The Failure Of Our Leaders (From Responsibility To Protect To The Duty To Act)

From responsibility to protect to the duty to act
The failure of our leaders

By: Kirsten Verdel

October 2007. It was the opening night of the Conference on Genocide Prevention. Roméo Dallaire, former head of the U.N. peacekeeping mission in Rwanda, addressed the audience. A room crowded with academics, journalists, representatives from NGO's and students who all wanted to share their thoughts on genocide prevention listened in breathless silence to the man who feels he lost 800.000 lives in Rwanda in 1994. For he could not stop the genocide.

‘You are all guilty’, Dallaire said.
Then he pointed to himself.
‘I am guilty’.
And he repeated:
‘You are all guilty’.

I felt like being stabbed with a dagger. Me? Guilty? Why me? I was 16 years old when the genocide in Rwanda took place. I wasn't even born yet when the Holocaust destroyed 6 million lives. How could I be guilty? But he didn't have to explain. Darfur… Congo… What am I doing about it? Nothing.

Words. They are my sword today. They are all I have. I have no political power, no weaponry, no army. All I have are my feelings of guilt and my own responsibility to act. I wish I could go to Darfur right now and stop the brutal rapes and murders. Stop the militia. Establish peace and freedom and democracy and prosperity. But I can not.

What I can do, is point my finger to the people in power. To those who have the capacity and the responsibility to act, but lack the ambition and the will. This is what I will do today. This is how I rise up and say: j'accuse!

Where were the politicians at the Conference? Where were the representatives from the US, Russian, Chinese, French and English governments? Governments that time and time again use their veto in the UN Security Council to prevent action from being taken against those who commit the most brutal atrocities against humanity? They weren't there.

Neither was Stephen Harper, Canada's conservative Prime Minister. Harper sent a letter, extending his warmest greetings to the participants. “This unique conference brings [people] together to ensure that the horror of genocide is never again repeated. Please know that the Government of Canada firmly supports your goals'.

But Harper's goals seem to be different from those shared by the people at the Conference. They had one goal in common: eradicate genocide from the face of the earth as soon as possible.

Harper apparently holds different views. His letter continued: “I commend you for your efforts and hope that this conference will become a regular event that will contribute to a much needed global debate on the critical issue that is genocide'.

This last sentence shows that Harper was not only absent in person from the Conference, he was also absent in mind. This event should never need to become a “regular event', because our leaders –like Harper- will finally take action and intervene. When it comes to genocide, we should stop the global debate and start the global action. For genocide is not a “critical issue', but the worst act of inhumanity ever committed.

Mr. Harper: Why is the life of a human being in Africa worth less to you than the life of a human being in our own society? Make no mistake: The children who are dying in Darfur are our children. You can not pretend they do not exist. You can not let them die.

But still you do.

Dallaire said that the Canadian government has shown no willingness to uphold the “Responsibility To Protect', the doctrine the government came up with and convinced the United Nations to accept in 2005. “Canada loves its reputation but is not willing to pay the price,' he said in an interview at the Conference.

And that “Responsibility To Protect' was the subject of one of the sessions at the Conference. Panelists tried to answer the question how to bridge the considerable gap between the lofty aspirations and the narrow political interest that often shape the decision-making process. How can self-interested governments and other actors be persuaded to take costly political action to intervene against genocide?

Dr. Michael Ignatieff, Deputy Leader of the Liberal Party of Canada, spoke as a true human being. “In Montréal we live bilingual, together, in diversity. We are multi-ethnic, multi-religious, multi-language. We must win the battle for that utopia everywhere. Make tolerance work. Fight discrimination, intolerance, defend human rights. It all starts here. You can't care about people far away if you don't care about people here.'

I hung on every word he said.

“Then the second thing we need to do is to generate a story about how to get involved in things that happen overseas. Warning capabilities for genocide must increase. We need more canaries in the mines. All canaries must report to the chief canary. We know about the triggers of genocide, the phases it goes through. Journalists are critical in this. As consumers we need to demand the active investment of journalists in the community of genocide prevention.'

I was still with him.

“Then we must create a narrative of engagement. This is where NGO's are so important. NGO campaigns created a narrative about Darfur. There are a million terrible things happening. So you must create a narrative directly targeted to the audience you want to move.'

I understood that as well.

“Don't let governments figure out what to do in Bosnia or wherever. How many forces, what package? If that is what you need to know, get your hands dirty. Tell your government, don't wait for them. Saying something must be done isn't enough. People are often divided about what to do. So nothing happens. After creating a narrative and strategy you need constituency action. And then come up with arguments to trip the little switch to really do something, to get to the Responsibility to Protect.'

He lost me here.

Journalists have to write about what is happening. NGO's must convince the audience. And then we have to start “constituency action' to convince our political leaders? What is this? We have to lead our leaders? It reminded me of the 19th century radical French republican Alexandre Ledru-Rollin, who said: “There go my people. I must find out where they’re going so I can lead them.'

This is not how it is supposed to work Mr. Ignatieff. You are a leader, so lead. Remember your own words. Remember what you said at the end of your speech at the Conference:

“Canada must not underestimate its importance. We can't wait for other countries. We can lead. And it will come at a price. We must invest in military capability. Prevention is good, but the sword is sometimes needed. Dallaire must never be put in that situation again. Helicopters, training, other stuff. Invest. And you will pay a price. Money and men perhaps. But it is needed. We are a serious bunch of people.'

Remember those words. And feel embarrassed for what you said directly after them, when somebody in the room asked you what exactly you were doing to make sure intervention in the Darfur region would take place. Your answer could not have been more political. You started to explain how difficult politics is. That you were in the opposition, had no mandate. That the Canadian people were not ready to offer men to a potential grim war in Darfur. That you did not even have the support for the mission in Afghanistan anymore. I did not understand why you used that example. Afghanistan is not Darfur. You said: “Everybody here wants action in Darfur. But we have lost 72 soldiers in Afghanistan. That is a high price. An elected official must listen to the people. I am here to listen and to learn. We are not
ready to go to Darfur yet.'

Yes Mr. Ignatieff, of course I vote for people who listen to me. But more importantly I vote for people who dare to be leaders. Who have the courage to make choices that will save lives. Even if it comes at a cost, like losing the lives of soldiers, losing your seat in parliament or the government alltogether. I don't vote for people who say A and do B. So remember why you wanted to become a politician in the first place. Remember your ideals. You tell me Canada should go to Darfur, well… then make sure that Canada does!

We need leaders. We need people who rise up, speak their minds and act. We don't even need many of them. Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. You know why? It’s the only thing that ever has. So show me your determination. Not just you, but also Mr. Harper, George Bush, Vladimir Putin, Gordon Brown, Hu Jintao, Nicolas Sarkozy and all other key political leaders in the world.

Jan Pronk, former Special Representative of the UN Secretary General in Darfur, said: “The politicians are responsible.' You can change the world. You can stop genocide. And you have to. You not only have the Responsibility To Protect, but also the Duty To Act.

And we must look beyond the realm of words. We know from experience it is hard to define genocide. The question we need to ask ourselves is if only genocide or an act of war against another country should be reasons to intervene, as is now stated in the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide and in the United Nations Charter.

The world has changed significantly since the end of World War II and the end of the Cold War. The doctrine of absolute sovereignty over internal affairs is no longer an excuse for non-intervention by other nations. When we see the lives of innocent people being taken while we have the knowledge, the people, the money and the power to intervene, we have to do so. Imploding nations can not be dealt with by putting two governments around a table.

The Youth Forum at the Conference came up with the concept of the Responsibility to Prevent. “Our success will be measured by the atrocities that have not occurred', they said. But the problem is that some of those atrocities are occurring right now. So I would rather go with the will to intervene, right now. Whether you call what is going on in Darfur or Congo genocide or not, the time to act is now.

Kirsten Verdel is a Sauvé scholar, political consultant and former member of the Provincial Parliament of South-Holland, in the Netherlands

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