The Humanitarian Interventions of the UN

The chamber of the UN Security Council, known as the Norwegian Room

Founded in 1945, the United Nations strives “to provide peace, security, and justice.” One way it tries to achieve this end is through humanitarian intervention, meaning the “post hoc rationalization for uses of force otherwise difficult to reconcile with international law.” The UN has agreed upon three principles of humanitarian intervention: uses military force, interferes in the target state’s internal affairs, and responds to crises where states’ interests are not directly threatened. In order to get the green light, the UN looks to the Security Council to authorize military force. When the post-Cold War era (1990-2000) had an increase in non-military threats—including gross and systematic violations of human rights and obstructions in the delivery of humanitarian assistance—the UN saw Somalia’s and Rwanda’s situations as constituting threats to international peace and security.


Somalia became one of the first states in which the Security Council got their hands dirty. In 1991, when Somalia’s long-time dictator, Said Barre, was overthrown in a coup, there was a power struggle among the various warlords fighting for control of the government. Moreover, a severe drought threatened mass starvation.  With fighting in the Mogadishu capital and extremely difficult conditions for delivering food, the Security Council declared Somalia’s deteriorating humanitarian situation “a threat to international peace and security.”

However, since the P5 nations—the United States, France, Britain, China, and Russia—were reluctant to authorize UN intervention, fearing they would violate the state’s sovereignty under Article 2(7) of the United Nations Charter, the UN slowly responded in helping agencies stop the crisis. After repeated requests from aid agencies, the Security Council adopted Resolution 733 (1992), “imposing an embargo on all deliveries of weapons and military equipment to Somalia.” But as the humanitarian situation worsened, the Security Council was forced to take more drastic action.

When the UN was severely criticized by the Secretary General, African governments, and aid agencies for its double standards—“assisting the Bosnian Muslims, which [were] far less dangerous at the time, but not helping the people of Somalia”—the Security Council “reluctantly” adopted Resolution 751 (1992). Launching UN Operation in Somalia (UNOSOM I) with 500 peacekeepers, the Security Council authorized UNOSOM I “to monitor the ceasefire in the capital, to provide security to aid convoys, and to guard the food depots.” Most peacekeepers were Pakistani troops, and the Security Council had to wait several months for their deployment, ultimately finding them ill equipped to carry out the mission. Furthermore, although the Security Council expanded UNOSOM I to protect humanitarian convoys and distribution centers through Resolution 775 (1992), their mandate was so unclear that UNOSOM I became disorganized and could not contain the violence. By 1992, the humanitarian situation in Somalia had grown increasingly worse.

When Secretary Boutros Ghali accepted, with some reservations, a United States request to lead a multinational force into Somalia, the Security Council adopted Resolution 794 (1992), calling on “member states to use all necessary means to establish as soon as possible a secure environment for humanitarian relief operations in Somalia.” With the U.S. leading Operation Restore Hope, the Security Council created United Task Force (UNITAF) to implement the mandate and to use military force if necessary. Although UNITAF secured an environment for the distribution of humanitarian assistance, however, it failed to provide security throughout the country.

Since Somalia’s security did not significantly improve—with UNITAF withdrawing its troops in March 1993—the Security Council changed its mission from humanitarian aid to “nation-building” by replacing UNITAF with UNOSOM II through Resolution 814 (1993). By authorizing UNOSOM II “to monitor cessation of hostilities, seize unauthorized small arms, and maintain security at transportation facilities,” the Security Council wanted UNOSOM II “to assist the people of Somalia in rebuilding their social, economic, and political life.” However, because the Security Council did not concentrate its efforts to confiscate Somali arms in Mogadishu, it failed to send “an early and strong message that the US and UN were serious about restoring order.” Within months of its deployment, UNOSOM II engaged in several violent clashes with General Aidid’s forces. Condemning the attack and calling for those responsible to be punished, the SC expanded the authority of UNOSOM II to include pursuit and capture of the attackers.

Unfortunately, attacks on UNOSOM II along with the warrant issued for General Aidid’s capture drastically changed the situation in Somalia. With hostilities against UNOSOM II’s forces escalating, Aidid’s forces ambushed and killed three American marines in a Black Hawk helicopter showdown. This incident turned public opinion against further US participation, the US Congress called for US troops to withdraw. As a result, President Clinton announced an early withdraw of American troops from Somalia and terminated the UN operation by March of 1995.


Composed of two major ethnic groups, Hutu (85%) and Tutsi (14%), Rwanda was dominated by the Tutsi minority group in political affairs. In the early 1990s, the Hutu extremists blamed the Tutsis for Rwanda’s increasing social, political, and economic problems. As a result, when the Hutu’s Armed Forces from Rwanda resumed hostilities against the Tutsi-led Rwandese Patriotic Front (RPF) in 1993, Rwanda requested military observers. When Tanzania and the Organization of African Unity (OAU) agreed to a democratically elected government under the Arusha Accords, the Security Council, adopting Resolution 872 (1993), created the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR) to monitor and support the new government. Moreover, adopting Resolution 893 (1994), the Security Council noted “with concern” the violence in Rwanda. Despite creating UNAMIR and noting the incidents, the Security Council took no further action, even when UNAMIR’s field commander General Rameo A. Dallaire declared “that the Hutu extremists were in the process of exterminating the Tutsi minority, and that UNAMIR’s mandate should be augmented to allow it to play a more assertive and preventive role in Rwanda.”

President Juvenal Habyarimana

Following the deaths of President Habyarimana and Burundi’s President Cuprien Ntaryamira, who died in a plane crash flying back from peace talks in April 1994, the political situation in Rwanda took a bad turn. Blaming the RPF for the deaths of the two presidents, the Hutu extremists initiated a search and kill mission for members of President Habyariman’s government. More importantly, in one hundred days, Hutu extremists massacred over 800,000 ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus—an unprecedented number in Rwanda’s post-independence history. In addition, easily taking on 5,000 lightly armed peacekeepers, which were unprepared to confront the extremists’ wave of terror, Hutu extremists kidnapped Belgian peacekeepers and executed them. With the gross and systematic killings, the Hutu extremists quickly forced Belgium to withdraw its unprepared troops from UNAMIR.

Ignoring Belgium’s plea to suspend UNAMIR, the Security Council strongly “condemned the deaths of Presidents Habyarimana and Ntaryamira, the violence against the civilian population, and the [collapsing] of the peace process” in Resolution 912 (1994). Although expressing “deep concern for the safety of UNAMIR and condemning the attacks against UNAMIR personnel,” the Security Council failed to strongly condemn the genocide, let alone acknowledge that it had been committed. Secretary-General Boutros Boutros-Ghali and the UN had “business as usual” meetings and were hesitant to use the word “genocide,” which would force them to take action. Also, since no state wanted to send their troops to an increasing chaotic environment, the Security Council had a hard time convincing member states to contribute their troops for an expanded operation. As a result, when it called upon all concerned “to end the violence and to respect fully international humanitarian law,” the Security Council “decided to keep the situation in Rwanda under constant review.”

But when violence escalated in Rwanda, the Security Council finally condemned the numerous killings of “thousands of innocent civilians and the internal displacement of a significant percentage of the Rwandan population.” For the first time since the violence began, the Council warned that “the killing of members of an ethnic group with the intention of destroying such a group, in whole or in part, [constitutes] a crime punishable under international law.” Consequently, expanding UNAMIR’s mandate, the Security Council “declared the continuing magnitude of human suffering as constituting a threat to regional peace and security.” Under Chapter VII, it authorized a humanitarian operation to establish protected zones in south western Rwanda and increased UNAMIR’s force level to 5,500 troops.

The Security Council expanded UNAMIR’s mandate in resolutions 964 (1994), 997 (1995), and 1029 (1995), but the new Rwandan government blamed the UN and UNAMIR for not doing more to stop the genocide and asked UNAMIR to simply leave. By supporting a civil war in Zaire and massacring thousands of Hutu extremists, the new government drove the Hutu extremists out of Rwanda and of neighboring Zaire.

However, after much criticism from NGOs and other human rights observers over not intervening earlier to stop the genocide in Rwanda, the Security Council adopted the Statute of the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda (ICTR). With “overwhelming evidence” that the Hutus “had perpetrated acts of genocide against the Tutsi group in a concerted, planned, systematic and methodical way,” the Security Council created the ICTR “for the sole purpose of prosecuting persons responsible for genocide and other serious violations of international humanitarian law committed in the territory of Rwanda . . . between 1 January 1994 and 31 December 1994” according to the International Committee of the Red Cross.   Although it got off to a slow start, the ICTR has convicted a number of former Rwandese government officials for genocide, including former Prime Minister Jean Kambanda, and continues to pursue cases against military commanders, government officials, and other influential leaders.


There are four key take-aways from Somalia and Rwanda.

First, the Security Council dealt with unreliable mandates both for Somalia and Rwanda, neither of which clearly stated the problem or the underlying causes. For example, the Council’s mandates for UNOSOM I and UNITAF lacked a built-in strategy, resulting in both failing to provide security in Somalia. The Security Council also failed to make consensus-based mandates. Resolution 912 (1994) on Rwanda, for instance, demonstrated how the Security Council failed to strongly condemn or acknowledge that genocide had been committed. With question marks floating around, the mandates needed sustained political support from the Security Council and UN member states.

Skulls from the Rwandan Genocide found at the Nyamata Memorial

Second, because of UN Charter Section 2(7), the Security Council was slow to respond with military action. Under Section 2(7) (“nothing in the present Charter shall authorize the United Nations to intervene in matters which are essentially within the domestic jurisdiction of any state”), the Security Council had a hard time deciding whether it would be interfering in the domestic affairs of both states.

Third, the Security Council initially had little interest in Somalia and Rwanda. It was “distracted by a series of conflicts around the globe,” such as in Bosnia, that prevented it from focusing on Somalia. In Rwanda, the Security Council did not take early notice because the Hutus and Tutsi had been battling for many years.

Last, because the UN does not have its own troops, the Security Council had to depend on member states’ forces. Thus, it faced delays in implementing military action in both cases. Moreover, in both cases, the forces were ill equipped.

Stemming from the failures in Somalia and Rwanda, the UN transitioned from a policy of humanitarian intervention to one of “responsibility to protect” (R2P) in 2005.  R2P has three elements:

1)     A state is responsible for protecting its people from mass human rights violations.

2)     If the state is unable to protect its citizens by itself, the state should ask the international community for assistance.

3)     If the state fails to protect its citizens and peaceful measures have failed, R2P assigns to the international community the responsibility to intervene with technical support, followed by military action as a last resort.

As Kofi Annan stated, “despite all the difficulties of putting [R2P] into practice, it does show that humankind today is less willing than in the past to tolerate suffering in its midst, and more willing to do something about it.”

Daniel Golebiewski, a masters candidate for Human Rights Studies at Columbia University, is editor-at-large of e-International Relations.

Published by Daniel Golebiewski

Daniel Golebiewski, Editor-at-Large of e-IR, is a contributor to The Politic.

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