Global Policy Forum

When the UN Fails, We All Do


By Fareed Zakaria

December 13, 2004

'In a sense things got better after the peacekeepers left,' Rusesabagina told me. 'People realized no one was going to help them'

You have never heard of Paul Rusesabagina. But if you watch the stunning new movie "Hotel Rwanda," you will never forget him. The movie tells the true story of Rusesabagina, an "ordinary" Rwandan, a hotel manager, who was able to shelter and save more than 1,200 people—Tutsis and Hutus—in the midst of the Rwandan genocide. He is a Rwandan Schindler, who in a series of amazing improvisations—using contacts, skills and herculean effort—managed to keep his flock alive. In the movie, as in real life, the world does nothing. Actually, perhaps worse than nothing. Belgian peacekeepers, under the United Nations flag, watched as the carnage unfolded. In the 100 days beginning April 6, 1994, Hutu gangs, aided by the Hutu Army, killed almost 1 million Tutsis and moderate Hutus—the fastest genocide in human history.

Rwanda was a failure at almost every level, but certainly it was a failure of the United Nations. But let us be clear what we mean by that. It was the major powers—the United States, Britain, France—that determined the exact nature of the peacekeeping mission. It was they who insisted that the force stay neutral. (France's actions were even less edifying, since it was reportedly a big supplier of the Hutu Army.) The United Nations failed in Rwanda because we failed.

This logic holds even in the messy scandal over the Oil-for-Food Program, a badly managed affair surrounded by corruption. But who designed the Oil-for-Food Program? The United States and Britain. They wrote the rules that allowed Saddam Hussein to choose his trading partners, banks and consultants. They vetted every one of the 30,000 contracts that passed through the program. They held up 5,000 over concerns about materials that could be used for weapons of mass destruction, but not one over concerns about corruption. Saddam's major revenues actually came from smuggling, which was an activity the United Nations was not mandated to stop. The only ones who could have stopped it were the ones with military force in the region—the United States and Britain. The truth is that Washington—during both the Clinton and the Bush years—cared little about Iraq's corruption. It cared only about its weapons.

And yet and yet. The United Nations is not simply a reflection of its major members, but a vast organization with a distinct culture and code—one in desperate need of repair. If the major powers have cynically tossed tasks over to the U.N. that they do not want to do—and yet want to seem to be doing something—the U.N. has happily taken them, eager to prove its relevance and importance. Given the enormous expansion of its responsibilities since the end of the cold war, it has not structured itself to provide professional and competent management. It has some remarkable successes to its credit—Mozambique, East Timor, El Salvador—but also real failures. Oil-for-Food and the sexual scandals in Congo are examples of abysmal management, and there must be consequences. Kofi Annan has been the most reform-minded secretary-general in the U.N.'s history, but he needs to do much more, and fast; otherwise he will find himself doing too little, too late. For its part, the United States should stop sitting on the sidelines, enjoying the U.N.'s troubles. Only an active American involvement with reform will make it happen. And when the U.N. works well—from Gulf War I to Afghanistan to East Timor—it is a great asset to the United States.

But real reform means realistic reform, not more fantasies. U.N. peacekeeping in particular needs fundamental rethinking. If countries will not sanction a force robust enough to do the job, then the U.N. should have the courage to refuse the mission. Otherwise its forces will always remain, as the old saw goes, too big to hide and too small to succeed. This sounds cruel but, really, how is it different from what is happening right now? What exactly are U.N. forces doing in Congo? At least in Sudan, where the U.N. is largely uninvolved, there is no pretense of an international effort to stop the savagery. And people can point the finger where they should, at countries near and far that are doing little about it.

Whatever the U.N. might say about the rules of engagement and who drew them up, the reality on the ground is that when the U.N. goes into these grim parts of the world, people see the blue helmets and U.N. flag and believe that help has arrived. By its very presence the United Nations is offering hope—and it is cruel to offer false hope. "In a sense, things got better after the peacekeepers left," the real Paul Rusesabagina said to me after the movie. "People realized that no one was going to help them and took matters into their own hands." If we will not help men like Rusesabagina, let us at least not lie to them.

More Information on the Security Council
More Information on Peacekeeping Lessons from Past Experience
More Information on Peacekeeping
More Information on the Oil-for-Food Programme


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