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
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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