Q&A: Rwanda, self-interest & UN intervention

Before his address at Grant Hall Saturday evening, retired Lt.-Gen. Roméo Dallaire spent a few moments with the Journal to discuss his experiences in Rwanda and his thoughts on conflict resolution.

JOURNAL: How did you get involved in UN peacekeeping in the first place?

Dallaire: Oh, I received orders.

You received orders?

I was in the army and so it is a mission that the Canadian Forces received from the government through the Defence White Papers. Peacekeeping is one of the priorities and so we simply find ourselves in these different missions since it started really, since its inception in 1956.

What did you think of Rwanda when you first arrived there as a peacekeeper?

Oh, I thought it was ... one of the most magnificent places to visit. The people were all so very friendly, and a very profound culture.

As a peacekeeper, it was evident that we were not going to be able to make very demanding milestones to advance the peace agreement [because of] the lack of resources and trained troops. And also, already, by some unnerving information with regards to [elements] that were not particularly keen on this peace agreement working.

I read in an interview with PBS that you once said, “Why is it that the black Africans sitting there being slaughtered by the thousands get nothing? Why is it when a bunch of white Europeans get slaughtered in Yugoslavia you can’t put enough capability in there?” The world established a prioritization way long ago, a prioritization that came about from different ethnic groups, religious groups, and then got more sophisticated with nations built out of Westphalian structure: sovereignty and nationalism.

Although [nation-states] coalesce a bunch of people, they also separate people. We’re “us” and “them.” The African public was perceived—and some still perceive, incredibly so, in some European countries that have a colonial past—as just a source of resources. Those who are there are [seen as] simply uneducated, inept and of no great consequences. [That’s what the colonial powers thought] of every other race that wasn’t white and European.

However, what I find most destructive is that today we still see the vestiges of that deep-seated influencing prioritization. So, of course, ex-Yugoslavia is in Europe and it’s closer, and it’s more in your face, and it’s people who are allies.

You can go on and on with all these sort of mitigating points. However, when you get down to it, is one human life equal to another? There is this—more subtle now than it used to be—differentiation that some people count more than others, some people are ultimately more human than others. That’s how you get this sort of reaction.

What do you think the world could be doing right now to help the victims in Sudan? It seems like the situations might be very...

Intervention, intervention.

Is that likely?

Well, that is, in fact, what’s going to be interesting to follow, because Mr. [Colin] Powell has called it a genocide. What we’re not seeing is the mobilization of mass troops to go there. What we’re also seeing is that it’s being called that [only] outside of the UN Security Council, and that’s not good because it still should be framed within the Security Council.

What role does human rights play when the major powers shape their foreign policies?

Well, some of us might say that we are actually human rights-based in our decisions. We’re certainly rule of law-based. By being members of the UN, we believe in the Charter, which is a human rights-based reference. But its application in the field, again, suffers due to other priorities and so...

What are those other priorities?

Oh, self-interest, money, power, future considerations—if none of [those things] are available, they don’t do anything.

Do you believe the United Nations is still a relevant organization today?

Unless you can produce something that can bring multi-national capability together in the world under a reference that has stood past the Charter—it’s there, and my opinion is that it only suffers because of the member states, particularly the big ones, who make it very difficult for it to operate and function.

Are you optimistic about global politics, in general?

Oh yes, but my optimism is based in future centuries’ solutions, not tomorrow morning.

Future centuries? Not even decades, but centuries?

Decades will bring us to the centuries, but decades won’t be enough.

What is the most important thing you have to say to young people today about the world we live in and what we can be doing to make it a better place?

Become activists, get involved, particularly in the non-governmental organizations. They are the potential of power in the future, and they are all, ultimately, based on human rights.

Quick facts on Roméo Dallaire

Lieutenant-General Roméo Dallaire, the son of a Canadian Forces soldier, was born in 1946 in Denekamp, Holland and raised in Montreal. In 1964, he enrolled as a cadet at the Collège militaire royale de St-Jean.

He served in a variety of Canadian Forces posts before being deployed as Forces Commander of the UN mission to Rwanda in 1993. There, the following year, he witnessed the slaughter of 800,000 Rwandans, without sufficient resources to prevent it. Nonetheless, by consolidating his troops in urban areas, he was able to prevent the deaths of 20,000 Tutsis.

Dallaire was medically discharged from the Canadian Forces in 2000 due to post-traumatic stress disorder caused by his experiences in Rwanda, and continues to advise the Canadian Forces on the subject. He is also an activist and researcher in the field of conflict resolution and human rights, and received both the Order of Canada and an honorary degree from Queen’s in 2003.

The same year, Dallaire released a book, Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda, detailing his experiences with the 1994 genocide. Shake Hands with the Devil: The Journey of Roméo Dallaire, a documentary based on the book and on Dallaire’s first return trip to Rwanda earlier this year, premiered at the Toronto Film Festival this weekend.

Source: encyclopedia.thefreedictionary.com and e.bell.ca/filmfest/2004

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