On Wednesday evening we had the honor of attending a lecture by Canadian Lt. General Romeo Dallaire at the Brattle Theatre in Cambridge as part of the Harvard Book Store's Event Series.We are so glad that we went; he was absolutely inspiring.
Having visited Rwanda in 2006, we were familiar with Dallaire’s work. He was the leader of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR) during the 1994 genocide in which 800,000 ethnic Tutsis and moderate Hutus were killed by Hutu extremists in a span of 100 days. Dallaire and his UN forces were there as “peacekeepers”, but their mandate effectively prevented them from being able to do anything proactive to prevent the genocide. He reported to the UN in the days leading up to the slaughter that Hutu hate mongers were preparing to try to exterminate their Tutsi neighbors. He requested 5000 troops to be deployed so that they could nip the genocide in the bud. However, nations were unwilling to get involved in what they essentially saw as a tribal civil war. In his book “Shake Hands with the Devil”, Dallaire writes, "Engraved still in my brain is the judgment of a small group of bureaucrats who came to 'assess' the situation in the first weeks of the genocide: 'We will recommend to our government not to intervene as the risks are high and all that is here are humans.'" Natural resources and forms of wealth were seen as worthy of intervention. Simple human rights and lives were not. Dallaire and his small band of peacekeepers were forced to stand by with their hands tied while men, women, and children slaughtered their neighbors with machetes and guns, killing indiscriminately anyone who was identified as (or sympathized with) the Tutsis. People turned on their friends and family members, often killing those who were closest to them.
In the 17 years since the genocide, Dallaire has worked tirelessly on humanitarian and peacekeeping projects. His latest book “They Fight Like Soldiers, They Die Like Children” is the culmination of ongoing research and lobbying against the use of child soldiers in conflicts worldwide. Many of the murderers in Rwanda were mere children. This was the subject of his lecture at the Brattle.
He explained that the problem of child soldiers as it exists today can be traced back to conflict in the late 1980’s in Mozambique. As the Cold War wound down, there was a proliferation of “small arms” (AK-47’s and the like) which were never destroyed once their usefulness to the superpowers had passed. These guns could be effective weapons in the hands of children as young as 8 years old, and were often attainable for as little as $3 apiece. Children were suddenly viewed as “weapons systems” who could be easily manipulated. Today there are at least 250,000 child soldiers worldwide. 40 percent of these are girls. Girls can handle the guns and fight like boys, but they have the added distinction of being used as sex slaves and homemakers around the camps, cooking for the troops, etc. Child soldiers are often drugged to make them easier to manipulate. Rape is also used as a weapon.
There is a quandary for professional soldiers who come up against child combatants. What should they do? Does the rule of self defense apply? The children are holding a gun and coming after them. To quote the title of his book, “they fight like soldiers”, but if you shoot back, they transform from soldiers into children dying of war wounds.
When asked if the child soldier problem is primarily an African phenomenon, Dallaire responded that in terms of political/civil wars, sub-Saharan Africa is where the majority takes place. But he believes that the same kind of thing takes place in Central/South America, but in relation to warring drug lords. He said that he spent two weeks in the favelas in Rio, and that while he was there, three drug lords had been killed. He said that the violence was no different than war zones such as Rwanda had been.
He has been doing research on how to try to stop the child soldier paradigm. He mentioned that there need to be alternatives, so that leaders no longer see child soldiers as a viable option. He likened it to land mines, where we have been able to convince countries that there are other ways to provide for their own security without resorting to the use of land mines.
He mentioned that at the height of the Cold War, there were millions of troops stationed around Europe. Where are they now? He stressed that in the short term we need to focus on peaceMAKING rather than peaceKEEPING. Sometimes force must be used to diffuse these situations. Dallaire’s original mandate in Rwanda was Chapter 6 of the UN Charter: Pacific Settlements of Disputes. This was because at the time he was deployed, both sides of the Rwandan conflict had signed peace accords in Arusha. The UN was there to see that they continued to reconcile. However, when Hutu President Juvenal Habyarimana's plane was shot down, extremists responded by starting systematic extermination of the Tutsis and anyone sympathizing with the Tutsis. With this drastic change in the situation, the UN never upgraded Dallaire’s mandate to Chapter 7, Action with Respect to Threats to the Peace, Breaches of the Peace, and Acts of Aggression. As such, Dallaire could not get the go-ahead to destroy the weapons cache he had been alerted to in the days leading up to the genocide, nor could he engage the combatants once the genocide began.
Dallaire explained that the earlier peacemakers get involved the better. He said that through intervention in Kenya, they were able to shut down 3 genocide-inciting radio stations (something he thinks could have also made a difference in Rwanda). He said that we have been “7 weeks too late” in Libya. Gadhafi was calling his people cockroaches and threatening to wipe them out; which really makes the situation on par with Rwanda in terms of genocide. We have the responsibility to intervene when civilians are endangered to this degree.
Someone in the audience asked how on earth Dallaire could have any faith in humanity after what he has witnessed during his career. His answer was very honest and direct. He said that one of the benefits of living in a developed country is that good drugs are available. He said that he takes 9 pills a day just to try to keep himself on an even keel and keep suicidal tendencies at bay. He lobbies for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) to be considered an honorable injury, on par with being “shot in the buttocks”. It was refreshing to hear someone admitting to having these problems with no sense of shame, and trying to get the military to deal with its mentally injured as well as its physically injured veterans.
He said that he has found it helpful to focus on the long-term rather than the short-term. He hopes that within 200 years, armed conflicts may become a thing of the past with the advent of conflict prevention strategies rather than conflict resolution strategies. Sure that seems like a long time from now, but when you look at history and how long warfare has been around, it would be actually quite short in the grand scheme of things. For someone who is third generation military like Dallaire to be so committed to 1) following moral conventions of war in the short term and 2) stopping war altogether in the long term is extremely admirable.
He said that superpowers cannot carry the entire burden themselves. He said that by being superpowers, they have a lot more responsibilities and liabilities and can’t always become the drivers of such policy. He calls out the “middle powers” such as Canada and various European countries as having an opportunity and resources to act as peacemakers and to really affect change in these various conflicts. But the superpowers have to politically back such resolutions at the UN level. And they also need to be consistent. The US played fast and loose with human rights conventions in the aftermath of 9/11, with the detention center in Guantanamo Bay as well as waterboarding and other arguable methods of torture. We can’t be a moral authority if we revert to human rights violations ourselves the moment our security is threatened.
The international community has agreed that it is a violation of human rights for children under the age of 18 to be recruited for military service. An audience member asked what the real difference is between a 16 year old and a 18 year old in terms of maturity and decision-making ability to be able to join the military. He said that it seems that often in the US, the military visits schools as young as middle school and grooms young people for military service so that they join up as soon as they turn 18. Dallaire acknowledged this as a wonderful question and illustrated it with an anecdote from his own life. He went to Catholic school where the brothers who taught him were trained in artillery. They had a target range in the basement of their school and they were taught to shoot, etc. This practice has now changed, and the programs now are more akin to scouting than military training. He believes that children should not be recruited at young ages.
Tickets to this event were only $5, and gave you $5 off the purchase of “They Fight Like Children; They Die Like Soldiers”. We bought a copy and had it (along with our copy of “Shake Hands with the Devil”) signed after the lecture. We told Lt. General Dallaire that we had visited Rwanda in 2006. He was pleased to hear that, and said “It’s a beautiful country, isn’t it? With beautiful people too.” The fact that he can still view it that way after all of the horrors that he witnessed there is a testament to his character. Craig told him that it was an honor to get to meet him in person and we each shook his hand.