Rwanda, the UN, & Africa’s Dangerous Diplomacy

Rwanda, UN, diplomacy, democracy in Africa
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How and why did diplomacy go wrong during the Rwandan genocide? How does the United Nations engage with Africa, and what are the implications for the protection of human rights? Herman T. Salton explains how his important new book helps to answer these questions by focussing our attention not on Rwanda, or the Security Council, but on the UN’s New York Secretariat …

A key theatre for United Nations operations since the organization’s inception, Africa has rarely been a decision-maker in UN-sponsored missions. The continent has often been short-changed by high-level power-political deals in New York, where decisions about Africa tend to be made by non-Africans and reflect the wishes of Great Powers, rather than the needs of the continent and its people. Indeed, Africa is still being treated as a useful colonial outpost by some of the most influential capitals, including emerging, non-Western ones such as Beijing.

Is this a stereotype or a correct characterization of how African and UN politics interact? My latest book, which is based on new sources, both supports and undermines the above assessment. On the one hand, it confirms the uses (and abuses) of the UN system—especially the Secretariat—by some of its most influential members. On the other, it brings home some uncomfortable truths about African decision-makers, particularly their eagerness to use UN resources and shape UN institutions in pursuit of their own goals, including career goals.

Although my project deals with a tragic subject—the Rwandan genocide—about which much has been written, it focuses on the New York Secretariat rather than the events in Kigali or the Security Council. There are two reasons why this hadn’t been done before: first, a lack of primary documents that made it impossible to reconstruct the reactions of UN Headquarters to the unfolding crisis; and second, an assumption that the Secretariat merely executes—rather than actively crafts—UN policies under the aegis of the Secretary-General, who controls it.

This is a mischaracterization that conceals the high level of fragmentation of the UN Secretariat as well as the ways an influential but long-neglected part of the UN organization—its bureaucracy—works (or doesn’t) and why. Although the decisions of UN officials supposedly depend on the SG’s instructions—who in turn theoretically acts on behalf of, or at least in coordination with, the Security Council—my book shows that this is not what happened in Rwanda in 1994. Indeed, decisions were made by lower echelons of the Secretariat that conformed more to the wishes of the Great Powers than to those of their boss, the SG. How did the UN’s first ever African SG—one who had taken office determined to increase UN action in Africa—found himself blamed for inaction during a genocide that happened in the heart of Africa?

Although the reasons are multifaceted, a dearth of Africa expertise and officials on the upper floors of the UN bureaucracy cannot account for the unresponsiveness of parts of the UN Secretariat to events in Rwanda. All top UN officials involved in Rwanda were Africans: Boutros Boutros-Ghali, the SG who was an Africa specialist and who had made the continent the centerpiece of his mandate; Kofi Annan, who was the then head of UN peacekeeping and who became SG when Boutros-Ghali was unceremoniously denied a second term by Washington; Iqbal Riza, who was Annan’s right-hand man and a key UN decision-maker; and James Jonah, the long-term UN veteran who headed the UN Political Affairs office. This was an ideal line-up of African experts who came from—and understood—the continent’s needs.

What went wrong? First, UN officials disagreed over the proper course of action after the genocide began, and the reasons for such disagreements are as fascinating as the quarrels themselves, since they are linked to intra-departmental rivalries, the influence the SG and the Great Powers exercised over each UN department, and Great Power rivalries, all of which contributed to turn the UN into a bystander (if not an accomplice) to genocide. Secondly and as a result, the continent’s ‘needs’ were hardly in the foreground in 1994, when certain UN departments assumed certain positions not on the basis of what was best for Rwanda, but in order to meet the (real or presumed) wishes of Washington, Paris, London and indeed Kigali. The fact that the then SG despised some of his officials and kept them in the dark, while those officials retaliated by withdrawing critical intelligence, compounded the matter. The tragic outcome was that the independence of the international civil service—and its ability to provide impartial advice to member states—was sacrificed on the altar of political expediency.

Had states wished to intervene in Rwanda in 1994, it is likely that the SG and ‘his’ bureaucracy would have followed suit. This appears to endorse the realist viewpoint that it is the Great Powers that matter in New York. This may be true, but the challenge for those who believe that, in the context of mass atrocities, the UN organization should care first and foremost for the world’s people, rather than for their governments, is one of providing independent advice to states no matter how unpalatable that advice may sound to the world’s capitals. After all, it is the SG and the international civil servants who are the custodians of the Charter of the United Nations, an organization that was set up to prevent another Holocaust. What the events of 1994 show, therefore, is not so much a neglect of Africa by non-Africans, but an opportunistic use of the world’s pre-eminent bureaucracy by everybody, Africans and non-Africans, international bureaucrats and national diplomats alike. Ultimately, to be short-changed in 1994 was not Africa but the UN Charter and, with it, one of the organization’s funding aims.


Herman T. Salton is an Associate Professor of International Relations at the Department of Politics and International Studies, International Christian University (ICU), in Tokyo, Japan.

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