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 Former Lt. General Roméo Dallaire visits Rwanda's Bisesero Genocide Memorial. The photo appears in Shake Hands With the Devil, a documentary film based on Dallaire's memoir of the same name. (Peter Bregg/Maclean's photo)

The responsibility to protect
Roméo Dallaire, a witness to genocide in Rwanda, argues for a new international principle known as R2P

| 21 March 2007

A newly emerging international tool for stopping mass atrocities was at the heart of a two-day human rights conference last week on the Berkeley campus. So it was ironic, and yet consummately appropriate, that it opened with an address from Roméo Dallaire, the Canadian lieutenant general who, by his own accounting, tried and failed to stop the mass atrocities of the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

Humanity is now in an era "where classic war doesn't work and classic peacekeeping doesn't work," the former head of the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Rwanda told a packed audience at the International House Chevron Auditorium the evening of March 13. The first Gulf war was among the last old-school conflicts that conservative generals dream of, he contended. One morning in 1991, riffed Dallaire, a "big, burly American general," Norman Schwarzkopf, "opened the flap of his tent, looked outside, saw the sun, studied the entrails of a pigeon, and said 'Go!' And when he did that, 600,000 men and women in uniform," equipped with the latest weapons systems, moved into action against "another massive force with its tanks, trenches, barbed wire, mines, and its people in uniform, around 400,000.."

But Gulf war I, and even the opening act of the Iraq war, were post-Cold War anomalies, Dallaire believes. Today, global conflict increasingly takes the form of terrorism against civilian populations. In Iraq, for example, after Saddam Hussein was toppled, "the situation changed. The killing didn't stop, the troops were still fighting," he noted. "But there was no more [opposing] army; they were in civilian dress; they were incorporated into the society."

'Rwanda will never leave'

With the rules of war in transition, the rules of peacekeeping that have governed international relations for decades no longer suffice, said Dallaire. In Rwanda he received intelligence, early on, that large-scale, systematic violence was being planned. But when Dallaire attempted to warn U.N. headquarters in New York, his pleadings for additional support and the authority to respond to the threats were unsuccessful. Why? Largely because the conflict was within the borders of a nation-state, whose sovereign rights - in key 20th-century human-rights instruments like the U.N. Charter and the U.N. Declaration of Human Rights - are given more credence than the rights of individual citizens.

The Rwandan bloodbath that followed took the lives of 800,000 people in a hundred days - no small weight on the conscience of one man. Dallaire has personally "faced moral decisions most of us could never imagine," Eric Stover, faculty director of the campus's Human Rights Center (HRC), noted in his introductory remarks. In a recent Frontline documentary, The Ghosts of Rwanda, he said, Dallaire faces the camera and speaks: "'Rwanda will never leave. It is in the pores of my body..My spirit is with the spirits of those people who were slaughtered and killed, and lots of eyes still haunt me.'"

In the aftermath of the Rwandan genocide, Dallaire descended into a period of disillusionment and despair, was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), and was medically discharged from the Canadian military. It may have aided his rehabilitation that he eventually mined his Rwanda-era diary entries (in collaboration with Major Brent Beardsley) to create an award-winning memoir, Shake Hands With the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda (Carroll & Graf, 2003). Dallaire currently assists his country's armed forces on PTSD issues, advises the Canadian government on war-affected children, serves as a Liberal representative to the Canadian Senate (a position to which he was appointed), and remains engaged with the human-rights community.

In his I-House address, Dallaire brought a soldier's appreciation for the practical dilemmas posed by modern peacekeeping during and following large-scale modern atrocities - whether it's ethical to open fire on child soldiers brainwashed into murder ("What does a sergeant do? He doesn't have a two-day conference [to decide]; he has nanoseconds. Do you kill children who kill?"), or, as in Rwanda, how to feed millions of refugees twice a day.

History lessons

Using PowerPoint slides he self-deprecatingly called "a saving grace for us who don't have that intellectual depth that others do," Dallaire referred to the overthrow of colonialism in dozens of nations in the mid-20th century, and the former colonial powers' decision to buy off "a bunch of dictators . to keep a grip on these places." But, with the end of the Cold War, he said, "we simply turned to them and said 'Hey we don't need you anymore.. You should sort yourselves out. And do it fast. If you want money from the IMF or the World Bank, we want to see a democratic system. You've got two years.'"

Because of "our impatience to see results, our impatience at seeing wastage of money," said Dallaire, "we are in fact creating more tensions," and we're expecting new nations "to move much faster than we ever did" to create democratic institutions. In the process, "we're helping to create catastrophes."

Dallaire denounced the racist "pecking order of humanity" that puts sub-Saharan black Africans at the bottom, least likely to be protected from human-rights abuses, especially when the Western powers see no clear self-interest in doing so. And he threw out a challenge to the "Middle Powers" - non-superpower nations like Canada (and Germany, Japan, Italy, India, Australia, Brazil, Spain, Holland, the Scandinavian nations, Mexico, South Africa, and Nigeria) to step up to the plate. "Have they proportionally provided the assets to the U.N.?" Dallaire asked. "The ones who failed me were the sovereign states that refused to give the assets to solve the problem. Every sovereign state that did not provide assets . is guilty of having abandoned the Rwandans," he accused.

Safeguarding vulnerable populations

In an "era of imploding nations [that] is not going away," said Dallaire, the international community needs "a whole new set of tools, a new conceptual base to conflict resolution." To that end, he endorsed the burgeoning international effort to refine, win international support for, and "operationalize" the "responsibility to protect" (R2P). This new international-security and human-rights doctrine holds that the world community has a "responsibility. to help protect populations from genocide, war crimes, ethnic cleansing, and crimes against humanity" - including by taking timely and decisive military action, as a last resort, when nation states will not or cannot protect their own populations from such threats. Adopted by all 192 nations at the U.N. World Summit in late 2005, R2P clearly brands military intervention as an option of last resort, and lays out the specific circumstances in which this radical step would be deemed necessary. (The U.S.-led intervention in Iraq would not have met the criteria.) To implement R2P fully, proponents need to build political will in each country and reform processes at the U.N. so that action could be taken in a timely manner.

The new doctrine, says HRC Executive Director Camille Crittenden, was developed in large part in response to the tragic failures of Rwanda. One of its original authors and the conference keynote speaker was the former Australian foreign minister, Gareth Evans, who has said of the current moment: "Now, for all that we repeatedly chant the post-Holocaust, post-Cambodia, post-Rwanda mantra of 'never again,' we are asking ourselves yet again, in the face of more mass killing and dying in Darfur, whether we really are capable . of stopping nation-states murdering or killing by neglect their own people."

The "Stopping Mass Atrocities" conference, hosted by HRC, was only the second devoted to the responsibility to protect, says Crittenden. "There isn't any sort of R2P central headquarters that's coordinating efforts." Consequently, participants plan to draft a summary document and hope to contribute "to creation of a central infrastructure for making R2P a reality," she says.

What can individuals do to move the process forward? "Join NGOs; give them your brain power. Get your boots dirty," advised Dallaire. "Go touch, smell, taste the reality" of developing and underdeveloped nations. And then "come back and influence the situation. Move into a sense of responsibility to humanity."

For information on R2P, see www.responsibilitytoprotect.org.