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Q&A with Lt. General Roméo Dallaire, Force Commander of the United Nations Assistance Mission to Rwanda

Romeo Dallaire

Roméo Dallaire spoke with students in Robertson Hall.

Photo Credit: Jon Ort / The Daily Princetonian

Lt. General Roméo Dallaire was the Force Commander of the United Nations Assistance Mission to Rwanda during the Rwandan genocide in 1994. He visited the University as part of the lecture series at the Woodrow Wilson School.

The Daily Princetonian: How did you feel when you found out that your request [for international assistance] to [the United Nations] after sending the “Genocide Fax” was denied?


Lt. General Roméo Dallaire: Words can’t describe it, because we had been working, trying to garner what was happening. We knew that there were subversive elements at work and that there were extremists. In the United Nations at the time we were not allowed to gather intelligence, because you were not allowed to do covert work. You were there because both sides wanted peace, and so if they both want peace, then you work with them transparently to bring peace. But what we were discovering was that there was one side that did not want peace, that had not even signed onto the peace agreement.

So, with this, we finally had enough material with the movement of weapons and weapons caches that this [an anti-Tutsi extermination plot] was being prepared. And what made me even madder than the answer that I got, that I could not conduct offensive operations because it was a Chapter Six mission and that they did not consider this to be part of my mandate, was the fact that political leadership of the mission didn’t believe it, either. And because the political leadership didn’t commit itself to that. They had a different perspective. They influenced New York, also against my desire to be preemptive.

DP: So, it’s been 25 years now since the Rwandan Genocide. Do you believe that the international community’s stance of “Responsibility to Protect” has meaningfully evolved?

Dallaire: I have been asked that question, and my answer has been more and more deliberately that I’m holding the international community more accountable now than in the early ’90s, when we have Myanmar and things of that nature. Now we’ve got 25 years of institutions like the International Criminal Court, we’ve got [the] Responsibility to Protect doctrine. We’ve got the tools, but what we’re seeing is an ever increasing reticence of the political elites to engage in using these things. They were dominated more than even was possible in the past by self-interests, and unless there is a deliberate self-interest, they won’t engage.

And secondly, I’m holding the middle powers more accountable than the big powers for not taking actions and coalescing together to become activists in advancing the protection of people and their human rights, because they have sort of fallen just behind the big powers. So, they are letting the big powers call the shots, versus initiating middle power coalitions to actually reinforce regional capabilities to meet the challenges of the future.

DP: What would you consider those middle powers to be?


Dallaire: The Germanys, the Brazils, the Canadas, the Scandinavian countries, the Indias, a number of other European powers. I also think that the regional powers could be brought to bear, like the European Union could be brought to bear, the African Union, or the Organization of American States. These are regional capabilities that could take on more of a deliberate role.

DP: There are many people in the international stage [who] consider the violence against the Rohingya people in Myanmar to be genocidal violence. Do you agree, and do you believe that the international response to that violence has been sufficient?

Dallaire: I totally agree with it, and I’ve articulated that publicly, in writing, near the start of the whole damn thing. And their response has been no response — which is a response, right? Not making a decision is a decision, and that’s what we’ve seen. Why? Self-interest. People just didn’t see a value in it. And what I think could have maybe avoided the escalation … was getting in there to prevent a recruitment of child soldiers, which sustained the conflict. It’s created a mass atrocities philosophy, because if you’re willing to recruit children to commit exactions like that, then that is, in my opinion, an early warning sign to mass atrocities and genocide. There’s only one step to go beyond local and conduct massive abuses of human rights.  

DP: So, I know you retired from the Canadian Senate in 2014, mostly to focus on your Child Soldiers Initiative. Where do you believe the greatest inroads have been made in eradicating the presence of child soldiers, and which countries still have a long way to go?

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Dallaire: The greatest inroads are being made in Africa, where there was a significant use of child soldiers. They’re being made by major African contributing countries. We’re seeing the Ghanas, we’re seeing the Rwandas, we’re seeing Sierra Leone, now we’re going to start seeing Nigeria, cause we’re starting to work in Nigeria internally. But they also have significant challenges. We’ve been in Somali with the Al-Shabaab, trying to get rid of them. Somalia has been working hard to do that. In Nigeria, we’re working with them to stop the Boko Haram, and the ISIS problem is evolving. But essentially, we’re seeing Rwanda, Ghana as dominant countries in peacekeeping. Senegal is in there; it’s part of the ongoing exercise.

Some are falling right behind it, like the Ugandas and so on, and others simply continue to just self-destruct themselves. We’re working extensively in South Sudan, where all sides are using child soldiers. So there’s a willingness, but they don’t seem to be able to bring it about. And so we hope the peace process now, we hope to influence it by getting them to agree to stop recruiting children. If we do that, we take away their mobilization base. If we ultimately get them around the table talking about kids, then might ultimately lead to something more.

DP: You’ve been very outspoken about your mental health issues and about PTSD after leading [and] serving in Rwanda. Do you have a hope or vision for military mental health awareness in the future?

Dallaire: I have [an] enormous amount of optimism on that side … In 1997, I was a two-star General, and I went public with my injury. And that broke a lot of the log jams, in the stigma and in the interpretation that the troops have in regard to those who were injured mentally because military forces, security forces, in uniform, they’re very Darwinian and very intolerant to what they don’t see. There was a real problem in them accepting the fact that that injury was honorable. So, the great move forward was to recognize that being shot in the leg, losing an arm, and also having a lot of your grey cells completely rearranged and some destroyed was also as honorable. They’re also on the same plane, need the same sense of urgency to take care. 

So, first was that, and that has gone a long way in getting the troops to what was available. The second thing is that 9 years ago, now going on just 10 years ago, we created a research requirement. We said, we can’t simply go into these conflicts and pick up the pieces and [think] hopefully we’ve got some solutions. We’ve got to research how to reduce the impact of ethical/moral trauma and dilemma on the troops that create many of these problems in these very complex and ambiguous missions that we find ourselves in.

So, we’ve got to see how we prepare them better to handle particularly the depth of moral trauma. One of the solutions being spirituality — not religion, but spirituality — and giving you more resilience. The second thing is that we needed research on how to handle the problem better in the field. You know, you’ve got the MASH [mobile army surgical hospital] units that will take care of a person if he’s physically injured. Where’s the MASH unit to take care of the guys and the girls that are psychologically injured? Right?

So, it’s an injury that requires urgency in the field and what are the tools to do that. And ultimately, how do you handle them when they come back more effectively? And their families, and their families, because of communications nearly living in the trenches with the guys now, guys and girls. So how do you do that? 

The research is now in its tenth year. We never had research on this before. And as an example, in Canada, there [are] 31 universities involved virtually in this research, and what we have discovered is that the civilian world, the border guards, prison guards, they’re all hurting too. Even the park rangers are hurting.  And so, first responders, the police force and so on, are starting to build a greater capability based on the research the military [has] launched.

So, I’ve got a fair amount of optimism that we’re going to be moving, because the money and the interest is there. They’re realizing that these casualties afterwards can be terminal, because we’re losing still a lot to suicide … they’re also losing them as being experienced people [who] you spent a lot of money training [who] are now gone, because you can’t employ them anymore.

DP: Have you been back to Rwanda since serving there? How did that feel to go back?

Dallaire: Several times. First, I was very — it was like walking around with a teleprompter. So, I could see something, but I really saw what had happened. And so, it was like going through hell again, a second time. Since then, there’s always sensitive components to it, because of very sensitive events or things, but the nature of that country being so progressive and doing so much and moving the yard sticks to peace, it’s the second troop country to peacekeeping [in terms of contributing troops to UN peacekeeping operations]. They are very progressive in their employment of women, of technology and so on. I am very encouraged when I go back.

DP: What are your thoughts on the Trump Administration’s foreign policy stance, especially with their actions with the Kurds and Turkey in Syria?

Dallaire: There is no limit to my disdain for that person. It is beyond me how a great nation with all this intellectual power and capability was able to ultimately able to find as its leader a person like that. I think that the policies that are being produced by that administration are policies that, as we used to say, we written on the back of a cigarette pack. I consider the United States as a nation that has lost its moral reference in the world and has got to get its shit together before it continues to make things that much more complex and difficult for the rest of us.

DP: Do you believe the world is headed in some sort of linear direction, both politically and militarily? Are we on some sort of path?

Dallaire: I am of the school that believes that in the next couple of centuries, we will ultimately resolve the frictions of our differences without reverting to conflict, without having to destroy each other. I believe that because of international institutions but also because fundamentally, human rights are being recognized more and more as a fundamental premise of humanity, and not a creation by the West.

The more and more we continue to thrive to advance human rights and base our decisions on that and not purely on self-interests, that we will achieve that. The greatest power behind that are those under 25 [years old] right now, the generation without borders, who are already global, because of the revolution with communications, what they carry in their hand. They can Skype anyone in the world pretty soon. To them, it’s just a small little place, and there are no borders.

DP: Do you believe that there are measures that the world can take today to prevent what happened in Rwanda from occurring again? Is there reform needed on the international stage?

Dallaire: Yes, and we can spend an hour on that. I think what is critical is that the countries realize that whenever there is conflict in the world, it will affect us, so take a different perspective of what self-interest is. The world is not isolated, so the rage of the developing world, the 80% of humanity still living in poverty, is now transportable worldwide, through electronic means and the ability to move and travel around countries at a reasonable price and the like.

With that being said, I think that there is an absolute need for us to be able to prevent conflicts in order to prevent massive refugee camps in which you have pandemics that spread and will come and haunt us at home. That you will stop these massive movements of populations that create rage and disparities, lead to extremism and ultimately terrorism. That conflicts in different parts of the world are affecting the diasporas that now exist in many of the developed countries. That creates internal frictions.

And so, you must look at every conflict as having an impact on you. It is in your self-interest to prevent these conflicts because it prevents these dimensions from going well beyond the borders of that conflict.