09 December 2008

Compelled to Act

Earlier this year, I watched Hotel Rwanda, about a man who bargained almost everything he owned and used every connection he had to keep people alive in the face of the Rwandan Genocide. Of course, it was given the Hollywood treatment.

Last week I started Shake Hands with the Devil. I had to turn it off partway through because of how disturbing the images were. I finished it up this afternoon. I'm sure it had its own cinematic flourishes, but it was treated very seriously and respectfully. It's based on the autobiographical account of Romeo Dallaire, the Canadian Major-General who was the Force Commander of UNAMIR -- the UN's mission to provide support and stability to the country -- when the genocide took place.

Something very stunning caught my attention. When Dallaire (played by Roy Dupuis) was talking to a reporter about the situation, they discussed the use of the term "genocide" in respect to the civil war. Apparently the Americans were instrumental in preventing the label from being attached to the crisis, much like they have been in Darfur, Sudan. It turns out that, if the UN applies the label to a crisis, nations are compelled to act. As such, certain nations fight tooth and nail to prevent that label from being applied. I guess if the conflict doesn't serve an underlying economic purpose, there's no point in taking action. Why should we try to uphold principles enshrined in legal documents like the Universal Declaration of Human Rights? Or even the Golden Rule.

I can't begin to unpack the politics and the pettiness that leads to this level of atrocity in one blog entry. People have been writing articles and dissertations on it for years. It all comes down to the same hand-wringing and lamenting, "How could we let this happen?!"

Well, we did. The government officials did, the media did, and the complacency of people too far removed from the situation, too busy doom-saying about NAFTA and too busy crying about Kurt Cobain* allowed them too.

I often get blank stares when I talk about my involvement with Amnesty International. But the people who work for and with AI are trying to prevent this kind of thing from happening again. Like, for real. They are trying to point out the abusive regimes that treat their citizens (or certain groups of citizens) like crap. They are trying to motivate more progressive governments to intervene and to set the right kind of example. They are trying to make people all over the world aware of things that are going on so that they don't happen in silence anymore.

Tomorrow is International Human Rights Day. It is the 60th anniversary of the adoption of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights by the United Nations. I didn't meant to turn this blog into an appeal, but if you're interested in knowing what you can do on this one day to make a difference, check you the Write for Rights.

I really wanted to draw attention to Romeo Dallaire for his courage. I wanted to thank him for standing by what he believes. I know he didn't do it alone. I know that many other people chose to stay with him to keep working for peace in Rwanda. I wish I knew all their names too. On behalf of all of them, and all the people who have fought and still do like Romeo Dallaire did and does, Senator Dallaire is my Hero of the Week.

*I am not trying to downplay Kurt Cobain's death. I happen to believe that he was an incredible musical and artistic force that gave voice to another disenchanted (my) generation. But in the grand scheme of global events, and the events of the following days -- should have been a blip.

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