; and then cannot muster the political will to adopt alternative policies. Protracted peace processes, stalled implementation, insufficient military and monetary resources to secure the peace, weak political will, underfunded refugee programs, vivid yet ignored evidence of atrocities, bureaucratic foot-dragging: All these factors are endemic to conflict situations. They are common in places of little strategic interest to the great powers, like South Sudan; they are common even to places shot through with great power ambition, like Syria; and they are common even when anti-genocide activists are elevated to relevant positions of power.

A fuller accounting of international involvement in Rwanda requires that we distinguish between inaction in foreign policy, or failures of political will, from taking the wrong action, or failures of policy selection. Lessons drawn from failures of political will are a common thread in Annan’s obituaries: First, the Responsibility to Protect doctrine, or R2P, a norm unanimously adopted by the General Assembly in 2005 and the Security Council in 2006, was a multilateral acknowledgment of past failures and an effort to create new standards for intervention. Under R2P, if a state fails to protect its population from mass atrocities and other peaceful measures have failed, the international community has the responsibility to intervene using more coercive measures, with military intervention as a last resort. But even with R2P in place, coercive measures still require powerful states to be willing to act. Indeed, in the years since R2P’s unanimous adoption, the levers the international community is willing and able to pull have left the mounting dead uncounted in South Sudan, the residents of Aleppo documenting their deaths for us online, and the Rohingya painstaking amassing their own evidence of the crimes against humanity committed against them. Changing standards for intervention, as R2P sought to do, has proved to be an insufficient response to perceived inaction.

Peacekeeping has also transformed in part because of the perceived inaction in Rwanda — UNAMIR was not authorized to use force, and one policy lesson that emerged from the UN’s post-Rwanda reckoning was that peacekeepers ought to use force in defense of civilians under imminent threat of violence. The Security Council has since moved to authorize all complex peace operations to use force; today, most peacekeepers have this authorization, even though they rarely use force, and particularly struggle to use force in defense of civilians against government forces. Both R2P and shifts in peacekeeping are responses to perceived failures of political will; drawn from the idea that the international community failed to act in Rwanda, they seek to make it easier for the international community to act when faced with another situation where mass death threatens civilians.

Examining failures of policy selection produces a different set of lessons — lessons that push us away from categorical doctrines and towards both contextually specific decision-making; towards genocide prevention and managing the root causes of conflict; and towards better funding for agreement implementation.

First, responding to the changing context of intervention is key. The UN has never been a nimble organization, but a crucial lesson from the Arusha Peace Process is that powerful actors have to be willing and able to recognize when diplomatic processes have failed, either because of bad faith participants or because an agreement is too difficult to implement. This kind of course correction is difficult for any political or bureaucratic body, but vital when faced with fluid, violent situations.

Second, the contingency and speed with which mass atrocities can unfold make it difficult to anticipate the correct tools for stopping bloodshed once it has begun. Accordingly, analysts and decisionmakers emphasize the importance of early warning systems, preventive diplomacy in the face of escalation, and funding programs that address the root causes of conflict. These are long-range solutions to unpredictable problems which are invisible if they are successful, but the Rwandan case demonstrates the difficulty of multilateral crisis management once violence is underway.

Third, implementing the Arusha agreement was prohibitively expensive for Rwandans, and multilateral organizations struggled to raise funds for the agreement’s key provisions. Powerful spoilers at Arusha could have launched a genocide and collapsed the agreement regardless of the funding situation, but securing multilateral funding while an agreement is being negotiated is another lesson from international involvement in the Rwandan case.

Given that so many people perished in Rwanda so quickly and so horrifically, focusing on the indifference that left people to die is certainly understandable. Moreover, political will is inextricable from most calculations about intervention. But the parable of the Rwandan genocide — a story about clear abandonment in the face of clear, avoidable calamity — must be understood within the context of the insufficient measures the UN and its member states took before the genocide. The violent processes that produce mass atrocity continue today, and so too do the half-measures and earnest efforts policymakers take to try and forestall the next Rwanda.


Anjali Dayal is an assistant professor of international politics at Fordham University. She researches and writes about the UN Security Council, peacekeeping, peace processes, and humanitarian intervention. 

Image: UNAMIR/Flickr