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.

Later this month, I will have the opportunity to conduct an oral history interview with one of Canada’s most compelling human rights advocates: Lieutenant-General (LGen) Roméo Dallaire. LGen Dallaire is most well-known as the leader of a United Nations mission during the 1994 genocide against the Tutsi in Rwanda, and his calls for international action to stop it – calls that went unheeded. Since that time, he has continued to advocate for human rights around the world, in particular on the issue of child soldiers.

I previously had the opportunity to hear LGen Dallaire speak in 2013, as part of a panel on the danger of indifference in the face of human rights violations. In anticipation of our oral history with LGen Dallaire, I would like to reflect on some of the insights on indifference that he shared during this talk in relation to human rights, which drew upon the violence and death that he witnessed in Rwanda.

In the face of human rights violations, indifference is a default response for many people. 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.

Looking back, there is general consensus that the international community failed in its response to the Rwandan Genocide through its indifference, despite efforts by individuals like LGen Dallaire. This indifference 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. During his presentation, LGen Dallaire observed that in practice we are more willing to intervene in violations against humans we recognize as similar to ourselves. Some of the negative responses to his calls for intervention called 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 LGen 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, LGen 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.” 1

I think of this story often in my work at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. Last November 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 LGen 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 child.

LGen Dallaire’s recognition of the humanity of those affected by war and genocide – especially children and child soldiers – continues to inspire his advocacy on their behalf, and 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 Breaking the Silence gallery at the Canadian Museum for Human Rights. 


1 Excerpt from a speech delivered on May 2, 2013 at the Shaarey Zedek Synagogue, in Winnipeg