By Craig Gilbert/London Community News/Twitter:@CraigbGilbert
It hardly seems dignified to boil down Senator Romeo Dallaire’s presentation at Western University Friday (Nov. 23) to an Animal Farm reference.
But that was the gist of it as he delivered the 2012 Claude and Elaine Pensa Lecture in Human Rights at the university’s Faculty of Law last week. It was sponsored by local law firm Harrison Pensa LLP.
In theory, he said, all humans are human. In practice around the world, however, some are more human than others.
It is and will be one of mankind’s great challenges, something he said will take “two centuries” to accomplish: how are we, the 20 percent of humanity not living under crushing poverty and fear of persecution, going to move 100 percent of humanity forward?
Are we trying to survive the future, he asked, or thrive in it?
The hour-long talk was entitled the will to intervene. It carried themes of true equality among human beings, the not-so-grey areas of real ethical action (or inaction) in the developing world, Canada’s responsibility as a global leader and the task young people, such as Western students, will have in shaping that role in the future.
It’s a role, he said near the end of his formal presentation, that our political leadership has shrugged off by abdicating our seat on the United Nations Security Council.
“We didn’t lose it,” he said. “Didn’t even try to win it — the first time in the history of the United Nations. So it did about a day and a half in the media here, but in many of the countries I’m engaged with, dozens of developing countries, it still resonates because Canada was seen to them as the instrument by which they could be heard and interpreted in order to influence the big powers and bring about innovative solutions. Be that instrument of bridging.
“And interestingly enough, we’re getting a lot of flack from the big countries who saw Canada also as an instrument to interpret what they were trying to do or even coalesce world powers to be far more engaged than they have in the past.”
He had previously displayed a chart that showed Canada atop the middle powers of the world, on equal billing with Germany, Japan and Italy and ahead of India, Australia, Spain and Brazil.
“We’ve abdicated our role in the world. We decided that. It’s not a fluke. So ladies and gentlemen, the future is in your hands. And you’re either going to survive it, or you’re going to shape it.”
He told the mostly under-25’s in the over-capacity crowd they were the agents of change of tomorrow. Finish school, he said then get your boots dirty and “pay your rite of passage” with a Non-Governmental Organization (NGO).
If just for a week, that time in a developing country would let you “hear and taste and smell what is happening to 80 percent of humanity.”
He mentioned one “small” example, Clowns without Borders, whose name surely is a play on the better-known Medicines Sans Frontieres (Doctors without Borders). He said they go into refugee camps and teach children games — how to laugh and therefore survive in the midst of the worst conditions on the face of the earth.
That said, he noted, you don’t even have to cross an ocean to do this kind of work: look at the conditions some of our own First Nations people are living in.
“I don’t think there has been a more significant time to serve than now, whether in uniform or with an NGO,” he said,” because the missions are just, the missions are right.”
Displaying a slide of scores of NGO logos, he said that world is where Canadians can become activists.
‘They cover every spectrum of humanity,” he said. “You can start your own. They will become the eyes and ears of humanity and they will influence public opinion and policy.”
He said a bill passed by Parliament focusing CIDA (the Canadian International Development Agency) on poverty reduction was built by NGOs.
He said if we don’t exercise that will to intervene, we are assisting in our own regression and those under 25, who turn out to elections at a 15-percent clip, are the “biggest culprits of that.”
“You could change the face of politics in one election because you hold the balance of power, because those votes have never been exercised in the fray of our democracy,” he said. “If you don’t use them, then it’s your fault.”
“If politicians don’t turn you on, it’s because you ain’t engaging to get politicians who can turn you on. You’ve abdicated that to the ones whose careers are already over. There is no logic in not engaging, certainly that in this era that things are shifting so rapidly and unpredictably that your future will be affected differently when you graduate than even it was when you started school. Inaction is an action.”
He spoke about NGOs in Rwanda which were giving 20 percent of their aid to the “bad guys” in order to deliver the rest to the victims.
“I threw them out,” he said, “because the 20 percent they were giving the bad guys was causing more strife than the 80 percent was helping.”
Dallaire tried to debunk the notion that international aid as some abstract, far-away concept. The only way to feel safe in our own beds in the 21st century, he explained, is to alleviate the sources of rage that lead to extremist sentiment and terrorist action in North America. And that’s poverty and disease, murder and rape, displacement and oppression in the developing world.
“The Tamils were so angry about what was happening in their country that they blocked the highways in Toronto,” he said. “Those links are real.”
One could almost feel the room sway as Dallaire, who had already demonstrated his acuity for history, started speaking about 200 years in the future as if it were tomorrow.
He was asked about how the world should deal with rich states, as opposed to third-world dictatorships, that are systemic human rights abusers.
“We do it by attrition, not by frontal assault,” he said. “We do it through education, poverty elimination, (etc). And we’re going to need two centuries to succeed. But what is that when we’ve been at each other’s throats for four or six millennia?
"That would be extraordinary in 200 years. We’ve been in Cyprus for 50 years. So going into Afghanistan for 10 years in a joke. We’re going in for 40, 50, 60 years to assist.”
In 2000, Dallaire retired from the Canadian Forces as a Lieutenant-General after 37 years of service. It was the same year he attempted suicide by combining alcohol and his anti-depression medication. An outspoken advocate for veterans’ mental health, he calls his post-traumatic stress disorder, acquired while leading UN forces in Rwanda before and during the 1994 genocide that saw as many as 1.1 million people raped, killed and displaced over 100 days, as a “mental injury.”
The lecture's sponsor, Harrison Pensa LLP, made a donation to Dallaire’s Child Soldier Initiative, which works on the ground in Africa to extract children from war zones. The amount wasn’t disclosed but from Dallaire’s reaction it will make a difference.
“Holy shit!” he exclaimed. “This keeps my team in the field. We are saving a lot of lives.”