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The Failure of UNAMIR (The Rwandan Genocide) Essay

Updated on February 27, 2014

By Xuan Chau and Benjamin Smith

Please do not re-distribute this article without the authors' consent. Thank you!

Hundreds of thousands of Africans were killed during the genocide. A scene of attack is depicted in this photo. Corpses lay on the ground.
Hundreds of thousands of Africans were killed during the genocide. A scene of attack is depicted in this photo. Corpses lay on the ground.
UNAMIR medal
UNAMIR medal

What was the Rwandan Genocide?

The Rwandan Genocide was an event consisting of the persecution and mass killing of the Tutsi minority by the Hutu majority in the African state of Rwanda. Around 800,000 Tutsi people were killed over a hundred day genocide in 1994, according to the Human Rights Watch. This impactful yet brief genocide was preceded by ethnic conflicts between the Tutsis, who controlled most government power, and the lesser Hutus which made up about 85 percent of the state’s population (Rwanda- UNAMIR Background). To control the increasing tensions between the populations, the United Nations organization created a new mission named the “United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda”, or UNAMIR (Rwanda- UNAMIR Background). Unfortunately, despite their efforts, the mission ended up being of little avail to help prevent or end the genocide. Many involved people and historians today are still unsatisfied by the limited impact this mission had on controlling the killings in Rwanda. However, some believe that UNAMIR had the correct approach, as it managed to help thousands with its very limited, but manageable resources. This brings up a disputed question as to exactly how effective UNAMIR was in saving the lives of citizens during the Rwandan Genocide. While thousands of both Hutus and Tutsis were saved, it is debated whether the mission, given the needed resources and support, could have saved many more than it did. Because of the multitude of issues and obstacles restraining the mission, UNAMIR was ineffective and failed to protect the people of Rwanda, which led to the deaths of hundreds of thousands.

Rwandan refugee camp
Rwandan refugee camp

Background and Surrounding Events

Tension between ethnic groups was established long before the genocide began. The Rwandan Patriotic Front, or RPF, worsened the relationship between Tutsis and Hutus by invading northern Rwanda in an attempt to overthrow the Hutu government. Rwanda plunged into a state of civil war after this event. The mass killings that followed the assassination of the former Rwandan president created an uncontrolled and destructive era in the already unstable African state. On October 5, 1993, UNAMIR was established with the aim of “stressing the importance of the Arusha Peace Agreement to the peaceful resolution of the conflict in Rwanda” (Resolution 918). However, when a genocide became apparent, UNAMIR’s objective changed and refocused on protecting and aiding the Tutsis from attack. Unprepared for such a battle and unsupported by the UN, UNAMIR troops did the best they could to protect citizens. Unfortunately, they were restrained by a multitude of vague regulatory mandates which rendered them legally powerless. Still, the persistence of military officers helped to save many citizens. The defeat of UNAMIR could have been prevented through proper attention, a better overall foundation, and especially a clearer mandate.

Poor foundations and lack of support

At the root of UNAMIR’s problems was a poor foundation. It was created under chapter VI of the United Nations charter, a document under which the most forceful action permitted is that “The Security Council may, at any stage of a dispute of the nature referred to in Article 33 or of a situation of like nature, recommend appropriate procedures or methods of adjustment” (Chapter VI). This lack of force was mirrored in the actual mandate of UNAMIR. It was to primarily observe the cease fire, the government security, and the repatriation of Rwandan refugees, as well as assist humanitarian relief projects. The UN also wanted to attempt to reduce the maximum strength of UNAMIR, if they could do it without causing UNAMIR to perform its duty to a lesser extent (Resolution 872). While this may have been a wise decision at the time it caused the active foreign force in Rwanda to be completely unprepared for the genocide, which severely limited its effectiveness when the killing began. This is seen in the fact that in the first few hours when the UN was contacted and told “UNAMIR might have to use force to save the Prime Minister” the UN responded with “UNAMIR was not to fire until fired upon. Our personnel who were overpowered without fire” (significant incident report). Of course UNAMIR would not be fired upon because the genocide was fully focused on a completely separate group of people, and if they were not allowed to use force to save a prime minister, they most certainly were not allowed to use force to save a civilian. Therefore all UNAMIR could do was attempt to aid the survivors, a task they were only meant to assist with in the first place. Until their mandate changed they were unable to do anything else. When it comes to saving civilian lives during a genocide, an organization not allowed to use force and with only the resources to assist with humanitarian programs on a much smaller scale is highly ineffectual, and that is exactly what UNAMIR was.

The responsibilities of the mission

It was not until the 21st of April, 15 days after the genocide began, that the mandate was changed. UNAMIR was to negotiate a cease fire, and was to once again assist with humanitarian aid (Resolution 912). They were not, however, much more effective after that. They still had far too few resources.This is evident as Resolution 918, a month later, authorized an UNAMIR force increase of 5,500 troops. It is also only at this time that UNAMIR was authorized to “contribute to the security and protection of displaced persons” and “provide security and support for the distribution of relief supplies and humanitarian relief operations” (resolution 918). This of course means that these were things that UNAMIR was not allowed to do before. At this point UNAMIR had the authorization and resources to begin truly assisting the civilians of Rwanda during this time of strife. The problem with that plan was that they didn’t actually have the resources, and the cease fire negotiations went nowhere. Two and a half months later the 5.5 thousand troops had not arrived and the peace talks were at a standstill. UNAMIR was unable to negotiate a cease fire and with severely limited resources it could do little in the way of humanitarian assistance, with tens of thousands dying of cholera (security general). With these limited resources there were hospitals with staffs of 50, that had taken in 6 thousand civilians, and so many were being killed by those committing the genocide that even if more resources were to be provided, it would still not do as much as a cease fire (Lewis). Even after they were given time to react the UN’s implementation of measures that would allow UNAMIR to effectively mitigate loss of life in the genocide was slow, causing weeks in which nothing could be done. Then, when UNAMIR is allowed to assist properly, it lacks the resources to do so because America had a majority who decided that they were doing all that they should and after Somalia did not want to enter into any similar situations (Power), and Europe had very little stake in the matter. The ineffectiveness of UNAMIR was even acknowledged by the UN when they created Operation Turquoise. They say that the new institutions are in place for a set time “unless the Secretary-General determines at an earlier date that the expanded UNAMIR is able to carry out its mandate” (Resolution 929). This is a statement that UNAMIR was not able to carry out its mandate of protecting displaced civilians and humanitarian interests. Not only was the UN saying that UNAMIR was ineffective, they were saying that UNAMIR would continue to be ineffective for such a long time that it would be beneficial to create an entirely new organization to handle some of UNAMIR’s responsibilities.

This official report/document states (at 27), "The rules of engagement were confirmed that UNAMIR was not to fire until fired upon. Our personnel who were overpowered without fire".
This official report/document states (at 27), "The rules of engagement were confirmed that UNAMIR was not to fire until fired upon. Our personnel who were overpowered without fire".

Clearly, UNAMIR was a mission of significant potential, but was impeded by the many laws, unclear mandates, and lack of support from contributors. One may think that a problematic struggle like the Rwandan Genocide, which may have killed up to a million people, would receive far more attention and care. Unfortunately, a mission that had a chance to save the lives of hundreds of thousands was only capable of saving a few thousand people. Lack of care and attention in future situations may lead to the same consequences. The failed mission of UNAMIR shows the impact of a poorly organized and unaided effort. If we are to protect people in the future, we must recognize the cause of UNAMIR’s failure, and work to understand our problems more thoroughly.


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    • Paul Kagame profile image

      Paul Kagame 2 weeks ago from Rwanda

      Shoddy research. UNAMIR, especially Romeo Dallaire, played a very active part in esnureing there were conditions to spark ethnic conflict that would justify a regime change. The didn't anticipate the level of killings would be as high, but that didn't stop them from seeing Rwanda had a new regime that was a Western proxy. UNAMIR executed its job (regime change) exactly as planned.