Roméo Dallaire: Fighting Against Indifference

Monday, September 26, 2016
A killing squad member aiming his rile at a woman and child near Ivangorod, Ukraine 1942. Photo credit: United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, courtesy of Jerzy Tomaszewski.

In the face of human rights violations, indifference can sometimes be a default response. It is often easiest to be indifferent – to keep one’s head down. But indifference is not a neutral response. It contributes to an environment where perpetrators act without fear of intervention or accountability.

In 2016, I had the opportunity to conduct an oral history interview with one of Canada’s most compelling, and least indifferent, human rights advocates – Lieutenant-General (LGen) Roméo Dallaire. LGen Dallaire is most well known as the leader of a United Nations (UN) mission before and during the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda, and for his calls for international action to stop it – calls that were met with a response of indifference instead of action.

Looking back on the history of the Tutsi genocide, there is general consensus that the international community failed in its lack of response, despite efforts by individuals like Dallaire who were calling for intervention. This indifference in response to the genocide that he was witnessing first-hand left an indelible mark on Dallaire. Since the genocide, he has dedicated himself to human rights advocacy. Part of this advocacy includes speaking to many diverse audiences around the world about what he saw in Rwanda, and about the international community’s lack of response to the genocide. In our interview, I asked Dallaire to identify the most important point that he hopes his audiences will remember. He responded, “The fundamental takeaway is that all humans are human. And there isn’t one human more human than the other. We can’t say that the sub-Saharan Black African is not as human as the Caucasian European. We’re all equal. So if we’re all equal, why do we establish variants in how we treat the value of those human beings compared to others?”[1]

These comments recalled for me a previous presentation that I had seen Dallaire give in 2013, as part of a panel specifically focused on the danger of indifference in the face of human rights violations. On this panel, Dallaire suggested that the international community’s indifference to Rwanda stemmed, in part, from the fact that these atrocities were perpetrated in a place and against a people that were unfamiliar to many in other parts of the world, including the West. He observed that in practice, we are often more willing to intervene in violations against people we recognize as similar to ourselves. For instance, some of the negative responses that he received to his calls for intervention viewed the crisis in Rwanda an “African problem.” Such reactions force us to consider whether we truly believe in the universality of human rights. Or, as Dallaire asked us, do we perhaps believe that “some humans are more human than others,” which determines whether we intervene in crisis situations or not.

Face-to-face with the genocide, Dallaire not only grasped its severity and acted in response, but he also bore witness to the humanity of those caught within it. He recalled a powerful moment where his convoy came across a child abandoned along a road:

“I looked at him. His stomach was bloated, he was in rags, he was dirty, he was mangy, he had flies all around him. But then I looked into his eyes. And what I saw in the eyes of that little seven-year-old boy in the midst of that genocide and civil war was exactly what I saw in the eyes of my seven-year-old son when I left Québec City for Africa. They were the eyes of a human child, and they were exactly the same. That little boy, in the midst of that, was just as human as my son back home.”[2]

I think of this story often in my work at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. In November 2015, I was in our Examining the Holocaust gallery, where there is a large photograph of a mother cradling her child in a field in Eastern Europe, as a soldier stands behind her holding a rifle. It is an iconic photo, and one that I had seen countless times. But on this particular day, I looked again at the photo and noticed how the child’s legs dangled as his or her mother held them. I had never noticed how they dangled before, and I thought about how my son – who was three at this point – had grown to the point that his legs dangled similarly when I held him. And Dallaire’s recollection about the sameness of the Rwandan child’s eyes and his own son’s eyes came rushing back. And I looked at that iconic picture with a new perspective that screamed in my mind the lived humanity of that mother and child in this grainy black-and-white image. Those legs were of a child that was just as human as my little boy.

Roméo Dallaire’s recognition of the humanity of those affected by war and genocide – especially children – continues to inspire his advocacy, such as his ongoing work on behalf of child soldiers. It also continues to inspire his encouragement for the international community – including all of us – to not be indifferent to the plights of such children. To not allow differences like skin colour, language, religion, culture or geographic location blind us to the universality (and thus, universal obligation) that underlines the ideal of human rights.

You can learn more about Roméo Dallaire, and view the flak jacket that he wore during his Rwandan mission, in the Museum’s Breaking the Silence gallery on Level 4.


[1] This interview with Roméo Dallaire is now part of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights’ Oral History Collection.

[2] Excerpt from a speech delivered on May 2, 2013 at the Shaarey Zedek Synagogue, in Winnipeg (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xdJG2NYita8)