Culture | Dallaire speaks to students

Canada is failing in its commitments to the international community, ex-general says

At his talk last Thursday at Concordia, Romeo Dallaire told the audience that Canada finds itself in a new international situation, with new powers to contest with. “We are one of the eleven most powerful nations in the world. That catches us by surprise because we kind of stumbled into that,” he said. “It wasn’t an ambition, as such, of this nation. But we are in such a situation and the question is, as a nation state, are we living up to that?” Considering how little attention Dallaire believes federal politicians pay to foreign policy, his opinion would indicate otherwise.

“It is said in the Ottawa bubble that foreign policy is not an element of any federal election in Canada. It’s not of significance – it’s not a vote-getter,” he continued. “Foreign policy, by the eleventh most powerful nation in the world, is not an element worthy of debate in a fundamental election of the federal system. That’s incredible.”

Much of the talk centred around Dallaire’s experiences with child soldiers in Rwanda. The practice of drugging and indoctrinating children for use as soldiers and human shields has become a widespread practice in war-torn regions, he emphasized. Female child soldiers, he continued, are not only used to provide food and logistics, but also as sex slaves. “There are now close to thirty conflicts in the world where child soldiers are the primary weapon system in the war,” he said. “We don’t like nuclear weapons so we don’t have nuclear war. But, we’re quite prepared to see wars go on where children are the primary weapon. The proliferation of small arms, the availability of the children, the failing state – and so these children are up front, killing, maiming under duress, and under drugs.”

Dallaire went on to argue that there is no longer such thing as a peacekeeper. It is no use throwing money at countries, he said. Instead, Canada must go into countries and “get their boots dirty.”

A multidisciplinary approach to intervention, he argued, is vital. “Military, humanitarians, diplomats, and nation builders have to work all together. It’s essential to have diplomats and humanitarians and development people with the police and the military in the field together, functioning, not because of personalities, not just cooperating, coordinating and collaborating, but integrating.”

Frank Chalk, history professor at Concordia and director of the Montreal Institute for Genocide and Human Rights Studies, spoke about his feelings as a Canadian after the talk. “This talk made me wish that the government of Canada would adopt the recommendations in the book [Mobilizing the Will to Intervene: Leadership and Action to Prevent Mass Atrocities] that we did with General Dallaire, to move Canada back into the human security or peacekeeping sphere and also to enrich our foreign assistance program so that it’s larger than just feeding people,” he said. “It makes me feel sad in that sense, that we’re not doing enough even though we have the skills and the wealth.”

The September 11 terrorist attacks in America dented Canada’s feeling of invincibility, argued Dallaire – the country has become a different, more volatile place today than it was a decade ago. “We’ve built our whole concept of who we are under the premise that nobody would really attack us. This naivety has given us the sense of security that has been altered,” he said. “9/11 created panic, and a response to 9/11 has been fiddling with our civil liberties…fiddling with our human rights. We have let people torture each other.”

All the more reason that Canada must be more involved in humanitarian causes around the world. “We know that eighty per cent of humanity is suffering from abject poverty,” Dallaire said. “We have seen ethnic cleansing and genocide; the concept ‘never again’ has failed. We’ve seen [genocide], watched it, and let it happen.”

In a post-9/11 world, it is clear that international intervention in human rights abuses has become the norm – yet there remains disparity between those abuses which are targeted, and those which are ignored. Nuclear weapons and demands for oil may be cause for conflict: where do child soldiers fit in to this international scale of justice?