Canadian Lieutenant-General Roméo Dallaire is gathering a force to end what he calls a massive but stoppable abuse of human rights.

The senator, humanitarian, and author is widely known for leading the underfunded — and ultimately unsuccessful — UN peacekeeping force during the 1994 Rwandan genocide.

Lt.-Gen. Dallaire is now putting his name-recognition, experience, and passion into Zero Force, an initiative to recruit young people to mobilize against the use of children as instruments of war.

The Varsity spoke with Lt.-Gen. Dallaire before his visit to U of T last month on Human Rights Day.
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The Varsity: Why have you decided to participate in Human Rights Day?

Roméo Dallaire: What? Jesus! [laughs] I gotta tell you that I’m taken back by the question after what I have lived, in seeing the massive abuses of human rights and seeing the ineptness of the international community in responding to it; having written on it and advocated on this subject and pursued initiatives to advance human rights on a whole bunch of fronts. If I wasn’t participating I’d probably be asleep or something.

TV: What motivates you to work for this human rights?

RD: Human beings. They’re all equal. And that’s the fundamental premise. None of us have any more humanity; we’re not any more human than any other and in that context we are all equal. We have frictions, but that is not a position that can be held in regards to the equality of every human being that exists.

TV: What do you think is the main obstruction to achieving equality across humanity?

RD: The greatest obstruction of the past was the lack of being able to communicate in order to inform people of their fundamental rights as a human being, and to be treated as a human being according to the charter rights of the UN as an example.

However, that is going to now take a whole different perspective with the revolution of communications that we have, where in fact soon we’ll be able to talk to every human being on earth. And so with that revolution of global communications, we actually have an ability to leap forward in garnering all human beings under the principle of equality.

TV: What can students do to help out with this cause?

RD: Students can do it by leading the charge in advocacy and engagement and activism, because if anybody can master this revolution in communications, it’s those who are under 25. They grasp the concept of how small this planet is and how easy it is to talk to any human being anywhere. They can Skype anywhere in the world as long as they’ve got somebody on the other end with a computer, which they can provide.

And so the youth have the ability to lead this era of significantly leaping ahead human rights through activism: by getting engaged, influencing public opinion and policy by advocacy, by communicating with the youth — their peers in foreign lands, in developing countries — and establishing links, human links between each other, and ultimately engaging and supporting [organizations].

As an example, the advocacy effort that we’re doing on child soldiers, through what is called Zero Force, is one of those new instruments that can help the young people focus on how they can influence what is happening to their peers — not to adults, but to their peers — in foreign lands where they’re being abducted, indoctrinated, drugged up and raped and used as weapons of war.

TV: And how do you think students are doing so far?

RD: I think they’re still not done training. I think they’re still looking at the extraordinary potential they have, but they haven’t been garnered to focus. They haven’t been given enough vision of the incredible power that they have, and in so doing I think that’s where some of us adults have failed and I think we have got to rectify that; not tell them what to do, but to give them some sense of focus, of realizing the power they have and encouraging them to go out there and get their boots dirty.

I think it should be a right of passage in a country like ours, after your education is to go and spend weeks or months in developing countries in order to comprehend what’s happening to 80 per cent of humanity, and bring that rage that they have, that inequality they have and bring something to change public opinion and policy here.

TV: Zero Force is about child soldiers. What are your thoughts about Omar Khadr?

RD: Omar Khadr is, in my military mind with absolutely no doubt, he’s a child soldier. He meets all the criteria. He was taken, although by parents, from this country to another country, he was indoctrinated at a young age, was involved in a military altercation; so he was armed and trained and used in a military operation under the age of 18. All those components make right against the charter of rights and the [Protocol on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict] that no one under the age of 18 is to be trained, recruited, equipped, armed, and used in conflict.

And when you have that as an overarching premise then you implement the conventions that you sign, which Canada lead the way for, and that means you bring him back, you go through a set of non-punitive judicial instruments in order to help with the rehabilitation and reintegration of the individual.

Dallaire at U of T

On the evening of December 10, 2010, Human Rights Day, Dallaire spoke to an almost-filled MacMillan Theatre about Zero Force, and challenged students to get involved, get active, and fight for a world where children are no longer used as soldiers.

CBC journalist Anna Maria Tremonti hosted the event, which began with an impassioned story from Michel Chikwanine. The Democratic Republic of Congo native spoke about the two weeks he was a soldier at the age of five, when he was forced to kill his best friend.

The event included performances from Emmanuel Jal, an international hip hop artist and former Sudanese child soldier, and a speech from AIDS activist and former Canadian UN Ambassador Stephen Lewis.

According to Lt.-Gen. Dallaire, the first step of Zero Force is awakening youth to the reality of approximately 250,000 children worldwide.

“The first thing to be done is to create a momentum within the developed world; to engage their youth in recognizing that their peers are being used as weapons of war,” he said, noting that online communications allow almost any two people to get in touch. “That revulsion in itself, I hope will create that sort of energy of activism that is going to stop it.”

After getting involved and informed, Lt.-Gen. Dallaire said that youth could then engage in on-the-ground work. He said that any solution to the use of children as weapons of war must be a political and military intervention, one that can only start by the advocacy of an engaged society.

Referring to inaction as “irresponsible,” the Canadian senator said wealthy, developed countries have a duty to intervene in human rights abuses worldwide.

Explaining his initiative, Lt.-Gen. Dallaire was interviewed by Heather Reisman, founder of Indigo Books & Music Inc. Framing Zero Force in military terms, he challenged young people to enlist and recruit their peers, in an effort to annihilate an enemy force of oppression and injustice.