Roméo Dallaire has too much to do to be a senator

Although retiring from the Senate, the former UN commander is far from retiring

By now you would think Roméo Dallaire would have long since settled into his role as a revered living symbol, a sort of walking reminder of the horror he witnessed two decades ago in Rwanda, a scarring experience he converted into a mission in public life.

But Dallaire, 67, announced today that he’s stepping down from the Senate, not to do less, but because serving in the upper chamber prevents him from doing more. At his news conference this morning on Parliament Hill, he was quite precise about the sorts of jobs he’s eager to take on, and they’re not your typical ease-into-retirement projects.

“I’ve been asked on two occasions by the Commissioner of the International Human Rights Commission in Geneva to go into conflict zones to do investigations on crimes against humanity, and I haven’t been able to do it because I couldn’t get away from the Senate,” he said by way of an example.

Pause to consider that one for a moment. Dallaire feels compelled to free up his time so he can venture into conflict zones. This is the man known to the world as the commander of United Nations peacekeepers in Rwanda when genocidal violence erupted there in 1994. His warnings had been ignored. He witnessed the worst sort of violence, and said today that those memories do not fade.

“I live every day what I lived 20 years ago, and it’s as if it was this morning,” he told reporters. “You can’t walk away from the scale of destruction, nor can you walk away from the sense of abandonment that my troops and I had in the field as we continued to face that.”

He may not be able to walk away from it, but who would blame him for trying? Instead, he looks for more opportunities than his responsibilities as a senator afforded him for engaging directly in work on issues—and in places—that couldn’t be more psychologically freighted for him. He spoke enthusiastically of the work his Roméo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative, based at Halifax’s Dalhousie University, is doing to prevent the recruitment of child soldiers in any future conflict in that war-ravaged Sierra Leone.

Asked about Canada’s current reputation internationally, Dallaire, who was appointed to the Senate as a Liberal by former prime minister Paul Martin, was critical. “There’s no doubt whatsoever that, as a Canadian, Canada does not have the dimension internationally that it had previously, in certain areas,” he said. Pressed for examples, he said Canada should be more active in UN peacekeeping.  “I think we should be in the Central African Republic at the moment; we should be much more in Mali. I feel that we should be much more present in preventing conflicts than we are doing now.”

So Dallaire takes his leave of the Senate in order to step up his work internationally. It’s impossible to think of a Canadian who will command more respectful attention on the subject of how armed conflict threatens civilians. Among his admirers is Samantha Power, the U.S. ambassador to the UN, who wrote movingly about Dallaire in her 2003 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide.  

In fact, it was Power who presented Dallaire with the International Rescue Committee’s distinguished humanitarian award in 2004. “If our policy-makers could be given an injection of Dallaire’s power to feel, and Dallaire’s powerlessness to excuse, you would undoubtedly see different policies coming out of governments,” she said at the black-tie gala in New York.

It was well put, but the sort of thing that’s said about a man whose example is thought to have superseded his capacity for new effort. That was fully 10 years ago now, and, as he served notice today, Dallaire is nowhere near ready to stop working.

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