General Romeo Dallaire was in town last week to deliver the Claude and Elaine Pensa Lecture on Human Rights at Western University’s Faculty of Law – an annual event. We hadn’t seen one another for 18 months and we both missed the days of working together on international issues in both the House of Commons and the Senate.
He spoke to a packed lecture room filled with students, faculty, lawyers and just interested citizens. Looking around the venue, I spotted Conservatives, Liberals, NDP, and one former Green Party candidate – an eclectic mix. It was all sponsored by Harrison Pensa – a well-known legal firm that crosses the political spectrum in practical ways that cooperate in order to better the local community – kind of like how Parliament is supposed to function.
Anyone attending who hoped for a rosy international picture from the famed General would have been disappointed. He spoke of how climate change reframes the developing world, creating refugees, conflicts over resources, and a kind of determinism that seems to say that if we don’t get our head around the need for action on the file that the problems we face in the future will be more human than scientific.
He spoke poignantly of his child soldier initiative and how a girl child soldier is far more valuable that her male counterpart. Former male combatants can be rehabilitated back into a community once demobilized, but a girl soldier will inevitably be rejected by her community because she had likely been raped and no one would want her. In the General’s view, extraordinary efforts at rehabilitation for such individuals are essential if communities are to recover.
Then followed numerous examples of the futility of war, the ongoing threat of nuclear attack, the clear lack of international capacity to deal with emerging issues, and, as one would expect, the ongoing reality of genocide. To drive that point home, Dallaire spoke personally of how he was left with only a few hundred peacekeepers to stave off Rwandan genocide, while in the Bosnian war thousands of troops and stocks of equipment were slated to assist the UN in that effort. “Why the difference?” he asked. “Is one more human than another?” He had the audience on the edge of their seats.
Why would a large number of people sit through a talk on the present bleakness of the human condition? The answer to that is somewhat complex. First of all, it was Romeo Dallaire – a Canadian icon, an international hero, and a person instilled with the ability to touch the human heart in a jaded age. He was introduced at the lecture as someone with dignitas – deserving of a deep and abiding human respect earned from years of service to humanity. That he possessed gravitas was also mentioned – a seriousness regarding life that is acquired through concrete action in a troubled world. Finally, he spoke eloquently with veritas – truth uttered through experience laced with humanity and occasional defeat.
The genocide in Rwanda is now so well-known that it accentuates every sentence he utters. One of the great humanitarian and defence failures of the modern era was bound to attract an audience and people still strive to know how such a tragedy occurred and could we keep it from happening again.
Then there is the sight of watching a remarkable man hounded by the burden of his past. He spoke eloquently of his own suicidal frame of mind following Rwanda – he called them “mental injuries” as part of his military language. I worked with him for over four years in Parliament and always that sense of a past yet pressing in on him never abated. To watch someone in such a state work out his own hopes and ideas in public is a remarkable thing. Voltaire used to say that, “Every man is guilty of all the good he did not do.” Given that some 800,000 people died in a fraction of time in Rwanda, one can somewhat understand the General’s internal turmoil for what he could not do. Yet it’s more than that surely. We witness a man in perpetual pain. Grief isn’t as heavy as guilt, but it has the capacity to take more out of you. Romeo Dallaire is a walking and living example of someone who handles his demons not just through the benefit of medication, but through a dedicated service to the human condition – it’s what keeps him going, yet there’s a deep and abiding pathos to it.
He is a man whose utterances and observations are laced with humour and anecdotes. He isn’t merely hardwired to the negative connotations of humanity. He looked out over the array of students before him just like a General surveying his troops. “You are the hope of tomorrow and its greatest resource,” he told them. He spoke of how the great directions of the future will be driven by technology and that in such terms the youth of the world must take on leadership roles as a result.
When it was over, the applause was deep, respectful and sustained. Claude Pensa, an effective legal mind and sage in the London community, thanked the General for being a timely voice when time was of the essence. We had witnessed and heard not just the voice of history but someone who had shaped it and succumbed to it. The future is ours and we must seize it, regardless of the scars it leaves.
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