Monday, May 26, 2008

Response to Peter Worthington's Column

Last week, Toronto Sun columnist Peter Worthington, in criticizing Senator Roméo Dallaire's support for the return of Omar Khadr, attacked the record of Roméo Dallaire in his handling of the Rwandan genocide.

Worthington did himself a great disservice by dishonouring and misrepresenting the record of (Ret.) General Roméo Dallaire, as well as grossly over-simplifying the plight of child soldiers in war zones.

His personal and below-the-belt attacks on Roméo Dallaire also contribute to the overall weakness of his arguments in the case of Omar Khadr.

His first error is in characterizing Dallaire's contributions to human rights as an "abysmal failure" in reference to his time in Rwanda. As someone who has spent time working in Rwanda side-by-side youth who have been affected by the genocide, I have spoken at great length with Rwandese people who fittingly hold Roméo Dallaire in high regard. They do so because he was one of the few strong voices for intervention during the genocide. Worthington needs to do his homework and see that it was General Dallaire who cabled the United Nations informing them of his plans to raid the weapons caches in Kigali that were to be used in the forthcoming genocide.

It was UN bureaucrats who vetoed his attempts time and time again. Rather than beef up their presence as General Dallaire requested, the UN reduced the number of soldiers they were given.

As a professional soldier, Dallaire was faced with the limited mandate of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR), which only permitted his troops to observe the situation in Rwanda. Dallaire, in Shake Hands with the Devil, noted that his troops were not even properly armed to defend themselves.

Dallaire was a soldier with orders that he disobeyed at his own peril. What would Worthington have had General Dallaire do? Violate his orders and attack the Rwandan military and extremist militias who vastly outnumbered them 740 to 1?

Instead, he kept up as much pressure as he could and gave media unprecedented access to his compound in order to tell the world what was happening.

No single man did more to raise attention to the human rights violations occurring in Rwanda and he continues to exemplify the voice of humanity by spreading the message about the responsibility of the international community to protect human rights globally and to eradicate the use of child soldiers.

Every loss of life during the genocide was a tragedy, including that of the 10 Belgian peacekeepers, but it was not one that Dallaire ignored – it was quite the opposite. If Worthington had dug deeper, he would have discovered that Dallaire initially discovered the bodies of his peacekeepers in a Rwandan military-controlled area and could not act immediately because of the volatile situation. Again, as a professional soldier, Dallaire would have acted inappropriately if he risked more deaths by acting rashly.

Worthington also disrespects Roméo Dallaire's pain by referring to him as a "poster boy for post-traumatic stress disorder." Worthington further rubs salt in the wound by then implying that this has brought Roméo Dallaire "wealth and status." Perhaps Worthington never considered that Dallaire was forever marked by his experiences and that he has something very important to tell the world - words that should not be belittled or mocked.

Whatever one thinks about Roméo Dallaire's ideas about Omar Khadr, it is undeniable that he is experienced in dealing with child soldiers. The Interahamwe that participated in the Rwandan genocide included a large number of young people, mainly indoctrinated by adults. Looking at the example of post-genocide Rwanda where many of these youth are being successfully re-integrated into society, Dallaire hopes to introduce useful lessons into the case of Omar Khadr. Senator Roméo Dallaire never denied that Khadr did serious things, but only suggested that his age and impressionability may reduce his culpability.

Worthington himself admits that "Khadr had little choice but become what his father and family made him." When it comes to the issue of human rights, and global humanitarianism, we have a moral obligation and we should indeed be bending over backward to bring Omar Khadr to Canada. Dallaire makes a great point in arguing that once we disregard universal standard of human dignity, we can often become no worse than our enemies.

Melanie Tomsons

Saturday, May 03, 2008