The ongoing escalation of the Russo-Ukrainian War has once again thrown into the spotlight the role the United Nations (UN) can play in an emerging humanitarian crisis. While UN member states, against Russia’s objections, passed a resolution to condemn the blatant attack on Ukraine’s territorial integrity. The organization has so far played second fiddle to the actions of individual states and other international organizations, notably the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) and various international NGOs, in providing aid for Ukrainians.
As the disaster in Ukraine plays out, the lack of UN involvement in providing humanitarian aid has led to some notable deficiencies, especially for the country’s many African residents. Multiple media reports have reported that African students, as they sought to flee the war-torn country, have been subjected to racism and discrimination by Ukrainian authorities in the provision of food, shelter, and safe passage to third countries. Moreover, Europe’s welcome of millions of Ukrainian refugees with open arms contrast with the continued debate whether the continent should accept more nonwhite refugees, including those from Africa.
The absence of UN support for Africans in Ukraine, unfortunately, represents only the latest incarnation of the general inability of the UN to provide necessary humanitarian intervention in conflicts involving Africans. Past UN-led work in African conflict zones has seen the organization standing on the sidelines while conflicts rage unabated, unable to provide the assistance locals need to sustain their livelihoods and very lives. Whereas the UN, prodded by Western allies, has quickly touched on the situation in Ukraine, regional violence that has been haunting many parts of Africa has gone largely unnoticed by the public outside the affected regions and has not been subjected to active UN action.
In Africa, the UN Shows Its Limits
The unnoticed passivity of UN presence can be witnessed in the Central African Republic (CAR), where the UN Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in the CAR (MINUSCA), established in 2014, has not reduced continued violence in the country. Despite their leaders facing criminal charges, the long-standing conflict between Muslim ex-Seleka and Christian anti-Balaka forces has created deep and irreconcilable social cleavages with great potential for mass atrocities. Yet, MINUSCA’s inability to provide sustained, extensive security in the country is continuing to displace numerous civilians and allowing foreign actors, notably Russia, to entrench the conflict by taking political sides and providing arms.
African states and people should rid themselves of the illusion that the UN can prioritize African interests when the need arises. Instead, they should independently find African solutions to provide help to Africans suffering in humanitarian disasters, both in Africa and elsewhere.
The situation in the CAR recalls one of the most well-documented and widely known instances of the UN’s neglect of a humanitarian crisis in Africa is the Rwandan Genocide. The UN Assistance Mission in Rwanda (UNAMIR) was established in 1993 to keep the peace between Hutu-led government forces and the Tutsi-led Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF). But after the mass killings began in 1994, UNAMIR was tasked only with evacuating foreigners but not intervening to stop government forces from massacring Tutsi civilians. Failure to see the killings as a humanitarian crisis in itself only served to reduce the credibility of the UN among locals as the genocide took place.
The limitation of UN presence is particularly dangerous when local political instabilities have become part of global trends that have implications far beyond Africa. In western Africa, the decision by France to withdraw from Mali has led to fears that the threat of Islamic terror will now spread beyond the confines of the five G5 Sahel countries and affect coastal states to their south. The UN presence, most notably in the form of the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA), established in 2013, has not been actively involved in pushing back groups threatening to topple governments and the very lives of residents in a growing number of locales.
Africa Needs to Look Past the UN for Solutions
Without changes to its passivity, the UN risks becoming even more irrelevant in the present and future humanitarian crises in Africa. The ongoing civil war in Libya, for instance, has been one in which major powers, including Turkey, Russia, Egypt, and France, have taken opposite sides in an ongoing war that has impacted the availability of healthcare. The UN has also been largely absent in Ethiopia’s crackdown on Tigray separatists to support regions suffering deliberate blockades. The UN’s inability to provide sustained support for civilians in these crises shows that past crises have not led to the organization becoming better at humanitarian relief for Africans.
In the absence of an active UN, Africa needs to find alternatives that provide humanitarian assistance to its people, both in Africa and abroad. Just as NATO and the European Union took the lead to deliver weapons and aid to Ukraine, African institutions, from the African Union to Economic Community of West African States (ECOWAS), need to operate with the assumption that the UN and non-African international organizations will not prioritize the interest of African citizens.
As the discrimination Africans faced in Ukraine and the negligence of UN missions in past and present African conflicts have shown, the UN will remain at best a passive actor in Africa and an unreliable provider of humanitarian aid and physical security for African citizens. African states and people should rid themselves of the illusion that the UN can prioritize African interests when the need arises. Instead, they should independently find African solutions to provide help to Africans suffering in humanitarian disasters, both in Africa and elsewhere.