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IB DP History Study Notes

5.1.6 Global Inaction and Response

The Rwandan genocide, one of the darkest events of the 20th century, was marked by both internal chaos and notable international inaction. As you delve into the roles and responses of global actors, the importance of understanding motivations, politics, and geopolitical influences cannot be understated.

UNAMIR's Role and Critiques

United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR) was established as a peacekeeping operation by the UN in 1993.

  • Objective: Primarily tasked with overseeing the Arusha Accords implementation, which was designed to broker peace between the Hutu-led government and the Tutsi-led RPF.
  • Challenges:
    • Limited Mandate: The non-intervention mandate given to UNAMIR meant they couldn't take sides, leaving them as bystanders during the genocide.
    • Resource Constraints: Originally, UNAMIR was provided with a mere 2,500 troops, a fraction of what was necessary to oversee a nation in such turmoil.
  • Critiques:
    • Withdrawal: The decision to evacuate most of the UNAMIR force following the killing of ten Belgian peacekeepers demonstrated a lack of commitment to Rwandan peace and security.
    • Missed Early Warning Signals: Commander Roméo Dallaire sent a now-famous "genocide fax" to the UN headquarters in January 1994, highlighting the imminent threat of mass violence. The inadequate response to this is a significant point of criticism.
    • Ineffective Leadership at UN: Decisions made at higher echelons of the UN, particularly by the Security Council, hindered UNAMIR's ability to be effective.

Analysis of International Inaction

The sluggish and, at times, non-existent response from the international community during the Rwandan genocide has been a focal point for historians and political scientists alike.

  • Misinformation and Misinterpretation: The early stages of the genocide were misconstrued by some global actors as merely an escalation of the ongoing civil war.
  • Intervention Hesitancy: The ‘Black Hawk Down’ incident in Somalia in 1993, where 18 American soldiers were killed, made Western powers wary of intervening in another African nation.
  • Geopolitical Priorities: Rwanda didn't offer significant strategic or economic interests, thus didn't command priority attention from world powers. This contrasts with interventions in areas with oil interests or strategic geopolitical relevance.
  • Media's Role: Insufficient media coverage during the initial phases resulted in lesser global public awareness, hence less pressure on governments to take action.

Specific International Stances


  • Historical Relations: France had longstanding ties with the Hutu-led Rwandan government, often providing them with military training and support.
  • Operation Turquoise: In June 1994, France launched this humanitarian mission. Although it saved many lives, critics argue that it allowed some génocidaires to escape into Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo).
  • Criticism and Accusations: Post-genocide investigations have raised concerns about the extent of France's knowledge of the Hutu government's plans and their role during the genocide.


  • Historical Role: As Rwanda's former colonial power, Belgium had a significant influence on its socio-political landscape.
  • Immediate Reaction: The murder of ten Belgian peacekeepers at the start of the genocide had a profound impact. Belgium's subsequent withdrawal of its forces from UNAMIR is said to have signalled to the génocidaires that the international community wouldn't intervene.
  • Reflections: In subsequent years, Belgium has admitted to its shortcomings during the genocide and actively participated in recovery efforts.

United States

  • Terminology Avoidance: Notably, the Clinton administration sidestepped calling the situation "genocide" until May 1994. This has been critiqued as an attempt to avoid obligations under the Genocide Convention.
  • Limited Aid: While the US did not intervene militarily, they offered some assistance by supporting refugee camps around Rwanda's borders.
  • Post-genocide Reflection: Bill Clinton, during his presidency, openly admitted that the US, and the world at large, did not do enough to prevent or halt the genocide. His 1998 visit to Rwanda further emphasised America's acknowledgment of its lack of action.

End of Notes

Note: Students are encouraged to use these notes as a foundation. For a holistic understanding, integrating primary sources, survivor testimonies, and further readings is essential.


The media played a significant, albeit passive, role during the Rwandan genocide. Initial media coverage was sparse, and when it did occur, it often misconstrued the events as mere continuations of the ongoing civil war rather than a targeted extermination. This lack of accurate and comprehensive media coverage resulted in limited public awareness globally. Consequently, there was less public pressure on governments to intervene or take significant action. A more proactive media coverage, highlighting the scale and nature of the atrocities, might have accelerated international response and perhaps could have changed the trajectory of the genocide.

The murder of ten Belgian peacekeepers at the onset of the Rwandan genocide had profound repercussions on Belgium's involvement. These peacekeepers were part of UNAMIR and were brutally killed while trying to protect the moderate Prime Minister Agathe Uwilingiyimana. As a direct consequence of this incident, Belgium decided to withdraw its troops from the peacekeeping mission. This decision had broader implications; not only did it leave UNAMIR severely understaffed, but it also signalled to the génocidaires that there was minimal chance of international intervention. The withdrawal has since been criticised as it inadvertently gave a green light to those perpetrating the genocide.

Operation Turquoise was a French-led military operation in Rwanda under the guise of a humanitarian mission, which took place in June 1994. While the operation did establish a "safe zone" in southwestern Rwanda and undoubtedly saved many Tutsi lives, it's been marred by controversy. Critics argue that the mission allowed some génocidaires to escape into Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of the Congo) and that France was more interested in maintaining its influence in the region than in stopping the genocide. Further controversy stems from France's historical ties with the Hutu-led government, leading to allegations that they might have had prior knowledge about the Hutu government's plans for mass extermination.

The Genocide Convention, officially named the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, was adopted by the UN General Assembly in 1948. It defines genocide and commits signatory nations to prevent and punish acts of genocide. The hesitancy of the US to use the term "genocide" in the context of Rwanda is believed to be linked to this convention. Recognising the events as "genocide" would have obligated the US, under international law, to intervene and take action. By avoiding the term, the US could sidestep this obligation, given the nation's apprehension about getting entangled in another complex humanitarian crisis, especially after the Somalia debacle in 1993.

Commander Roméo Dallaire's "genocide fax" sent to the UN headquarters in January 1994 was a crucial document that highlighted the impending threat of mass violence in Rwanda. Dallaire had received information about the stockpiling of weapons and intent to exterminate Tutsis. The fax was a cry for permission to act, confiscate weapons, and prevent the looming catastrophe. However, the UN's response was restrained, advising Dallaire to inform President Habyarimana and the diplomatic community but not to seize arms. The inadequate response to this early warning sign underscores the broader issues of bureaucratic hesitancy and a failure to recognise and act on the gravity of the impending crisis.

Practice Questions

Evaluate the effectiveness of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR) in addressing the Rwandan crisis from 1990-1998.

The United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR) faced considerable challenges in its objective to oversee the Arusha Accords and maintain peace in Rwanda. Its non-interventionist mandate, coupled with inadequate resources, hindered its effectiveness. The limited number of troops and the decision to evacuate most of them after the death of Belgian peacekeepers exacerbated the situation. Additionally, the lack of a proactive response to early warning signals, notably Commander Dallaire's "genocide fax", highlights UNAMIR's shortcomings. While its intent was commendable, structural and mandate limitations rendered UNAMIR largely ineffective in halting the genocide.

How did geopolitical considerations influence international responses to the Rwandan genocide?

Geopolitical considerations played a pivotal role in shaping the international community's response to the Rwandan genocide. Major powers viewed Rwanda as lacking significant strategic or economic interests, leading to a diminished sense of urgency. This contrasts with interventions in regions with substantial resources or geopolitical relevance. For instance, the US's hesitancy was influenced by its recent traumatic experience in Somalia. Moreover, France's historical ties with the Hutu-led government affected its interventions, drawing both praise and criticism. In essence, the global inaction can largely be attributed to Rwanda's perceived lack of geopolitical importance, resulting in a tragic missed opportunity for intervention.

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Written by: Maddie
Oxford University - BA History

Maddie, an Oxford history graduate, is experienced in creating dynamic educational resources, blending her historical knowledge with her tutoring experience to inspire and educate students.

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