Interview: Lt. Gen. Roméo Dallaire

The general who tried to stop the Rwandan genocide warns FP that the line has blurred between peacekeeping and counterinsurgency. It's a cautionary tale for the age of Afghanistan and Iraq. Are the world's militaries up to the task?

Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images
Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images

There are few who can say they have been as close to stopping genocide as retired Lt. Gen Roméo Dallaire, the Canadian commander of the United Nations peacekeeping forces in Rwanda in 1994. Long before the killing began, Dallaire sounded a warning call. Then, he begged for reinforcements and a mandate to use force — neither of which he got — as his troops fatefully watched hundreds of thousands of Rwandans slaughtered. "You should spit in my face," says the character based on Dallaire in the 2004 film Hotel Rwanda. "[The West is] not going to stop the slaughter." The world did little then, and so in real life, Dallaire has spent much of his last decade and a half reminding the world not to let the same happen again.

Now more than ever, Dallaire tells Foreign Policy‘s Elizabeth Dickinson, such distant conflicts should strike world leaders as imminently close. Where unrest simmers, so does the possibility for terrorist havens, global pandemics, and massive human suffering. Preventing and abating those conflicts is not a matter of humanitarianism alone; it’s a matter of realpolitik. In a world where no contagion stays local for long, Dallaire challenges leaders to weigh the consequences of conflict accordingly. That calls for a new kind of military force — one that blurs the distinctions between traditional military efforts, counterinsurgency, and even peacekeeping. In short, there is no fine line between Rwanda and Afghanistan, only a plethora of civilian lives.

Foreign Policy: You’re releasing a report today about galvanizing political will toward intervention in crisis situations. What’s the secret to getting real action?

Roméo Dallaire: In this era, which began in the 1990s but is much more acute now, we are now significantly at risk — in terms of our health and security — from catastrophes that happen in foreign lands. We simply can’t use the parameters of whether there is a moral reason for intervention; [this] has not worked. [Politicians] can bring [the reasons for intervention] a lot closer to home. The influence of catastrophic failure in these [troubled] states can reach your borders and your national security. In fact, the well-being of your nation is now linked to places that seemed far away before, [because] now, they are just next door. [The goal is to determine] how we can make the leaders much more aware of the fact that they are going to be held accountable [for responding to conflicts elsewhere], because there are people in their own countries who are going to ultimately suffer.

FP: What kind of response have you received from governments? Do you think that the administration of Barack Obama, in particular, is poised to step up in tough cases?

RD: Obama sees a global scenario in which all of humanity is interfacing. He acknowledges that some regions are putting the rest of humanity at risk. So we think that there’s going to be a more interested reading, at least, of looking at intervention — not only in a reactive way but in a preventative way. That’s the "soft power" side — international development, focusing on preventing failing states from actually going south.

It is my personal position that the NGO community, if it gets rid of some of the fringe gang and coalesces more and more, instead of being so interfighting at times, will become the voice of humanity with a massive impact on foreign policy and public opinion.

FP: Once you get to that point where prevention is no longer possible, when is it appropriate to intervene — to send in peacekeepers?

RD: You’re looking at a person who has seen, in 1994, all the ineptness of actually doing that [intervention]. All the wrong decisions were taken, right from the highest level, right from the start.

[We are] not skilled, we the military, the security, and the diplomatic [sectors], in the protection of civilians. It’s not in the dogma yet; it’s a side element. Leaders don’t seem to be getting those tripwires, those red lines [that point to genocide]. [In Rwanda,] when the hate radio came online and got a license from the government, was that a tripwire?

In 2004 when I was at the Kennedy School and we looked at Darfur, I was on a forum, and I said, "We have got to deploy now 44,000 troops to Darfur, in order to protect civilians." There were chuckles in the crowd. I said, "Why is it that we can’t put 44,000 troops in Darfur, when we put 67,000 in Yugoslavia? What’s the difference? Is it because we’re in Iraq and Afghanistan? We had millions [of troops] in Europe, protecting us." Africa used to be far away. But to North American youth [today], Africa is just a sophisticated bus ride away. I still take the plane with a shirt and tie. To them, getting to Accra, you get a direct flight, it’s 400 bucks, and bingo, you’re in Africa.

FP: It sounds like what you’re talking about is almost a fundamental retooling of the world’s militaries. What would that look like?

RD: The big players are still basing a lot of their security on the classic use of force. And in the last two decades, except for twice in Iraq or in Kuwait, we haven’t been using the classic use of force. We’re still learning how to handle Afghanistan — we haven’t got that thing solved. We’re still trying to work out how humanitarians, the diplomats, the nation-builders, the security people, police, and military — how are all of them working at the same time to bring about [peace] instead of blowing the place up and then throwing in a bunch to rebuild it.

There is a need for a new doctrinal basis and new structures for the protection of civilians. [It’s about] using that force as part of your prevention tools. We’re not going in guns blazing. There’s a whole bunch of stuff that you can do before you use that force. But it’s important to make sure that people know that as you’re going through these stages, if it doesn’t work, ultimately, we’ll use the hammer. That makes [the use of force] much more powerful.

FP: Here in Washington, it seems like there is a perception that there are two realms of conflict out there: peacekeeping missions, for example in Darfur or Congo, and Afghanistan and Iraq, which are seen as "hard" military operations. Are we now seeing a blurring of the lines?

RD: We still have people who are "war fighters" and people who are peacekeepers, and they’re trying to stay in those two areas. But now, [instead of just those two extreme types of conflict,] what you have is everything in between. [That calls for] a military that’s far more adaptable to the different levels of use of force, within a context. Petraeus and his movement are the first signs of realizing this.

I was involved in the reform of the Canadian officer corps in the late 1990s where we said, "We’ve got to produce the leaders who know sociology, anthropology, [and] philosophy, so they can understand the complexity of the problem, and be able to participate with the other players in resolving of the conflict and diffusing of the conflict before you have to use your rifle."

FP: What’s your diagnosis of some of the recent peacekeeping missions that have been criticized for ineffectiveness? Is their failure because they’re under-resourced, understaffed, undermandated, or all of the above?

RD: The greatest deficiency in the capabilities comes from two levels: One level is mandate, and the maneuvering and watering down and limiting of mandates, even under Chapter 7. The other side is that developed countries are staying out. Those that sit around the Security Council in their veto positions — they are staying out of the field. So there are just no capabilities in the field to implement the mandates as such. MONUC [the U.N. mission in the Democratic Republic of the Congo] had the [mandate] to conduct far more offensive operations. But the troops they had, the equipment they had, the command and control they had simply could not meet that task. [The big powers are] still living in this sort of semi-isolationism — they say, "That’s a problem between those guys; we’ll let it run its course and then we’ll pick up pieces after." Well, sorry, in this era, that stuff moves, and it will affect us.

I recently was able to put a couple dollars aside to buy a diamond ring for my wife, which I never did. My work with child soldiers was such that I categorically insisted on a Canadian diamond, because I don’t trust DeBeers. No matter with the Kimberly Process [to prevent conflict diamonds], there’s just a smell out there. Well those things, more of our younger people are conscious of them. They read it, they see it, they know all about it. Politicians will be held accountable for allowing [atrocities] to happen.

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