As United National Turns 75, Michael Barnett, former UN employee’s expose’ reignites the debate on the role and structure of United Nations and the urgent need to reform it.
Why was the UN a bystander during the Rwandan genocide? Do its sins of omission leave it morally responsible for the hundreds of thousands of dead? Michael Barnett, who worked at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations from 1993 to 1994, covered Rwanda for much of the genocide. Based on his first-hand experiences, archival work, and interviews with many key participants, he reconstructs the history of the UN’s involvement in Rwanda.
In the weeks leading up to the genocide, the author documents, the UN was increasingly aware or had good reason to suspect that Rwanda was a site of crimes against humanity. Yet it failed to act. Barnett argues that its indifference was driven not by incompetence or cynicism but rather by reasoned choices cradled by moral considerations. Employing a novel approach to ethics in practice and in relationship to international organizations, Barnett offers an unsettling possibility: the UN culture recast the ethical commitments of well-intentioned individuals, arresting any duty to aid at the outset of the genocide.
Barnett argues that the UN bears some moral responsibility for the genocide. Particularly disturbing is his observation that not only did the UN violate its moral responsibilities, but also that many in New York believed that they were “doing the right thing” as they did so. Barnett addresses the ways in which the Rwandan genocide raises a warning about this age of humanitarianism and concludes by asking whether it is possible to build moral institutions.
Here are excerpts from the book:
The international community contains transcendental values. Progress, human rights, development—such values are accorded a Kantian quality and viewed as the constitutional fabric of the international community. These values transcend the nation-states that formally comprise the international system. The UN is more than an instrument of member states. It is also the concrete expression of the hopes and ideals of the international community. UN staff often talk about the UN as if it were a church, suggesting that they are guardians of a religion whose tenets are transcendental.13 Even doubting states observe the High Holidays.
New York, as headquarters is referred to by UN hands, developed peacekeeping rules that limited who would qualify for relief and assistance; developed a system of thought that helped them to maintain a faith in the val
10 Eyewitness to a Genocide ues of the international community, even while acting in ways that potentially violated those values; and developed a sense of powerlessness that could lead them to deny their capacity for action. After sobering experiences in the field and a more realistic appraisal of the foundations of peacekeeping, New York developed a more precise and restricted set of rules to
determine when peacekeeping was appropriate and how peacekeepers should operate in the field. Peacekeeping was appropriate when there was a “peace to keep”; peacekeepers should follow the principles of neutrality,impartiality, and consent. The reason for these rules was the recognition
that the misapplication of peacekeeping was leading both to costly failures in the field and to fatal damage to the institution. But another consequence of these rules was the reduced likelihood that peacekeepers would be deployed during moments of mass human suffering. Those at the UN, member states and staff alike, were overwhelmed by the sheer number of worthy
cases. They used the peacekeeping rules to discriminate between those who could and those who could not be helped. Virtue could be found in helping those who could not help themselves because such action could help
maintain the health of the UN. A malnourished and overused UN was highly dependent on the whims of the volatile Great Powers. In response, UN staff began to deny their own responsibility and capacity to act. Time and again, UN officials used words like servants and subordinates, self-effacing descriptions that they delivered sarcastically but which betrayed their feelings of vulnerability. The
tremulous times at the UN and the constant reminder by powerful patrons not to cross any red lines encouraged UN staff to adopt a “pragmatic” and highly cautious approach to world events. The development of more discriminating rules of peacekeeping, of a system of thought that found virtue
in detachment, and of a growing sense of powerlessness meant that UN staff could find some redemption, even moral solace, in the decision not to intervene.”
(The book is available at: https://www.amazon.in/Eyewitness-Genocide-United-Nations-Rwanda/dp/0801438837)