Letter: The UN Was Never Meant to Prevent Genocide

In the aftermath of Kofi Annan’s death, a reader reflects on the former secretary-general’s tenure—and its place in United Nations history.

Denis Balibouse / Reuters

The World’s Failure in Rwanda Changed Kofi Annan’s Worldview

After Annan’s death, Krishnadev Calamur wrote about how the former United Nations secretary-general became a proponent of diplomatic interventions to alleviate human suffering.

Krishnadev Calamur’s article reviewing the late Kofi Annan’s achievements is the best I’ve seen, though its focus on United Nations “failures” shares something with other pieces I’ve read.

That is, it doesn’t seem to me that it can properly be said that the UN failed in, say, Rwanda, any more than it can be said that my hammock failed once again this morning to make my coffee. The reason for this takes some telling.

In 1878, the Congress of Berlin was held, nominally to clarify a single regional dispute, but actually to regulate the relationships between the great powers, and between them and weaker states. At the time, departing attendees said they had left some work unfinished and expected the settlement to forestall further conflict for only about five years. (Misha Glenny’s The Balkans comes at the matter with more sympathy toward countries affected by the negotiations than toward the leading negotiators, and is thus a useful source.)

The Congress was called by the Prussian statesman Otto von Bismarck; he was soon enough out of power, and no one in the following generation of statesmen could command the same degree of international cooperation. A series of regional crises took place against a backdrop of shifting capacity among the great powers. There was no sit-down of the scale of the Congress of Berlin to work problems out, and eventually Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination in Sarajevo in 1914 triggered the shakeout that became the First World War.

After that war ended, there was general agreement that crises should have an international diplomatic clearinghouse, the League of Nations, though protectionist and isolationist pooh-bahs in the U.S. Senate effectively scuttled the United States’ involvement (the brutalist diplomatic amateurism of the new Leninist government in Moscow didn’t help either). A Second World War highlighted the risk of continued non-peaceful coordination, while the Republican electoral debacle triggered by the Great Depression meant that by the time of the San Francisco Conference, in 1945, there was no official American constituency against such a clearinghouse, and the UN was born.

The purpose of the UN is to be that great-power-led clearinghouse, preventing world war. If you wanted to end pointlessly bloody and often one-sided regional or civil conflicts, you wouldn’t build an organization that looks like the UN does.

Perhaps now that we have telephones that are simultaneously also supercomputers, mailboxes, cameras, fitness coaches, paperboys, and worry beads, we’re comfortable saying that a thing that can’t do what it wasn’t originally designed to do is a failure, but I’m not about to fault my hammock for not making my coffee, or the UN for not preventing genocide.

Nor should Samantha Power, who, in A Problem From Hell, nearly singlehandedly came up with a rubric for intervention in civil conflicts, to be cleared through the UN, thereby providing the biggest update to the post-Westphalian state system since the UN itself was founded. All she crafted was a rubric—not a new, clear diplomatic organization. And so, when it all came down to the wire in Syria, Power was the American UN ambassador who behaved just like you’d expect a pre–“Problem From Hell” great-power UN ambassador to behave: She hemmed and hawed and pontificated, and didn’t let this turn into too much of a precedent or a building block for the Russians.

Power also illustrates why this disjunct is so confusing: The UN, which counts almost every sovereign state in the world as a member, couldn’t succeed at keeping conflicts regional unless it appeared earnest in its hand-wringing and insufficient efforts to bring so many regional conflicts to a close. So Annan, Power, and other pro-UN types talk as if this hammock could totally filter that coffee, if we only changed some particular habit of interaction in the old halls of power.

Liberal internationalists want international cooperation to put an end to genocide, and they seem right to want this. But they haven’t figured out how to do it, and many have not realized that tasking our hammock with making our coffee is bound to fail unless we radically redesign our hammock. Still, the un-redesigned UN didn’t fail in Syria any more than it failed in Myanmar, Ukraine, Libya, Iraq, Afghanistan, Kosovo, Bosnia, South Africa, Colombia, Chile, Haiti (several times), Angola, Vietnam, Hungary, Israel and its neighbors (also several times), Korea, or a host of other locations. Indeed, the UN succeeded in all those crises because it let none of them become Sarajevo 1914. It did precisely what it was designed to do.

Indeed, claims that Rwanda or Syria or some other country is host to a UN failure contain within themselves the germ of their own limitations. There have been a lot of regional conflicts whose long duration could be seen as blots on the UN’s reputation, and it can’t be expected that a UN critic name them all. But the bloodiest war since World War II peaked during Annan’s secretary-generalship; it was a war before which the Syrian conflict and the Rwandan genocide combined pale in comparison, and I have yet to see a review of Annan’s career and its failures that even mentions it.

The post-Mobutu Congolese civil war was the bloodiest conflict in decades, spilling across the country’s nearly 1 million square miles, but even most liberal internationalists don’t give two shakes of a rat’s tail to any war that was not a priority (and remained off the radar screens) in international hubs such as New York, Washington, D.C., London, Geneva, Moscow, and Beijing. The war confounds many assumptions about why conflict happens and how it can be stopped, but it never really became a bargaining chip between great powers. It would be wrong to say that the conflict was allowed to simmer or fester: These are small-scale verbs that don’t do justice to the scale of violence that went on. And even now, looking back from what is a comparatively quieter time in intra-Congo conflict, it’s hard to imagine a solution as rhetorically elegant as Power’s that might have forestalled it. You might need a whole new San Francisco Conference, less interested in regulating the interactions between Washington, D.C., Paris, and Moscow, and more interested in what sovereignty, power, subjectivity, and citizenship mean to the wretched of the Earth.

Annan didn’t fail as UN secretary-general, except insofar as he encouraged the illusion that the UN, the great-power clearinghouse conceived in 1917 and born nearly three decades later, could do something it was never designed to do, like a hammock forced into coffee filtration. The tragedy of his lifetime, and of ours, is that this failure is of a monumental scale that renders the ridiculousness of the hammock comparison bitter. The tragedy is that we may be years away from any crisis that will open our eyes to the necessity of a more effective and life-preserving way of doing things.

D. S. Battistoli
Abenasitonu, Suriname

Krishnadev Calamur replies:

D. S. Battistoli makes an excellent point. Although my piece was on what Kofi Annan learned from Rwanda, any lessons the former secretary-general took from the genocide were, ultimately, Sisyphean. As Battistoli correctly points out, the United Nations was created in a different age, but it has, for the most part, successfully done what it was designed to do: prevent war between states. Of course, conflicts have taken on different guises since that time. There are proxy wars, such as the one being waged in Yemen; civil wars, as in Syria; terrorist groups, such as ISIS—all of which have brought untold human suffering. Absent reform, the UN is simply structurally ill-equipped to deal with such crises—even though it tries. The point of my story wasn’t to highlight these deficiencies, but in retrospect I should have included it as part of a larger narrative of the challenges Annan faced in running the UN.