Inadequate Response: The United Nations and Genocide, Ethnic Cleansing, War Crimes, and Crimes Against Humanity since the 1948 Genocide Convention


by Anita Guarino

Sixty-three years ago the General Assembly of the United Nations (UN) gave a standing ovation after the successful implementation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR). Six decades also have passed since the UN founded in favour of the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide. Although the UN was willing to stand up in an ovation in a show of solidarity sixty years ago, when it comes to standing up for human rights outside the assembly room the international community has demonstrated a reluctance to act. Since the implementation of the Genocide Convention in 1948 there have been atrocities committed, most disturbingly acts of genocide and ethnic cleansing in places such as Cambodia, Sudan, the former Yugoslavia, Rwanda, Indonesia, and East Timor. In most cases, the UN was slow to act, or failed to act at all, effectively giving the perpetrators of crimes against humanity a ‘green light’ to commit genocide while the international community watched from the sidelines. This article examines UN responses to mass killings in four case studies since the implementation of the UN Gnocide Convention: Rwanda; Bosnia (in the former Yugoslavia); Cambodia; and Sudan. Ultimately, it argues that the UN needs to restructure its policies if it is ever to become the international preventative force required in the twenty-first century, as a way of achieving its stated aims of implementing global peace and security.

Origins of the UN
The UN was founded in 1945 in response to the global devastation and great loss of life caused as a result of the two world wars. It was formed with the aim of maintaining international peace and security, developing friendly relations among nations, and promoting social progress, better living standards and human rights. One particular issue for concern during the budding of the organisation was the Holocaust in which 6 million Jews were murdered under the Nazi extermination regime. Thus, in 1948 the UN codified the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide and enshrined it with the slogan nie wieder, or ‘never again’. Senior Lecturer in History at London Southbank University Lisa Pine, however, asserts that ‘never again’ have shown to be empty words as mass killings have occurred in several countries in the postwar years, which is demonstrated in the following case studies.

Acts of genocide since the 1948 convention, and UN engagement

Case Study I: Yugoslavia
In April 1991, the government of the former Yugoslavia began to break up as Slovenia and Croatia declared independence. In response, Serbia set out to create a ‘Greater Serbia’ and, in May 1992, Bosnian-Serb forces attacked Sarajevo and launched offensives against Bosniak-dominated towns, forcibly expelling Bosniak (Bosnian Muslims) civilians from the region. Serbia targeted Bosniak and Croatian civilians in an episode of ‘ethnic cleansing’ that resulted in the deaths of approximately 100,000 people, of whom some 80 percent were Bosniaks.

UN engagement
Despite the Genocide Convention the UN proved slow to intervene, and once it finally did the response was inadequate. The UN’s initial response was to offer humanitarian aid to the displaced and injured victims, and in 1993 it set up ‘safe zones’ in Sarajevo, Gorazde, and Srebrenica. Bosnian-Serbian forces, however, overcame the peace-keeping force and invaded Srebrenica on 11 July 11 1993. Women were forced onto buses and transported to Serbian-controlled territory. Many were raped and sexually assaulted. The men and boys were either killed immediately or forced onto buses to be taken to mass killing sites. Overall, some 8000 Bosniaks were slaughtered in the space of two days as a result of the Serbian invasion of the UN-declared ‘safe zone’. This UN failure to defend ‘safe havens’, according to Matthew Krain, left a large group of targets unprotected, exposed, and centrally located, which actually facilitated quicker extermination.

The international community responded more forcefully after Bosnian-Serbian forces captured another safe zone that same month and detonated a bomb in a Sarajevo market place. NATO launched an offensive forcing the Serbians to partake in peace talks and the UN Security Council created the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, charging more than 160 individuals of crimes.

This response highlights the shortcomings of the UN in acting as a responsive force, rather than a preventative one. The UN was involved in the prosecution of heinous crimes after they were committed, yet could do very little until it was too late to prevent the ethnic cleansing and systematic atrocities in the former Yugoslavia.

Case Study II: Rwanda
The UN also failed to stop genocide from occurring in Rwanda in 1994. The genocide was a result of a civil war that erupted in Rwanda between the Hutu ethnic majority and the Tutsi minority following the assassination of the president, Major General Juvenal Habyarimana. Within an hour of the assassination, the Hutus established roadblocks and barricades and began killing Tutsis and even moderate Hutus. The violence created a political vacuum, which saw an interim government of extremist Hutu leaders gain power on 9 April 1994. The extreme government incited ordinary citizens to engage in brutality, with local radio stations controlled by the government encouraging people to murder their neighbours. Approximately 800,000 people (or around 11 percent of the population) were killed within 3 months.
Cambridge historian David Reynolds provides an insight into the disturbing atrocities committed in Rwanda:

The killing became anarchic…villagers seized the chance to pillage and to settle old scores. Neither hospital nor church provided any sanctuary against the marauders and their machetes. In Kigali, when a few thousand Tutsis sought refuge in the sports stadium, the Rwandan army lobbed in artillery shells. Women were raped before being murdered, babies smashed against rocks and thrown into latrines.

The Tutsi-led Rwandese Patriotic Front eventually regained control in July 1994, and established a coalition government. Their victory created 2 million Hutu refugees exacerbating the humanitarian crisis.

UN engagement
Similarly to Yugoslavia, the UN response to the Rwandan genocide was inadequate. Rather than providing assistance, the UN Security Council actually voted in April 1994 to withdraw the majority of their peace keeping force (UNAMIR) that had been stationed there since the previous year to aid a transitional government. All governments and official bodies continued to recognise the government in Rwanda and did not call for it to stop the genocide. Only as reports of the genocide spread did the Security Council vote in mid-May to supply more than 5,000 troops to appease the situation in Rwanda. By the time all the troops had arrived, however, the genocide had been over for months.

Former UN Secretary General Boutros Boutros-Ghali stated:

The failure of Rwanda is 10 times greater than the failure of Yugoslavia. Because in Yugoslavia the
international community was interested, was involved. In Rwanda nobody was interested.

After the RPF victory, the UNAMIR operation was reinstated in one of the largest humanitarian relief efforts in history in an attempt to rectify the UN’s earlier failure to act. In October 1994, the Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda was established and began trials for high-ranking people involved in the genocide, which was difficult as the location of many of the perpetrators was unknown. Once again, then, UN involvement can be viewed as responsive rather than preventative, further highlighting the need to reassess its policies if it is to deter violent conflict in the twenty-first century.

Case Study III: Cambodia
Approximately 1.7 million people (or 21 percent of the country’s population) people lost their lives at the hands of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge in the Cambodian genocide spanning 1975-1979, making it one of the worst human tragedies of the last century. When Pol Pot gained power in 1975, he set out to take the country back to an agricultural Middle Ages society through emptying the cities and abolishing money, private property and religion. Pol Pot set up rural collectives to bring Cambodia—renamed Democratic Kampuchea—back to ‘Year Zero’. Anyone thought to be an intellectual or professional, as well as people who were sympathetic or had ties with the former government, were summarily executed. The Khmer Rouge also executed ethnic and religious minorities and implemented a reign of torture in prisons across the country and mass executions and grave sites. Often people were condemned for wearing glasses or even knowing a foreign language.

UN engagement
Despite the extensive crimes against humanity perpetrated under the reign of Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, the UN effectively watched on from the sidelines. Even though reports detailing the massacres emerged from Cambodia, nothing was done. In 1978-79, investigations conducted by the UN concluded that there was growing evidence genocide had occurred, but the atrocities were allowed to continue until Vietnamese forces invaded Cambodia in January 1979 to overthrow the Pol Pot government and impose a new order. When the Vietnamese reached Phnom Penh they discovered essentially no prisoners as thousands of people had been systematically tortured and killed.

Gregory H. Stanton, president of Genocide Watch, asserts that the UN did not intervene in Cambodia as it was paralysed by the likelihood of Security Council vetoes by the Soviet Union and China. Furthermore, the US and other Western Powers were paralysed to act by defeat in Vietnam, and could not risk involvement in another ground war in South East Asia. Disturbingly, the Western Powers actually condemned the Vietnamese invasion of Cambodia in UN resolutions and placed embargoes on it. In fact, the West continued to vote to seat the Khmer Rouge in the Cambodian seat at the UN for years after they were out of power!

An examination of the Cambodian genocide shows a fundamental flaw with the UN. Due to the competing vested interests each country may have in a conflict it can be difficult to compel action. Stagnation often surrounds the bureaucratic procedural elements of the UN, which prevents it from intervening in urgent issues that warrant immediate action.

Case Study IV: the Dafur conflict
In 2003, fighting between the Sudanese government and rebel forces began in a struggle for land and power in Darfur amid claims the government were neglecting the country’s Africans in favour of Arabs. Government troops joined forces with an Arab militia group the ‘Janjaweed’ (‘devil on horseback’) and launched systematic attacks on civilians including murder, torture and rape. Tens of thousands died and thousands more fled to Chad due to the ‘scorched earth’ tactics employed in the conflict, involving the bombing of hospitals, clinics, schools and other civilian sites and also the obstruction of humanitarian aid. Refugee camps on the Chad-Sudan border also came under attack from the militia.

Reflections by Sudanese children who witnessed the conflict reveal the extent of the atrocities. Al-Rahman, aged 13, states that the Janjaweed ‘…chased after children. Some of us were taken. Some we didn’t see again’. Salah, also aged 13, adds that ‘…the women were screaming. They seized them, they took them by force. The pretty ones were taken away. Girls were taken, small girls too, I think five and seven and fourteen’.

UN engagement
Neither a ceasefire declared in 2004 nor the arrival of African Union troops was unable to deter the violence in Darfur. In 2007, the UN and the African Union joined forces to form a peace keeping mission (although troop deployment did not begin until 2008). By 2009, approximately 300,000 people had been killed and a further 2.7 million displaced. In September 2004, Washington classified the ongoing atrocities in Darfur as genocide.

Once again, the UN appears to have done ‘too little, too late’, only joining forces with the African Union four years after the conflict began. Kevin Rudd, then Australian Minister for Foreign Affairs, stated that the situation could be compared to the Rwandan genocide and that ‘…all those people depend on the UN just to keep them alive’. This highlights the importance of the work of the UN and the desirability for it to become a proactive force and avoid unnecessary delays when administering aid or intervention.

Policy considerations

I. Problems facing the UN
Article 1 of the Genocide Convention states:

The Contracting Parties confirm that genocide…is a crime under international law which they undertake to prevent and to punish’ [emphasis added].

Despite this pledge, an analysis of UN engagement in genocide demonstrates that the international community has done little to prevent the massacres. Rather, the UN has often demonstrated delayed responses to human atrocities, focusing on the prosecution of crimes against humanity after the atrocities have occurred.

There is no simple resolution as to how the international community can prevent genocide completely as the issues facing the countries typically are complex. In particular, due to sovereignty it is difficult for the UN to intervene in a country’s domestic affairs prior to a crime against humanity being committed.

II. Less talk, more action
The UN needs to reassess its bureaucratic processes if it is ever to become a preventative force in the global community. Often UN members have competing national interests in intervening or refraining from intervention in the domestic affairs of another country in crisis, which inevitably leads to stagnated bureaucratic processes. In many cases there is often a disinclination for the international community to act due to political differences between leading nations, vested pecuniary interests in maintaining certain regimes, as well as general indifference. This is problematic as it often leads to delays in administering any form of action to prevent genocide or ethnic cleansing in its early stages and by the time intervention does occur often thousands of people already have been slaughtered. Former Justice of the High Court of Australia and former UN representative the Hon. Michael Kirby asks:

…would it be better to fold up the tent of special procedures and work towards eventual machinery that would be more principled and effective rather than persisting with procedures that are ultimately highly (or even entirely) dependent upon the co-operation of unlovely autocrats?

An example of wasteful bureaucratic conduct that often prevents rapid response to mass killings is the debate about whether the murders can be defined as genocide and thus warrant intervention. David Reynolds reveals that, during the Rwanda genocide, the Clinton administration ‘desperately avoided the word genocide, afraid it would be sucked into…intervention’. If there is a situation in which great masses of people are being slaughtered surely it warrants intervention irrespective of whether it can be defined as an act of genocide, a massacre, or a case of ethnic cleansing.

Samuel Totten also sheds light on the wastefulness of bureaucracy, stating:

..earlier this year, when the Darfur crisis was entering its eighth year scholars, governments and others (including officials at the International Criminal court) continued to debate whether the atrocities perpetrated by the GOS troops and the Janjaweed constitute[d] crimes against humanity or genocide. [Whilst this debate was taking place] …the ‘lucky’ among the dead lay in shallow graves in Darfur, while the bones of many others are strewn and entangled in mass graves or scattered over the sands of the desert and mountains.

Former US President George Bush, who labelled the mass killings in Darfur as genocide, voiced frustration about his inability to persuade the UN and others to intervene more forcefully in the situation, highlighting the bureaucratic difficulties in persuading the international community to act when many countries have competing national interests.

Possible solutions to overcome wasteful bureaucratic processes include:

  • enforcing time limits on administrative processes when dealing with urgent matters involving crimes against humanity.
  • properly implementing peace forces and ‘safe zones’ in the country experiencing crisis to provide aid during the interim period of the bureaucratic process, not as the ultimate response.
  • investing in genocide research to better understand its stages and monitor countries to ensure early detection so that discussions can begin early, take steps toward prevention and develop an action plan if the situation does escalate.

III. Direct pressure on and intervention against the perpertators is required
To prevent genocide in the twenty-first century, asserts Lisa Pine, the international community must ‘determine effective means of placing significant pressure on …states and escalate such pressure if [a] situation deteriorates’. Methods of applying such pressure could include trade embargoes, divestment, economic sanctions or military intervention. Furthermore, humanitarian aid and the provision of refuge for persecuted groups should be made available, as well as proper ‘safe areas’ and escape routes for targeted victims. Another means of prevention is to ensure perpetrators are severely punished in the international court to show the international community that crimes against humanity will not be tolerated.

In the case of Rwanda, the UN ignored requests from Force Commander of UNAMIR General Dallaire for a more substantial presence for protection against the genocide. Reevaluations of the situation suggest that if the UN had provided timely intervention at his requests then the genocide in Rwanda may have been prevented or at least would have been less severe. Matthew Krain also endorses increased pressure to prevent future genocides through the imposition of direct pressure on the perpetrator or directly aiding the victim, as impartial and neutral interventions thus far have proven ineffective to reduce genocide, which was demonstrated in Bosnia through the failure of ‘safe zones’.

When the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was signed, the President of the General Assembly H.B ‘Doc’ Evatt stated it was a ‘great step forward’ as the declaration was backed by ‘the United Nations as a whole and millions of men, women and children all over the world would turn to it for help, guidance and inspiration’. Since the UN recognised human rights in the Declaration and the Genocide Convention, however, millions of men, women and children have been killed in acts of genocide and ethnic cleansing in Cambodia, Bosnia, Rwanda and Sudan among other countries. Case studies of the UN’s inadequate responses to genocide demonstrate that noble and humanitarian aims do not always translate into effectiveness. UN members need to eliminate the inefficiencies in their procedures and reassess their policies to ensure that the message of nie wieder—‘never again’—finally comes to fruition so they can achieve their aims of achieving peace and security in the global framework.

Selected further reading:


African Rights, Rwanda: Death, Despair, and Defiance, 2nd Ed, African Rights, London 1995

Chandler, David. P, The Tragedy of Cambodian History: Politics, War and Revolution Since 1945, Yale University Press, London, 1991.

Deac, Wilfred P, Road to the Killing Fields: The Cambodian War of 1990-1975, A & M University Press, Texas, 1997.

Doubt, Keith, Understanding Evil: Lessons From Bosnia, Fordham University Press, New York, 2006.

Luard, Evan, The United Nations: How it Works and What is Does, 2nd Ed, MacMillan Publishers, London, 1994.

Gareis, Sven and Varwick, Johannes, The United Nations: An Introduction, Palgrave MacMillan, New York, 2005.

Harrod, Jeffrey, and Schrijver, Nico (eds), The UN Under Attack, Gower Publishing, Aldershot, 1988.

Kiernan, Ben, The Pol Pot Regime: Race, Power, and Genocide in Cambodia under the Khmer Rouge, 1975–79, Yale University Press, New Haven, 1996.

Krasno, Jean (ed), The United Nations: Confronting the Challenges of a Global Society, Lynne Rienner Publishers, London, 2004.

Radan, Peter, The Break-up of Yugoslavia and International Law, Routledge, New York, 2001.

Reynolds David, One World Divisible: A Global History Since 1945, Penguin Books, London, 2000.

Totten, Samual, An Oral Documentary History of the Darfur Genocide, Praeger Publishing, California, 2011.

United Nations Department of Public Information, The United Nations and Cambodia 1991-1995, United Nations, New York, 1995.

White, Nigel D., The United Nations System: Towards International Justice, Lynne Rienner Publishers, London, 2002.

Journal articles

Kirby, Michael Hon, ‘United Nations Procedures: A Response to Professor Hilary Charlesworth’ Australian Year Book Of International Law 2010, retrieved September 10, 2011. http://www.michaelkirby.com.au/images/stories/speeches/2000s/2010_Speeches/2503.%20ARTICLE-AYBIL-RESPONSE-TO-PROF-H-CHARLESWORTH.pdf

Krain, Matthew, ‘International Convention and the Severity of Genocides and Politicides, International Studies Quarterly, vol 49, 2005, pp 363-387.

Newspaper articles

Abramowitz, Michael, Sudan Vote Loaded With Hope and Dread, January 3, 2011, The Age, National Times, p 22.

MacFarquhar, Neil, Sudan Strikes Could be War Crimes, Report Says, July 14, 2011, New York Times, p 13.


Genocide Watch website, Speech by Dr Gregory H. Stanton, ‘The Cambodian Genocide and International Law’, Presented February 22, 1992 at Yale Law School, United States, Retrieved September 10, 2011, http://www.genocidewatch.org/THE%20CAMBODIAN%20GENOCIDE%20AND%20INTERNATIONAL%20LAW.htm

La Trobe University Website, Professor Hilary Charlesworth ‘How Universal is the Universal Declaration of Human Rights? The Future of Human Rights in the 21st Century’, retrieved September 5, 2011, http://www.latrobe.edu.au/dialogue/events/2009-events/third-annual-lecture.html


BBC website, Pol Pot: Life of a Tyrant, United Kingdom, 14 April 2000, retrieved September 10, 2011, http://news.bbc.co.uk/2/hi/asia-pacific/78988.stm

Genocide Watch website, How We Can Prevent Genocide: Building an International Campaign to End Genocide, Dr Gregory H. Stanton, retrieved September 10, 2011,

History and Policy website, Genocide: Twentieth-century warnings for the twenty-first century by Lisa Pine, England, January 2008, Retrieved September 27 2011,

Human Rights website, Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, United States, 27 January, 1997, Retrieved September 10 2011,

The Age website, Drawings from the Killing Fields of Darfur, Australia, retrieved September 19 2011, http://www.theage.com.au/flash/darfur/darfurAGE.html

The Age website, Darfur crisis like Rwanda genocide: Rudd, July 7 2006, Australia, retrieved September 19 2011, http://www.theage.com.au/news/National/Crisis-in-Darfur-like-Rwanda-genocides/2006/07/07/1152175757722.html

The History Channel website, Bosnian Genocide, Britain, 2011, retrieved September 19 2011, http://www.history.com/topics/bosnian-genocide

Yale University website, Cambodian Genocide Program, United States, retrieved September 10 2011 http://www.yale.edu/cgp/

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