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13 May 1998 | Draft

Perplexing Symmetries in Obedience to Orders

Equivalencies in the moral abdication of Adolf Eichmann and Kofi Annan?

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Produced in the aftermath of the Rwandan Genocide of 1994. Cited in a subsequent development of the argument
(Humanitarian Disaster or Act of God -- Dangerous Implication in Practice? 2011).


The comparisons explored in the following text are repugnant and questionable -- but exactly why is this so? The focus is however on the issue of responsibility of a subordinate for orders that lead to the death of thousands, if not millions of people. Whether repugnant or inappropriate, the questions they raise appear to merit exploration.

From this perspective, there are strange parallels between the case of Adolf Eichmann and Kofi Annan. Whether they are of any significance is for the reader to reflect upon. The question is whether the parallel elements in the two apparently dissimilar cases raise issues concerning decisions made daily by subordinates in governments and corporations -- where these have horrendous consequences for the lives of those affected. Many people now hold such positions. Whether their decisions result in the death or deprivation of hundreds, or thousands, of people -- or of species -- may be irrelevant to the moral dilemma which these cases raise so strikingly.

It is interesting that many corporations are incorporated under the notion of "limited responsibility". Governments also have little difficulty in disclaiming extensive responsibility for systematic programmes, such as the exposure of civilians and soldiers to radiation or to biochemical products.

Adolf Eichmann

In 1961-62, Nazi ss Lieutentant Colonel Adolf Eichmann was convicted and executed on various charges of crimes against humanity that had notably resulted in the deaths of millions of Jews during, and preceding, World War II . Through the mass deportations that he systematically organized, he was a key figure in the Nazi "Final Solution" aimed at the total elimination of European Jewry.

Eichmann's principle line of defence, as with the Nazis tried at Nuremberg, was that he was "just following orders". He disavowed responsibility for the consequences of the orders that he followed. His last words were "I had to obey the rules of war and my flag".

His defence endeavoured to demonstrate that he was essentially a benevolent bureaucrat whose actions had been misrepresented by the prosecution. An aspect of his defence was to advance that Eichmann was not a part of the leadership which made decisions, but that he only carried them out. As such, therefore, he was unable to resist carrying out these orders. He asserted that he had been present at key meetings not because he was part of the leadership conspiring to commit war crimes, but because it was his department's duty to take the minutes of these meetings.

In finding Eichmann guilty on all charges against him, the Court declared that the particulars of his rank and functions did not excuse his actions.

In passing sentence the Court noted: " For the despatch of each train by the Accused to Auschwitz, or to any other extermination site, carrying one thousand human beings, meant that the Accused was a direct accomplice in a thousand premeditated acts of murder, and the degree of his legal and moral responsibility for these acts of murder is not one iota less than the responsibility of the person who with his own hands pushed these human beings into the gas chambers.

Even if we had found that the Accused acted out of blind obedience, as he argued, we would still have said that a man who took part in crimes of such magnitude as these over years must pay the maximum penalty known to the law, and he cannot rely on any order even in mitigation of his punishment. " (

Kofi Annan

Kofi Annan was Under-Secretary-General in charge of UN Peace-keeping Operations during the period leading up to, and following, the deportations and massacres in Rwanda in 1994. It is estimated that some 500,000 people were killed at that time. It has been widely acknowledged that the intentions of the Hutu perpetrators were genocidal.

In 1996, Annan became Secretary-General of the United Nations. In that capacity he visited East Africa in 1998 and responded to queries about his role at the time of the massacres.

Annan had been informed, as early as January 1994, by UN military personnel of the impending massacre in Rwanda. They asked him for permission to act militarily to prevent the massacre that started in April 1994. Annan argues that his mandate precluded him from giving such orders. He effectively ordered the military not to intervene. He referred the military commanders to the permanent members of the Security Council, claiming that it was they who had the authority to act. He argued that it was they who were unable to muster the political will to intervene and provide the troops needed to stop the killing. Since they were unwilling to do so, as he seems to have known, he would presumably accept that he was ensuring that no action would be taken to avert the massacre.

Kofi Annan is quoted as having "no regrets" about his role.


Both Eichmann and Annan disclaim responsibility for their actions because they were following orders of superiors -- as bureaucrats.

  1. In Eichmann's case, these orders specifically provided for deportation of Jews and others to death camps. His subordinates kept records of what followed. In Annan's case, the orders specifically required no military intervention during the forced deportation of Tutsis -- whatever the consequences. His subordinates also kept records of what followed. Thus, in the first case, the orders were to act in a particular way. In the second, they were to not act in a particular way.

  2. In Eichmann's case, the issue was what did he sign that he need not have signed? In Annan's case, the issue is what did he not sign that he could have signed -- if only his resignation?

  3. If, nevertheless, in Eichmann's case, there is complicity in genocide as a consequence, the question is to what degree there is complicity in genocide in the case of Annan? When are acts of omission to be considered equivalent to acts of commission?

  4. In Eichmann's case, had he refused to carry out such orders, he would have been "sanctioned". It is arguable that he could have avoided severe sanctions (and any subsequent trial) had he disassociated himself, early on, from the offices responsible for "deportations". Such action would in all probability have had little effect. In Annan's case, had he acted in defiance of his orders, he would also have been sanctioned -- jeopardizing his career, and possibly losing his job. Such action would also, in all probability, have had little effect. Should Annan have taken the risk and issued orders for military intervention -- whether or not they would be counter-manded within days? Could days, or hours, have made a critical difference on a media-sensitive issue?

  5. Eichmann sought to place responsibility for the consequences of his actions on the Nazi hierarchy, and ultimately Hitler. Annan sought to place responsibility for his non actions on the UN Security Council, especially on the permanent members. Both Eichmann and Annan disclaimed personal responsibility. When does a subordinate have a moral duty to accept responsibility?

  6. Both Eichmann and Annan were bound by official codes of secrecy. Any breach could be sanctioned. If it proves absolutely impossible to issue orders to mitigate, or alleviate, an impending disaster, what responsibility does a bureaucrat have to render public the nature of that disaster concealed from the public? In other contexts this process is known as whistleblowing" and governments have policies to encourage, or sanction, those who engage in it. When should an international civil servant engage in "whistleblowing" -- and how is failure to do so to be judged?

  7. When should an international civil servant consider that his/her position has become "untenable" -- and seek to resign?

  8. The Nazi hierarchy had a genocidal policy and engaged in actions to fulfil it. The UN Security Council has long had policies against genocide -- and, in the case of Rwanda, avoided any action to implement those policies. What comparisons, if any, can usefully be made between the moral issues in each case?

  9. As a consequence of the Nazi policies, millions were held in concentration camps under appalling conditions prior to "termination", in many cases. In 1998, four years after the massacres of 1994, thousands of Hutu prisoners were still being held, under what amount to concentration camp conditions, awaiting trial according to UN principles of justice. What issues of moral responsibility are raised by the two cases?

  10. Faced with the many morally reprehensible, and widely reported, acts of commission, in what morally reprehensible acts of omission are we each complicit?

Related questions?

  1. The failure of Allied governments, and the Vatican, to act or break silence concerning the Holocaust effectively gave Israel the moral advantage in its relationship with the international community. The UN failure to respond to the crisis in Rwanda gave the subsequent Tutsi government the moral advantage to continue to act repressively against the Hutus. In both cases, acting as a victim of a conspiracy of neglect provides a platform for demanding special treatment. What lessons are to be learnt in relationship to the emerging crisis in the Sudan?

  2. In Bosnia, some 8,000 civilians were massacred with a degree of UN complicity during the time of Kofi Annan's role as head of UN peacekeeping operations. According to a report by Bianca Jagger (The European, 25 September-1 October, 1995), "more than two years have elapsed since the fall of Srebrenica, and despite the scale of the carnage, the veracity of shocking testimonies â€. there has been no blame attached to the UN leaders and troops who delivered the men of Srebrenica to the slaughter†A remarkable set of documents obtained from inside the United Nations shows that Milosevic and the UN high command were acting as a close-knit cabal during the massacre at Srebrenica. They were in constant touch with each other, even meeting in the Serbian capital of Belgrade to force "agreements" about the safety of their own soldiers and equipment while women were being raped and murdered, and the men of the town systematically shot and dynamited to death. The UN Dutch battalion was even giving the Bosnian Serbs the fuel to drive the buses that brought the victims to the execution sites and the bulldozers which ploughed the corpses of their victims into the ground." (

  3. A 19-point "Universal Declaration of Human Responsibilities," ( ) was developed by the InterAction Council to be presented to the United Nations General Assembly in 1997. In the light of the proposed clauses of this Declaration, notably Articles 2 and 3, what responsibility does an international civil servant have when faced with evidence of massacre?

    1. There seems to be no provision for whistleblowing on the part of international civil servants. Guidelines on whistleblowing are increasingly common at the national level, notably in the USA and Australia. For example:

    2. The Whistleblower Program, enacted by the Washington State Legislature in 1982, provides a means for state employees to report suspected improper governmental actions. These are any actions by a state employee or officer that violate state laws and rules, are an abuse of authority, are of substantial and specific danger to the public health or safety, or are a gross waste of public funds. Personnel actions and related complaints, including employee grievances, are not considered improper governmental actions under the act and the State Auditor is not authorized to investigate them.

    3. The US non-profit Government Accountability Project. Blowing the Whistle: Twelve Survival Strategies ( An internet resource for information about whistleblowing, governmental wrongdoing and official misconduct. Includes many links for whistleblowers.

  4. How might such national guidelines be adapted for international civil servants to cover the kinds of situation faced by Kofi Annan?

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