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philip lancaster

On the evening of April 6, 1994, an airplane carrying the presidents of Rwanda and Burundi was shot down on final approach into Kigali. Both were killed. Madness erupted across the country. Four months later, when the predominantly Tutsi army known as the Rwandan Patriotic Front, finally defeated the government army, the death toll had reached nearly 800,000. Most of the dead were Tutsi, though moderate Hutus were also killed. Several million more had fled over the borders and nearly as many were displaced to impromptu camps across Rwanda.

For most Canadians, the story is part of a vague world history that touches us from a great distance in time and space. Most of us don't think about it much, if we think about it at all. Few of us even know that April 7 is a day of remembrance in Rwanda.

For me the date conjures up memories both vivid and terrible. I was part of the ill-fated United Nations Peace Keeping mission (known by its acronym: UNAMIR). I stood by in virtual impotence watching the horror unfold. General Romeo Dallaire would not abandon his post and would not let us turn away from people desperately in need, no matter what insanely cowardly orders came from UN Headquarters in New York. After the initial panic reaction from the UN Security Council, only 400 of us were left. Nearly half of us were unarmed Military Observers, not allowed by UN rules to carry weapons of any kind. We did what we could but in the end failed utterly to stop the killing.

There have been many books and studies written about the Rwandan Genocide since July, 1994, when it ended. There have been official investigations, reports on lessons learned and a great deal of self-accusation almost everywhere one cares to look. But it seems to me that we have learned nothing. Let me repeat that – we have learned nothing.

To say "never again" and mean it would mean that we, the peoples of the world, take it upon ourselves to make sure that we have the capacity to act to prevent another genocide. That would imply a determination to confront evil when we see it. Today, we have even less capacity to do that than we did in 1994. We have more diplomats, and oh so many more of the wonderfully empty UN Security Council resolutions and covenants known to jurists as 'instruments'. But the common willingness to provide military contingents for common action to back them up through the United Nations has all but disappeared. Today, there are virtually no military contingents from the developed world operating under the auspices of the UN. There are none from Canada. That's right, there are no formed military contingents from Canada. There haven't been for years.

I still work in Africa. I used to be proud of my country and the role that we played in the world. I no longer feel that way. Along with our wealthy friends in other G8 nations, we have withdrawn behind a wall of self-interest. We take no risks, we have withdrawn our investment in the Utopian hope of world peace through the UN. All that is left is an architecture of self-delusion in which our diplomats sit with other diplomats in the General Assembly and speak comforting words to cover our lack of participation. We don't put ourselves behind our words. How is this Canadian?

It dawns on me every morning now that I am an old man. I no longer leap out of bed to go for a run or look to each day with the energy and optimism of my youth. Like most old men, I worry about the world my grandchildren will inherit. I was born when the UN was a new idea, spawned in the aftermath of a terrible world war that for a brief moment focused everyone's attention on the dangers of inaction. Today, that moment is long past and we have forgotten why we were worried. But I don't.

Every year, on April 7, I remember. Every other day I worry. I worry that we have given away our capacity to intervene to stop genocide along with our ability to influence other nations. We say "never again" but we don't mean it. We have withdrawn our troops from the UN and are no longer active in peacekeeping. Perhaps it's a good thing that so few of us know about April 7. Otherwise, we might demand more of ourselves.

Major (retired) Philip Lancaster was General Romeo Dallaire's military assistant in Rwanda in 1994 and is an adjunct professor at the University of Victoria.

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