Failed Leadership In the UN



Hundreds of thousands of Tutsi corpses lay rotting in the streets after the brutal genocide in Rwanda. In merely 100 days, 800,000 Tutsis were hacked to death by Hutu machetes simply because of their ethnicity.  And it would be expected that during such a horrendous violation of human rights, humanitarian aid would have rushed into Rwanda to provide safety and refuge for the hunted Tutsis.  It would be expected to that the aid industry and the United Nations would try to limit the deaths brought on by genocide.  However, during the Rwandan genocide, no help from any Western government or aid organization was to be found. In fact, “policymakers in France, Belgium, and the United States and at the United Nations were aware of the preparations for massive slaughter and failed to take the steps needed to prevent it” (United Human Rights Council).  Why? What was more important than protecting 800,000 innocent lives?

As a contributing author to the book Emergency Sex And Other Desperate Measures: True Stories From A War Zone, Kenneth Cain retells personal experiences in Rwanda in which he grapples with why the United Nations failed to intervene during the genocide. Cain points out that UN troops were already in Rwanda before the genocide started (206). Cain explains “this is not a case when the UN failed to send troops to stop genocide. An armed, predeployed UN force evacuated as soon as it started” (206). Why did they leave as soon as crisis started? Although the real reasons may never be uncovered, Cain argues that UN leadership is a contributing factor. Kofi Annan, UN Secretary General, is a major recipient of Cain’s criticisms. During the Rwandan genocide, Annan ordered General Romeo Dallaire, the then head of UN peacekeeping, “to defend only the UN’s image of impartiality, forbidding him to protect desperate civilians waiting to die. Next, it details the withdrawal of UN troops, even while blood flowed and the assassins reigned, leaving 800,000 Rwandans to their fate” (Cain). If Annan had instead ordered UN troops to protect Tutsi lives, would the genocide have been stopped? Although it is impossible to say, it is easy to believe that some lives could have been saved, and with the UN as initiators, Western governments may have later stepped in to end the genocide with the additional use of force.

Cain argues that a main reason the UN did not intervene was because of failure in Somalia and the threat of danger to UN troops. He refers to UN action in Somalia, in which “eighteen Americans die and we [the UN] split” (216).  He goes on the say that the “they knew the UN would never fight, and we’d pull out right away. Which we did” (216). Because of the impending threat of danger in Rwanda, and not wanting to relive the failures in Somalia, the UN decided to essentially ignore the genocide, and “so the Tutsis died a thousands deaths for our cowardice” (215). Why was the United Nations so afraid to risk its own lives? It would seem they were probably worried about tainting the image of the United Nations as an organization. Losing American lives, no matter what the situation, is an event never accepted well by the public. Because there was so much risk in sending UN workers into Rwanda, the possibility of failure was real for Annan. With the fear of negative reporting, criticism by Western societies, and possibly losing his job, Annan probably decided his best option was to not intervene at all. For many aid organizations, saving their reputation and ensuring continued funding are more of a priority than providing aid in areas of crisis. The situation in Rwanda exemplifies this kind of corruption. Like Cain, I agree that the United Nations must revisit their priorities and principles so crises, like the Rwandan genocide, are never allowed to go on with out the assistance of humanitarian aid. 

And although this fearfulness was an important factor, another important contributor was the lack of accountability within the UN. No one questioned Annan’s decision to not intervene in Rwanda. No one asked whether using force, and possibly losing the lives of a few UN troops, might have been worth saving 800,000 innocent people. Cain wonders “how many genocides, the prevention of which is the UN’s very raison d’être, will we endure before the left is moved to criticize Annan?” (Cain). No one is holding Annan accountable for his actions, and it seems that Anna is also failing to uphold accountability within the UN.

Annan failed, and still fails, to hold UN leaders responsible for their corrupt actions. Cain refers UN leaders who would misuse funds to gain a personal profit and pressure young workers into sexual relationships. When Cain reported this to UN officials, they responded “it happens all the time in the field. There is nothing we can do” (Cain).  What kind of leadership allows corruption like this to happen? Cain argues that the UN needs a leader who is not afraid to take risks to save the lives of others. He explains,  “at the very least, he [Annan] could go down trying to save lives, as opposed to going down trying to explain why he didn’t” (Cain). This kind of corruption seems to remain under the radar because the United Nations would never want to be associated with such a scandal. Society views the United Nations, and other aid organizations, with respect and prestige. Therefore, the public and the media alike are often hesitant criticize the aid industry. Therefore, leaders like Annan are able to continue to lead the UN and corruption goes unquestioned. For this kind of problem to be properly handled, the public must speak up about their dissatisfaction with organizations like the UN. Until our frustration with the aid industry is made known, nothing will change. For current victims of crisis, like those in Syria, this is essential. We cannot allow corrupt humanitarian aid practices to keep Syria from receiving effective aid. The United Nations needs to be examined and held accountable for their work in Syria so that we do not visit this situation with the same criticisms as Rwanda.

Annan seems too preoccupied with upholding the “image” of the United Nations to be concerned with intentional crises. Annan ensures that corrupt acts go unreported and violence is avoided to give the UN a “clean” appearance.  As a result, the needs of victims are ignored and innocent lives are lost. As the UN moves forward with current crises, new leadership must be instilled. We must not be afraid to criticize the actions of the UN. If leaders like Annan are not criticized, disasters such as that in Syria may end in tragedy even worse than Rwanda.



Cain, Kenneth. “How Many More Must Die before Kofi Quits?” Web.

Cain, Kenneth, Heidi Postlewait, and Andrew Thomson. Emergency Sex (and Other Desperate Measures): True Stories from a War Zone. London: Ebury, 2004. Print.

United Human Rights Council. “Genocide in Rwanda.” N.p., n.d. Web. <>.

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