Eyewitness to a Genocide: The United Nations and Rwanda / Edition 1

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Why was the UN a bystander during the Rwandan genocide? Do its sins of omission leave it morally responsible for the hundreds of thousands of dead? Michael Barnett, who worked at the U.S. Mission to the United Nations from 1993 to 1994, covered Rwanda for much of the genocide. Based on his first-hand experiences, archival work, and interviews with many key participants, he reconstructs the history of the UN's involvement in Rwanda. In the weeks leading up to the genocide, the author documents, the UN was increasingly aware or had good reason to suspect that Rwanda was a site of crimes against humanity. Yet it failed to act. In Eyewitness to a Genocide, Barnett argues that its indifference was driven not by incompetence or cynicism but rather by reasoned choices cradled by moral considerations.

Employing a novel approach to ethics in practice and in relationship to international organizations, Barnett offers an unsettling possibility: the UN culture recast the ethical commitments of well-intentioned individuals, arresting any duty to aid at the outset of the genocide. Barnett argues that the UN bears some moral responsibility for the genocide. Particularly disturbing is his observation that not only did the UN violate its moral responsibilities, but also that many in New York believed that they were "doing the right thing" as they did so. Barnett addresses the ways in which the Rwandan genocide raises a warning about this age of humanitarianism and concludes by asking whether it is possible to build moral institutions.

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Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"A searching and nuanced moral analysis. . . . Barnett carefully examines the U.N.'s institutional values and the ways in which decent international civil servants adhered to norms that repeatedly drew their attention away from the Rwandan crisis. . . . This insightful, balanced book reveals an unsettling paradox: in making choices it deemed moral, the U.N. tolerated the ultimate immorality of genocide."—Publishers Weekly, February 25, 2002

"Barnett's analysis of the Rwandan crisis provides insight into the operations of the United Nations and its bureaucracy. . . He explores a cultural landscape few outsiders have viewed. . . . Yet, despite the insights, which explain alternative logics, this important, crucial analytical work tends to expose how the UN's decision-making bureaucracy, run by good people, can contribute to the evil and darkness of Rwanda."—Vernon Ford. Booklist, March 2002

"The bureaucratic culture within the UN . . . produced a common understanding of the organization's role in world politics. This vision was embodied in abstract concepts such as neutrality, impartially, and consent. . . . Applied to the Rwanda genocide, these benchmarks dictated inaction. As a result, many UN officials sincerely believed that standing idly by was not only correct but also the morally virtuous stance. A chilling work despite its pervasive academic jargon; recommended for all international affairs collections."—Library Journal, April 2002

"Michael Barnett offers a chilling explanation of why the UN froze while about 800,000 Tutsis and Hutu moderates were hacked to death in Rwanda in 1994. Mr. Barnett, a political officer in America's mission to the UN, blames an institutional culture which led the UN's well-intentioned staff to become entangled in conflicting interests and end up concluding that doing nothing was the proper way to proceed."—The Economist, May 2002

"This elegantly written book helps makes sense of the senseless: why the world, exemplified through the UN, stood by silently as hundreds of thousands of Rwandans were brutally murdered in the spring of 1994. . . Towering above all is Barnett's wedding of concise analysis, insider knowledge, ethical principles, moral outrage, the bureaucratic ethos in New York, misreadings of the situation on the ground, and a balanced attempt to assess blame. Highly recommended."—Choice, July 2002

"This is an unusual, thought-provoking and important book about the UN's response to the genocide in Rwanda. Barnett does not simply seek to document the monumental mistakes that were made and assign blame. He tries to explain those mistakes with reference to the structural characteristics of the UN, in particular the nature of the bureaucracy, and by recreating the universe of the Secretariat in terms of political constraint, moral concerns, and knowledge about Rwanda."—Astri Suhrke, Chr. Michelsen Institute, Norway. International Affairs, Vol. 78, No. 3, July 2002

"Michael Barnett provides insight into the problematic character of humanitarian diplomacy under current world conditions. Eyewitness to a Genocide is a highly sophisticated book that makes us rethink the role of the United Nations, enabling us to understand the operational ethics and geopolitical constraints that control this global organization supposedly dedicated to peace and justice."—Richard Falk, Princeton University

"Eyewitness to a Genocide is an important book on international ethics. Michael Barnett provides a superb analysis of bureaucratic decision making, of evil and how 'good' people contribute to its destructive force."—Howard Adelman, York University

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780801488672
  • Publisher: Cornell University Press
  • Publication date: 7/28/2003
  • Edition description: New Edition
  • Edition number: 1
  • Pages: 240
  • Sales rank: 389,092
  • Product dimensions: 6.00 (w) x 9.00 (h) x 0.20 (d)

Meet the Author

Michael Barnett is University Professor of International Affairs and Political Science at The George Washington University.

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Table of Contents

Introduction: Depraved Indifference
1. It Was a Very Good Year
2. Rwanda Through Rose-Colored Glasses
3. "If This Is an Easy Operation…"
4. The Fog of Genocide
5. Diplomatic Games
6. The Hunt for Moral Responsibility

Brief Chronology of Rwandan Conflict
Selected Chronology of United Nations' Security Agenda


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