Montreal-born Lt.-Gen. and Senator Romeo Dallaire spoke with wit and passion to a full house about leadership, conflict resolution, and child soldiers at the Arts and Culture Centre in St. John's, Newfoundland and Labrador on Wednesday night.
The talk, titled "A Communion of Humanity and the Planet," drew on Dallaire's experience as the leader of the UN's peacekeeping missions in places like Rwanda and the ex-Yugoslavia. In his scratchy but strong voice coloured by subtle French Canadian nuances, Dallaire explained how child soldiers have become a new, low-cost weapon of war and portrayed some of the ethical dilemmas faced by those fighting against them.
"Do you kill abused, indoctrinated, drugged up children who kill?" he asked the riveted audience, which was largely composed of students from Memorial University. "And how many kids do you kill in protecting others before it burns your brain?"
The former commander told how he refused a legal order to pull out of Rwanda in the midst of the genocide there.
"[It is] far better to take a court martial than to live with an immoral order to abandon people you are protecting."
Dallaire described the changing circumstances of war and peacekeeping in what he called the "new world disorder," a time when the rules of war in all the international treaties and conventions since the Treaty of Westphalia have been tossed out and sovereignty is no longer an absolute. However, he shied away from discussing Canada's involvement in Afghanistan, beyond brief statements that "our [current] battles are just" and "we should not pull out just because it is politically 'cute' to do so."
In 2001, Canada introduced the concept of "responsibility to protect" to the UN. This new law allows the international community to go into a specific country when massive human rights abuses are occurring there, if the UN is unable to keep the peace on its own. Unfortunately, according to Dallaire, no one has "operationalized" the concept, meaning the international community's reactions are still sluggish and insufficient in cases like Darfur and Libya.
He praised NGOs as the "voice of humanity" and encouraged everyone to get actively involved in supporting them, and not just by "throwing money at them."
Dallaire concluded the speech with three options for the future: Survive it, Build a wall, or Resolve it at the source, at home and abroad. He appealed to the youth in the crowd to get involved in voting and "harrassing" MPs. 35% of the Canadian voting population is between the ages of 18 and 20, but a mere 15% of citizens in that age group actually vote.
"You hold the balance of power in this democracy and you're not exercising it," he admonished. He was applauded with a standing ovation, to which he responded that it was time for a question and answer period, "now that you've all had your two-minute stretch."
Dallaire is the author of the bestseller Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda and his more recent publication They Fight Like Soldiers, They Die Like Children: The Global Quest to Eradicate the Use of Child Soldiers.
To get involved in Dallaire's fight against the use of child soldiers, visit Zero Force.