Rwanda Genocide and Role of the United Nations

Subject: Literature
Pages: 7
Words: 2078
Reading time:
8 min
Study level: PhD

The autobiographical book “Shake Hands with the Devil. The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda”, written by Romeo Dellaire, describes the events, which took place in this country in 1994, commonly known as Rwanda Genocide. In particular, it explores the underlying causes of this catastrophe and the failure of the United Nations to prevent it. The author of this book, Romeo Dellaire is the former head of UNAMIR (the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda), and in his opinion, this tragedy could have been averted if the UN had been more resolute. Furthermore, he argues that the genocide in this country was not unpredictable, and the international community should have set an alarm much earlier. This book is full of many convincing examples, proving Romeo Dellaires point of view. His first-hand experience may be invaluable to people, studying the dynamics of genocide in African countries. Despite the fact that this book cannot be regarded as a scholarly work, because Romeo Dellaire does not base his argument on the evidence of other scholars, students majoring in political science or international relations may find it extremely helpful. Apart from that, one cannot overlook the emotional aspect, the author makes the reader to live through his experience and those horrible events virtually come alive.

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In order to better evaluate this book, it is necessary to know family background of Romeo Dellaire because it immensely influenced his world-view and his beliefs. The author’s father was a non-commissioned officer, and he implanted some of his principles to his son. First, as the author says that service in army practically turned for him into a way of life. Moreover, his parents taught Dellaire to “look beyond ones self-interest” (Dellaire, 12). Partly, this is the reason why he decided to commit his thoughts to paper.

His book clearly identifies the reasons why the UN could not intervene and stop the massacres. It should be pointed out the main purpose of this organization is to achieve and keep peace. Apparently, at that particular moment, it failed to cope with this task. The author provides compelling evidence that the situation in Rwanda was extremely tense at that moment and his views are supported by many other scholars.

For instance, Bruce Jones says that the truce, concluded by the two sides of this conflict was just a short recess (Bruce Jones, 16). In his view, segregation between the two peoples of Rwanda began in the colonial period of this country, and the hostility between Hutu and Tutsi has often become tense. As Dellaire argues the first signs of conspiracy appeared much earlier, “I was beginning to pick up the scent of a mysterious third force that seemed to be behind all the killings and assassinations. On December 3, I received a letter signed by a group of senior RGF and Gendarmerie officers, which informed me that that there were elements close to the president who were out to sabotage the peace process”(Dellaire, 121). The existence of such third or shadow force in Rwanda was not terra incognita to the international community or at least to the United Nations, but the validity of such data was always disputed or probably these facts were deliberately ignored. This is by far the most persuasive evidence that eloquently substantiates Dellaire’s argument. The fact that UN leaders chose to ignore Romeo Dellaires warning speaks volumes for in support of his views.

Naturally, this information could have been unreliable and at that moment, it could not give rise to the UN intervention to Rwanda: however, under no circumstances, it could be overlooked. Additionally, the author states that the UN should have paid close attention to Rwanda immediately after the assassination of Juvénal Habyarimana, the then president of the country (Romeo Dellaire, 224). It should be borne in mind that he was of Hutu origin and his death could easily spark off a wave of violence between two ethnic groups, who have always been at enmity with each other.

Romeo Dellaire, a witness to those events, says that the propagandists called Tutsi people “cockroaches”, who should be destroyed (Romeo Dellaire, 142). Certainly, he immediately filed a report about this propaganda but his admonitions went disregarded. Romeo Dellaire does only analyze the factors which led Rwanda genocide; he also accurately renders the atmospere of that time, especially its suspense and the escalation of fear.

Even now, one cannot identify the causes of such neglectful attitude. It seems almost inconceivable that the UN leadership could not pay attention to the alarm, set by Dellaires but at that point they believed that the likelihood of genocide in Rwanda was very little, or, perhaps, this organization preferred to be a mere onlooker of the event.

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On the one hand, we can speak about the lack of coordination or trust between the UN members. As Romeo Dellaire argues, he tried to persuade the UN leadership to take certain preventive measures but they did not think that the information was reliable. Moreover, one has to take into consideration that the UN intervention policy imposes certain restrictions on this organization. For instance, the UN peacekeeping forces have no right to interfere into the countrys affairs without the permission of the government unless there is the danger of a military conflict or genocide (Scharf, 621). If the UN had deployed peacekeeping forces in Rwanda even before the conflict, it is very unlikely that they would have been accused of violating international laws, because they had every reason to believe that the situation in the country was unstable. Then, it is necessary to answer the question why the United Nations did not classify the situation in Rwanda as highly dangerous.

There is a widely held opinion among many diplomats and sociologists that the failure of the UN to avert mass killings can be ascribed to ignorance or misinterpretation of facts. Judging from Romeo Dellaires book, people, responsible for the peacekeeping in this region were neither ignorant nor misinformed. The views expressed by the author are supported by many other scholars. For example, Michael Barnet believes that this inaction was deliberate. Apart from that, he is firmly convinced that this organization has always assumed somewhat passive attitude towards the international conflicts. In his opinion, the reluctance to intervene can be explained by many bureaucratic mechanisms, which hinder the decision-making process or even make it impossible (Barnet, 31). Yet, it seems that bureaucracy is just a result of the policies, pursued by some members of the United Nations.

Furthermore, we cannot forget about such very important aspect as competence. In order to evaluate the situation in Rwanda or in any foreign country, the leaders of the United Nations have to be well aware of this regions cultural and historical background. Romeo Dellaire states that peacekeepers, who work in African countries, often have no idea about the history of a particular society. The author states that at that moment, the international community did not realize all the complexities of life in Rwanda, he says that even scholarly articles “reduced a highly complex social and political situation to a simple inter-tribal conflict” (Dellaire, 47).

One of the main problems is that the UN officials did not take this danger seriously because they thought that the peacekeeping forces would be able to resolve this conflict in a very short time. In their opinion, such complex conspiracy could not be organized in Rwanda. Among failures of the United Nations, Romeo Dellaire speaks of bureaucracy and the lack of coordination, which also put obstacles, very difficult to surmount; especially, it concerns the evacuation of Tutsi refugees.

This view is supported by many authors, such as for instance Michael Barnet. According to him, the report, proving that killings in Rwanda were nothing else but an act of genocide, was submitted to the UN as soon as this conflict broke out. It turns out that it was not even heard (Barnet, 64). It seems that this fact is a very weighty argument that substantiates Dellaires opinion. However, it indicates not only of bureaucracy but of reluctance to act as well. Romeo Dellaire is puzzled by this “unwillingness” to take any measures (Romeo Dellaire, 173). The author is unable to understand why those countries (such as the United States, France, Germany), who have always advocated tolerance, cultural diversity, freedom of speech or any other democratic values, could ignore blatant violations of human rights.

In this regard, we should say that Romeo Dellaire places emphasis on the negative impact of the United States. He says that the US government “actively worked against an effective UNAMIR” (Dellaire, 517). Such statement can be substantiated by several facts: first, the government of this country constantly denied the very fact of genocide. The author says that he was subjected to heavy criticism for his initiative to intervene into the internal affairs of Rwanda. Naturally, Dellaire doe not explicitly state it but his argument suggests that some people, who could have prevented or at least minimize the consequences of Rwanda conflict, must be made answerable for their actions or inaction, to be more exact..In fact, from legal perspective such behavior can be interpreted as complicity in crime.

Now that we have ascertained that, the international community was fully aware of the political and cultural situation in Rwanda, it is necessary to identify the underlying cause of the UN failure. As it has been mentioned before, it can be partly explained by bureaucratic hindrances or the lack of coordination, however, it appears that these are just the consequences.

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Dellaire believes that developed countries simply did not want to “to throw money at all the country’s complicated problems” (Dellaire, 55). At first glance, such statement may seem outrageous. However, we should not forget that peacekeeping missions are very expensive. The point is that many countries paid more attention to the financial aspects of this issue and they clearly did not intend to spend money on the deployment of soldiers to Rwanda. For instance, the Congress of the United States was disinclined increase expenses and the then president Bill Clinton did not dare object. The ambassador of the United States said in a very non-very non-committal manner, “It is now up to the Rwandans themselves to ensure that the transition to democracy moves forward” (Barnett, 72). In fact, Rwanda people were left to their own devices. In addition to that, we should say that that the developing countries did not want to sacrifice the lives of their soldiers. At first, such argument can be quite understandable but it should be taken into account that such organization as the United Nations was created for the sole purpose preventing the catastrophes similar to Rwanda genocide. The events in this African country cast doubt on the effectiveness of the UN and require certain changes in the structure and policy of this international organization.

Certainly, we should not limit this problem only to the financial aspect, probably it would be more prudent to discuss it a complex, but the opinion, expressed by Romeo Dellaire and subsequently by Michael Barnett cannot be overlooked. No one can deny that the United Nations is a dependant organization and its decision can be influenced by its leading members, who may be more concerned with financial problems but not the goals that the United Nations usually sets.

As it has been mentioned before, Dellaire describes all that frustration, experienced by people, inoolved in this peacekeeping operation. He says, “I was starting to get embroiled in the same frustrations”. Every delay, every failure to save lives of innocent people left a deep scar in his soul and the souls of other UN soldiers, who were trying to stop massacres.

Thus, having analyzed the book “Shake Hands with the Devil: the Failure of Humanity in Rwanda” by Romeo Dellaire, we can draw the following conclusions: the failure of the UN to prevent the act of genocide can be explained by such reasons as incompetence of the officials, who could not objectively estimate political and cultural situation in Rwanda. Secondly, we should speak about bureaucratic obstacles, which also contributed to such outcome. Nevertheless, the root cause of the failure is the reluctance of several UN members to intervene into the affairs of this country. Romeo Dellaires book is brilliant combination of autobiography and histotical study.Although the author mostly focuses on his personal experience, his book will definitely give rise other scholarly works. The analysis of genocide in African countries would be incomplete without Romeo Dellaires book.


Alain Destexhe. “Rwanda and Genocide in the Twentieth Century: Study in Genocide”. Pluto Press, 1995.

Bruce D. Jones. “Peacemaking in Rwanda: The Dynamics of Failure”. Lynne Rienner, 2001.

Christopher C. Taylor. “Sacrifice as Terror: The Rwandan Genocide of 1994”. Berg, 1999.

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Linda Melvern. “Conspiracy to Murder: The Rwandan Genocide”. Verso, 2006.

Michael N. Barnett. “Eyewitness to a Genocide: The United Nations and Rwanda”. Cornell University Press, 2003.

Michael P. Scharf. “Responding to Rwanda: Accountability Mechanisms in the Aftermath of Genocide” “Journal of International Affairs”, (3), 2, p 621, 2002.

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Romeo Dellaire. Brent Beardsley. “Shake Hands with the Devil: the Failure of Humanity in Rwanda” Carroll & Graf Publishers, 2004.

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Susan E. Cook. “Genocide in Cambodia and Rwanda: New Perspectives”. Transaction Publishers, 2005.