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The UN: Aiming for Peace since the Cold War

Updated on April 24, 2011

The United Nations: Its Most Basic Objective

The United Nations (UN) was created in 1945 as a direct reaction to the atrocities of war felt in World War One and World War Two. The UN Charter acts as a constituent treaty for member states, in its preamble it proposes the UN’s most basic purpose, to maintain international peace and security. It is however arguable how successful the UN has and can be in its role as international peacekeeper. The onset of the Cold War quickly followed the creation of the UN and the Soviet-US rivalry heavily affected the UN’s capacity to comply with its aspirations. Both nations serve on the UN Security Council, which is the most important UN organ in dealing with international order. This gave the rivaling states the power to veto each other’s decisions in security matters, seriously restricting the UN’s ability to uphold its motives. It was hoped with the end of the Cold War that new levels of success could be achieved, though to what extent this success has come is still debatable. The terrible atrocities of the Rwandan genocide and more recently the 2003 invasion of Iraq both act as case studies into the shortcomings of the United Nations; Rwanda as an exposé into the failings of the UN system underpinned by lack of will of member states, major mistakes and communication breakdowns, and unnecessary restrictions. The US and others nation’s invasion and occupation of Iraq challenge the credibility of the UN as a governance body over states.

Apart from the main objective of the United Nations, other important notions are outlined in the UN Charter. Article 51 makes explicit that the UN can only use force in the case of self defense, this may lessen the impact the UN can feasibly have on the prevention of conflict.Another important limitation on the UN is that interference in anything seen as within the jurisdiction of state matters is prohibited by Article 2(7) of the UN charter. This forces the United Nations to always respect state sovereignty and could be seen as a deterrent or obstacle when dealing with some matters of security. Both these notions portray the UN in the guise of a guidance body, which’s main purpose is to offer recommendations to states on matters of contention that may threaten peace. Though it may be important that the UN not possess too much power as to maintain the authority of nation-states, it is this lack of power which may have led to the failings seen in the following cases.

The conflict between the Hutu people and the Tutsis in Rwanda dated back to colonial times. The Hutu had established control of Rwanda when in 1950s and 60s the Tutsis had fled to Uganda. In 1990 the Tutsi Rwanda Patriotic Front (RPF) invaded Rwanda, this sparked a civil war between the Tutsis and the Hutu government. This war ended with the signing of the Arusha Accords in 1993, which saw the arrival of UN peacekeepers to help make sure these accords were upheld. Though tensions continued to simmer until on 6 April 1994 a plane carrying Rwandan president Juvenal Habyarimana was shot down killing the president and his top advisors. Soon after propagandas Rwandan radio stations declared blame on Tutsi rebels which prompted the first spate of killings. These killings soon escalated into a mass genocide and by mid July around 800,000 Tutsi and Hutu moderates were dead. How was it that the UN peacekeepers in Rwanda were unable to at least limit the amount of human loss in Rwanda?

A man central to the role of the UN in Rwanda was Brigadier-General Romeo Dallaire who was commander of the United Nations Assistance Mission in Rwanda (UNAMIR). Dallaire was originally sent to Rwanda after the signing of the Arusha Accords to determine the size of a Neutral International Force needed to preside over an interim Rwandan government. Dallaire decided upon a number of troops ranging from 7,000 to 8,000, this request was not passed onto the Security Council by the Secretariat. This was because the US sent advanced messages stating they would not support a force that large. This was the first of many bureaucracy breakdowns that would plague the UN throughout the Rwandan crisis.

A major criticism of the UN’s dealings in Rwanda was its lack of foresight and notice of early warning signs of the intended genocide. A prime example of this is the reaction to General Dallaire’s cable on the 11th January 1994 to the UN headquarters in New York. Dallaire had been informed that the Rwandan government and Hutu radical groups such as the Interahamwe were stockpiling weapons in preparation for a Tutsi genocide. Dallaire requested permission to search for and seize any weapons that were being brought into Rwanda for suspected use by the Hutu extremists.This cable was passed onto the Department of Peacekeeping Operations (DPKO), as well as the US, French and Belgian embassies. The Deputy Head of the DPKO, Iqbal Riza, replied to Dallaire’s requests by letter. He informed Dallaire that it was not within the UNAMIR’s mandate to seize weapons and suggested he inform the Rwandan government of these weapon caches. Unfortunately the Hutu dominated government was helping to organize the genocide. Dallaire had also requested authority to protect his informant; however this was also seen as exceeding the mandate, leading the informant to stop working with the UNAMIR.

General Dallaire did garner some success in minimalising Hutu weapon stocks. Following the seizure of a planeload of weapons in late January, the DPKO authorized UNAMIR to work with the Rwandan government to recover illegal arms. However this operation was limited and another Dallaire request for greater authority was dismissed. If the UN’s reaction to Dallaire’s original cable had been more positive, then the UNAMIR may have been able to limit the Hutu extremists’ weaponry drastically. The fact that the cable was not shown to the Security Council may be put down to a terrible misjudgment and human error and was not necessarily a fault of the UN’s framework. Confusion over the UNAMIR’s mandate however, opens up the UN’s peacekeeping framework to critical analysis.

The UNAMIR were originally sent to Rwanda on a peacekeeping mission following the signing of the Arusha Accords. The mission was authorised under Chapter 6 of the UN charter, meaning the mission was to be consensual rather than coercive. This suggested that that the mission was to follow a traditional peacekeeping role. Inis Claude describes this role as one where the aim is not to fight or defeat and where the peacekeepers must act impartially without judging merit. This clearly restricts the UNAMIR from seizing weapons, though chapter 6 does authorise the protection of civilians meaning that Dallaire should have been able to protect his informant. Peacekeeping has been described as falling in between chapters 6 and 7 of the charter as its measures are not covered exactly in either chapter. If the UNAMIR’s mission had fallen under chapter 7 this would have given Dallaire much more scope to prevent the genocide as it was obvious that peace enforcement rather than peace keeping was needed.

Early intervention may have been the best way to limit the genocide, but despite General Dallaire’s best intentions the UNAMIR were unable to prevent the breakout of killings after the 6th of April. At this time the UNAMIR had 2539 troops in Rwanda, however they were poorly trained, lightly armed and outnumbered. As the spate of killings worsened Dallaire requested more troops and greater weaponry. The Security Council responded however by withdrawing troops as the mission was deemed too dangerous, even though there were French, Belgian and US troops sent to help evacuate their own citizens. Dallaire also requested a change in UNAMIR mandate to allow the use of force to breakdown roadblocks that were being used to trap fleeing Tutsis, his request was again denied. With just 456 troops the UNAMIR were able to save 25,000 civilian lives by guarding safe zones. This shows that with a stronger position on Rwanda, the UN could have made a significant difference.

The UN has taken responsibility for its lack of action in Rwanda in 1994, and in 1999 then Secretary-General Kofi Annan called for an independent inquiry into the UN’s failure. It pointed to shortcomings in the UN system, but also to the failure of the Security Council to recognize the genocide. This may have been the result of the individual wills of Security Council member states. This was especially so with the US who was keen to avoid peacekeeping roles, after 18 US army rangers were killed in Somalia. They were however obligated to intervene in the case of genocide, so it was in the USA’s best interests to avoid labeling the Rwandan killings genocide.

The will of the most powerful member state in the UN, the USA, is also basis of the controversy surrounding the Iraq war. After September 11 the world became especially sensitive to the threat of terrorism. The UN passed a new mandate which allowed force in retaliation against a terrorist attack, which provided legitimacy for the US to challenge the Taliban regime in Afghanistan. However the US led ‘Coalition of the Willing’ did not have approved UN backing when it invaded Iraq in March 2003. Kofi Annan has expressed that ‘It was not in conformity with the UN charter’ and ‘from the charter point of view it was illegal.’ Before invading Iraq, the US had tried taking the diplomatic approach through the UN, but having failed to get the appropriate resolution, the US cited questionable reasons for legitimising the invasion and continued on the strength of its own will.

The US, UK and its fellow ‘coalition’ members tried validating the invasion of Iraq through legitimate UN sanctions and Security Council Resolutions. They argue that the use of force against Iraqi forces falls under article 51 in chapter 7 of the UN charter. That is they were using force in self defense, albeit pre-imminent. The US believed that Saddam Hussein’s regime in Iraq could threaten the safety of Americans in the future, although no Weapons of Mass Destruction (WMD) were found by UN weapon inspectors and links to Al Qaeda were not proven. The US and UK also cited Security Council Resolutions 678, 687 and 1441 as prove of legitimacy. The first two resolutions were made during the original Gulf War of 1991. Resolution 687 made explicit that if Iraq failed to comply with UN regulated disarmament then force could be used under Resolution 678. However these both related to Iraqi aggression against Kuwait and were hardly relevant in 2003. Resolution 1441 suggested Iraq was in breach of UN sanctioned disarmament and the failure to comply with UN regulations would mean ‘serious consequences’. As chief weapons inspector Hans Blix had left open the faint possibility that Iraq was in material breach of 1441 then the ‘Coalition’ took it upon themselves to impose these consequences.

Liberal critics of the UN have argued that US led invasion of Iraq undermines and questions the legitimacy of the UN. However the fact that the US did try to work with the UN and even after invading Iraq tried to use UN sanctions to prove its legality may in fact reflect the legitimacy the UN possesses. Thierry Tardy disputes this and claims that the US had ‘nothing to lose’ by first following the UN line but was in fact willing to work without the UN all along. After Resolution 1441 was passed, weapons inspectors returned to Iraq, during these six months the US and UK tried to pass a second resolution to allow military authorization, however this was not passed. Thomas Franck suggests that after this resolution was not passed, the US decided to break from restriction which it did so freely, something which undermines the UN’s purpose as a governance body.

In both cases discussed it can be said that the United Nations failed to maintain international peace and security. The atrocity of the Rwandan genocide may not have been able to be completely prevented but it could have been restricted by a stronger UN stance. It is heartening that the United Nations has taken responsibility for its lack of action and is working to prevent any event of that nature ever happening again. Perhaps more worrying is the UN’s inability to prevent US unilateralism as shown by the invasion of Iraq. Though the UN still has credibility as a governance body it has ‘neither the legal or military capacity to block US unilateralism.’ This however should not impact upon the UN’s important work in other parts of the world. So though hope still remains that the UN can improve in this post cold-war era, it must learn from past mistakes and compromise with the power of the US to maintain international peace and security.


Weiss, Thomas and Daniel Kalbacher, ‘The United Nations’, in Security Studies: An Introduction, ed. Williams, Paul, 327 London: Routledge, 2008.

Glen, Carol. "The UN Charter System and the Iraq Wars: Ethical Implications" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the WPSA ANNUAL MEETING "Ideas, Interests and Institutions", 2009.

Hurd, Ian, ‘Words and Wars: The Security Council's Hard Life among the Great Powers’ Seton Hall Journal of Diplomacy and International Relations 7, 2004.

Franck, T.M., ‘What Happens Now? The United Nations after Iraq’, The American Journal of International Law 97, No. 3, 2003.

Tardy, Thierry, ‘The United Nations in Iraq: a role beyond expectations’ International Peacekeeping 11, no.4, 2004.

Lang jr, Anthony, ‘Global governance and genocide in Rwanda’, Ethics & International Affairs 16, no.1, 2002.

Stanton, Gregory, 'Could the Rwandan genocide have been prevented?', Journal of Genocide Research 6, no.2, 2004.

Claude, Inis ‘Peace and Security: Prospective Roles for the Two United Nations’, Global Governance 2, 1996.

Macaskill, E. and Borger, J., ‘Iraq war was illegal and breached UN charter, says Annan

’,Guardian,, accessed 5 may 2010.

The United Nations, ‘Chapter VII: Action with Respect to threats to the peace, breaches of the peace, and acts of aggression’, The United Nations,, accessed 5 May 2010.


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