Ian Williams

Written By: Ian Williams
Published: November 3, 2013 Last modified: October 30, 2013

Roméo Dallaire should be the hero of an opera. His story certainly has all hallmarks of genuine tragedy – and it embodies many of the key themes of the last century and evokes the Syrian debacle as well.

Dallaire was Force Commander of the United Nations Peacekeeper in Rwanda (UNAMIR) before and during the 1994 genocide. He warned UN headquarters in New York about the planned massacre and sought permission to intervene. The UN bureaucracy did not want to impinge upon “sovereignty” and refused to act without the government – which in reality was planning the massacre.

The bloodbath was presaged by a massacre of Belgian peacekeepers, which led the Belgian government to withdraw its surviving troops, despite the increasingly manifest need as the slaughter of more than 800,000 Rwandans began and continued for more than three horrifying months. Dallaire, along with a small contingent of Ghanaian soldiers and military observers, disobeyed orders to withdraw and remained in Rwanda to protect those who sought refuge with the UN forces and to deter at least some of the killings.

Dallaire’s unwillingness to obey orders and refusal to take the expedient way out cost him dearly. He was shunned by Canadian military colleagues, and, haunted with the memories of the horrors he had seen in Rwanda, had a nervous breakdown. Ethics and a conscience are uncomfortable attributes to have in hierarchies that only have such qualities in homoeopathically diluted quantities.

In customary anti-heroic mode, Bill Clinton had signed Presidential Decision Directive 25, which not only limited the involvement of the United States in peacekeeping operations, but in effect led to a US veto on UN peacekeeping resolutions where the US did not have “a dog in the fight”, in the dismissive words of former Secretary of State James Baker.

Clinton was displaying his customary spinelessness, pandering to conservative obsessions about the UN. In these days of obsession with stopping their co-citizens having access to healthcare, it is hard to remember the conservatives’ previous preoccupation with the UN’s threat to American sovereignty. France, that great pillar of human rights in Syria, and upholder of international law over Iraq, was, of course, on the side of the genocidal regime in Rwanda. The UN simply buried the memo from Dallaire and left him swinging, and eventually endorsed a French peacekeeping effort, “operation Turquoise” which was actually a rescue mission to save the murderers from the advancing rebels. Dallaire protested unavailingly.

The left in general stayed silent, although with the enthusiasm of idiocy some, such as Ramsey Clark, rallied to the defence of the genocide, just as they later supported Slobodan Milosevic and excused Srebrenica. Since US imperialism was so ostentatiously absenting itself from the fray, the simplistic left had no point of reference on Rwanda and the deaths at the sharp ends of machetes left the members of it unmoved. It is a sad comment that massacres such Rwanda and Bosnia are not seen as inherently abhorrent but need some sort of litmus test to put them in political context. One can only assume that all the years of apologising for Bolshevik terror and massacres have attenuating the ethical senses of the Leninising left and its fellow travellers.

Dallaire’s ethical senses were more refined. Despite being career military he knew killing people is wrong, and that wherever possible it should be stopped. His heroism is reminiscent of Warrant Officer Hugh Thompson, who landed his helicopter during the My Lai massacre in Vietnam and threatened to shoot the US troops intent on massacring children. He, too, was shunned by his own command and took years to get recognition.

It is not just luxuriating in hindsight to affirm that, if Dallaire had had the go-ahead to seize the weapons and planners of the Rwanda massacre, it would have averted untold suffering.

Similarly, Dallaire recently said that the world should have intervened much sooner to stop events in Syria spiralling out of control. The form of that intervention is a subject worthy of intensive debate. But there can be little doubt that Bashar al Assad’s regime has been emboldened by all those who have peremptorily ruled out any intervention at all.

About Ian Williams

Ian Williams is Tribune’s UN correspondent