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The United Nations and Humanitarian Intervention

By: Sweta Maturu Humanitarian intervention is an issue that is hotly contested for its use and non-use. Controversy over its use surrounds issues of sovereignty and the norm of non-intervention. The failures of the international community to respond adequately to the crimes against humanity during the 1990s contribute to the controversy over its non-use. Humanitarian crises that serve as threats to international peace and security necessitate international involvement through the United Nations.

The UN’s catastrophic response to the April 1994 genocide in Rwanda clearly demonstrates the struggles the UN faces in addressing human rights violations. Several factors explain UN failures to address the mass atrocities and genocide in Rwanda. The United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR) could not prevent, stop, or even slow down the genocide because of its’ initial lack of detailed information on the conflict in Rwanda. Additionally, UNAMIR severely lacked resources and strong military capabilities. The UN Secretariat also deserves blame for its poor planning of the UNAMIR mission, its sustainability and its ability to provide accurate and timely political and strategic analysis to the field and the Security Council.[1]

The lack of P5 actors’ political will within the Security Council truly impeded the UN from decisively stopping genocide and protecting civilians. China believed that an intervention to stop the genocide in Rwanda would lead other states to question its own human rights record and treatment of its population. Russia and the United States both explicitly opposed any sort of intervention in Rwanda outright. France was arguably complicit in the genocide, as it contributed both military assistance and training to the Hutu militias committing atrocities.[2] The UN’s failure to address the mass atrocities effectively in Rwanda stemmed from the inability of the powerful states sitting on the Security Council to muster the political will to alleviate suffering. By steadfastly sticking to their decisions to not take decisive action in Rwanda, several Security Council members prevented the UN itself from taking any robust enforcement action to protect civilian lives and stop genocide.

Despite the abysmal international response to the genocide in Rwanda, the UN has experienced some success in addressing cases of mass atrocities, especially when it is able to rally support from key actors within the Security Council for decisive action to prevent and protect civilians from harm. Additionally, the UN also succeeds in addressing mass atrocities and humanitarian crises when it cooperates with other actors in implementing enforcement measures. When the UN is able to cooperate with other actors, be they individual states or regional organizations, it will probably be successful in stopping and preventing mass atrocities. The UN can effectively address mass human rights violations when there is coordination of regional organization, state actors, and UN goals. Consequently, unified decision-making, legitimate military forces, and strong political will from relevant state actors will allow for successful UN action against mass atrocities.

International action towards the crisis in Libya during the Arab Spring demonstrates the UN successfully mobilizing efforts to prevent mass atrocities from occurring. Decisive action in the Security Council took place because of several exceptional factors that created the circumstances where the use of force was deemed necessary. Qaddafi's clear and repeated threats to execute any Libyans that took action against his regime allowed UN officials to frame the problem in Libya as an issue of human protection. Additionally, The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights and the Secretary General called upon Libyan authorities to halt the use of violence against the demonstrators in Benghazi, which could count as crimes against humanity. On 25 February 2011, the Human Rights Council requested the General Assembly to suspend Libya from its membership.[3]

The combination of UN Secretariat activism and strong regional organization support pushed forward Security Council discussions on the crisis in Libya. The Qaddafi regime's strong public statements regarding his potential treatment of protestors, UK and French activism for a no-fly zone in the Security Council, and the Arab League additionally calling for a no-fly zone and the establishment of safe zones, pushed the Security Council members, particularly the United States, towards the authorization of concrete peace enforcement measures in Libya. Resolution 1973, passed by the Security Council on 17 March 2011, called for a no-fly zone, safe areas, an immediate ceasefire, and comprehensive and intensified efforts to find a political solution for the conflict. Importantly, the Security Council authorized the use of “all necessary measures...to protect civilians and civilian populated areas under threat of attack in the Libyan Arab Jamahiriya” without Libya’s consent.[4]

What makes the case of Libya unique is the strong impact that Arab League and regional organization support had on Security Council decision-making. Without regional support, the Security Council could not have mustered the political will to act decisively: Arab League support made opposition to enforcement more difficult, it increased feasibility of the military option, and it persuaded African Security Council members to support Resolution 1973. In the case of Libya, the UN proved successful in addressing issues of human protection in the face of the potential for massive crimes against humanity. Importantly, the UN overcame any political issues to support enforcement measures that arguably helped save lives in Libya. The case of Libya shows the importance of how regional support and multilateral consensus is essential to motivate and convince the Security Council to respond to credible threats of crimes against humanity.

The case of Libya, however, makes it clear that willingness to advocate human protection is very much circumstantial. The application of the “Responsibility to Protect” norm will remain selective and contingent on the political will of Security Council members. Fortunate circumstances allowed for the Security Council to take action that might not appear in future cases of humanitarian crises. Without the support of regional organizations, Security Council action may not have ever actualized. While a strong relationship between regional organizations and the United Nations is key for human protection, the question that remains is whether or not the United Nations can act to respond effectively for human protection purposes without the consent of regional actors in the future.

Sweta Maturu is a rising senior working towards a major in International Studies and minor in Economics. Her specific interests include international conflict resolution, peacekeeping and peacebuilding, and the rule of law in post-conflict states. She is currently an intern at the Stimson Center in Washington D.C.


[1] Power, Samantha. 2001. "Bystanders to Genocide." The Atlantic, September. http://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2001/09/bystanders-to-genocide/4571/.

[2] Barnett, Michael. 2002. Eyewitness to a Genocide: The UN and Rwanda. Ithaca: Cornell University Press. Pg. 171.

[3] Williams, Paul D. and Alex J. Bellamy. 2005. "The Responsibility to Protect and the Crisis in Darfur." Security Dialogue 36: 27 - 47.

[4] United Nations. 2011. Resolution 1973. S/RES/1973. New York: UN.

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