Book review: “Shake Hands with the Devil”

Posted in Africa , Human Rights , UN | 10-Aug-08 | Author: Dieter Farwick

Canadian Senator and former general Romeo Dallaire, seen here in 2007.

It took some years before General (ret) Roméo Dallaire, Canada, was ready to write about his time as Commander of the UN – Mission “UNAMIR”(United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda) in Rwanda back in 1994. Having read the 608-page book (German edition 2008), I fully understand that General (ret) Roméo Dallaire had to take a time-out before he was able to write about his memories of his commitment in Rwanda (Roméo Dallaire, “Shake Hands with the Devil,” Random House Canada, 2003).

The mission in Rwanda was neither the only nor the last UN mission that failed drastically, but it was the worst one with about 800 000 people killed in Rwanda within about one year. It was genocide – even though the UN bureaucrats in New York refrained from using this expression.

UNAMIR was a poorly prepared mission with a robust mandate. It was a political fig leaf that the soldiers on the ground and the people of Rwanda had to pay a high price for. What were the main reasons for the final result of this mission that was not accomplished?

  • The UN proved again the incompetence in the process of decision-making and mounting of a robust peace-supporting mission, if and when major powers show no interest to get involved or block each other in the UN Security Council
  • Without the commitment of major powers and without a strong lead nation, smaller nations are not able to shoulder the burden. The US under President Bill Clinton was not interested and very reluctant to give its support. The former colonial powers in Africa – France and Belgium – followed their national interests more than the UN aims and objectives
  • After the final decision to start the mission there was no time to train and educate the commanders and their staffs. There was a lack of cultural awareness and cultural competence
  • UNAMIR was sent to Rwanda without a clear mandate as well as without a clear definition of the desired end-state – not to mention the criteria for success.
  • The UN does not have a reserve of competent civilian diplomats and politicians who are well prepared for a peace support operation
  • Gen (ret) Roméo Dallaire never got the means – manpower and equipment - he needed to accomplish the mission. The men in charge of the mission at the UN – including later Secretary General Kofi Annan – were not able and/or willing to answer the urgent requests from the commander on the ground.
  • The “rules of engagement” were too restrictive. Even when the genocide had obviously started the soldiers were forbidden to use their weapons – except for self-defense. They were forced to watch the genocide from the sidelines – 24 hours a day for about one year. Even after ten Belgian soldiers were slaughtered, this did not change.

Whenever negative events occurred the soldiers lost the finger-pointing competition against the UN. The commander had to invest a lot of his time to write lengthy reports for the bureaucrats in New York – without any effect. Rwanda was not high on the world’s agenda – like Darfur today.

It comes to no surprise that Gen (ret) Roméo Dallaire suffered the “burn-out” syndrome – with the pictures of torture and murder of women and children coming back to his mind.

Today, UN peace support operations have become more active than ever before. There are a lot of lessons to be learned from the experience in Rwanda. That’s the merit of Gen (ret) Romeo Dallaire.

Therefore, Dallaire’s book is a must-read for politicians, diplomats, UN bureaucrats and soldiers. The latter are too often used as pawns on the UN chessboard. The book is not easy to read. Sometimes the reader is tempted to stop reading because of the almost unbearable details of torture and murder.

But Gen (ret) Roméo Dallaire and his brave soldiers deserve that the major lessons they learned are taken seriously:

  • Without the commitment of major powers, the UN should refrain from military operations above brigade level.
  • The UN should give the mandate to a strong lead nation or to a politico-military alliance – like NATO
  • The UN mandate must include a clear mission statement, the desired end-state and criteria for success - with a minimum of national caveats
  • Training and equipment of the troops have to be finalized before the mission starts.
  • The UN must ensure that civilians and soldiers involved are educated in cultural awareness
  • The UN must build up a corps of well-trained politicians and diplomats to become competent partners of the military commander on the ground
  • The UN should delegate minor peace support operations to regional organizations
  • The commander should come from the nation with the highest troop strength
  • The commander should get more operational freedom
  • The participating nations should execute a fair division of labor and risks.
  • The UN should improve its ability for crisis prevention – based upon valid intelligence. An emerging crisis is easier to handle than a fait accompli.