Monday, December 22, 2008

Shaking Hands With the Devil

Shake Hands With the Devil is a reminder of the importance of Canadian values

In 1994, the world witnessed one of the worst genocides in human history unfolding in Rwanda.

Sadly, Canadian Lieutenant Governor (now retired) Romeo Dallaire witnessed those events from a front-row seat as the world did next to nothing to stop the horrific massacres unfolding in that country.

Shake Hands With the Devil -- named after Dallaire's book of the same title -- is the story of those massacres.

In any year, it is a sombre reminder of the fragile nature of peace in many parts of the world, and of the responsibilities that come with undertaking an effort to try and keep it.

The film presents the story in a brilliant bilingual style reminiscent of The Rocket, with the characters frequently slipping back and forth between French and English. Although the subtities are extremely sloppy, to the extent that they often cannot even be read, this bilingual style lends authenticity to the film.

The film opens with Romeo Dallaire (Roy Dupuis) in his civilian clothes, seated in an office with an unnamed defence ministry bureaucrat. The environment in the room is tense -- to put it lightly -- as Dallaire doesn't speak. Instead, he keeps himself locked up with his thoughts. As he comments on the flashbacks he has been suffering of his time in Rwanda -- which Dallaire has often remarked seem less like memory and much more like he is literally re-living the events -- Dallaire speaks to many of the individuals he dealt with in Rwanda.

The film follows Dallaire very closely throughout his tour of duty in Rwanda, and offers very deep glimpses into his soul as he conducts the business of his peacekeeping mission in that country. Dupuis masterfully depicts the disgust the real Dallaire almost certainly felt when shaking hands with the leader of the Interahamwe -- and the heightened disgust Dallaire must have experienced when it seemed easier to do it again.

The moment that Dallaire made his tragic turn toward suicidal behaviour contrasts starkly with the Dallaire in the rest of the film. It's saddening to witness Dallaire, a very proud and honourable man, mutilating himself with a razor.

Paul Kagame (Akin Omotoso), meanwhile, is portrayed as a consumate realist. While he seems to abhor the fact that the Rwandan Patriotic Front's retaliation will only lead to more killing, he seems to understand that such things were necessary. Perhaps the greatest difference between Dallaire and Kagami is that Kagami was allowed the option of doing the things he knows to be right.

Romeo Dallaire was allowed no such option, and it seems that Roy Dupuis understood this. Dupuis grasps the full fury that Dallaire must have felt when he was denied permission to sieze illegal weapons caches in Kigali. The film makes it seem like mere days before the fighting broke out. In fact, this occurred in January 1994. The killings would not begin until April 7, 1994.

The film doesn't back down from any of the grisly details of the genocide. Anything that could be fit into the just-under-two hours of the film seemingly was. However, those looking for an absolutely faithful historical flic may be disappointed. Some key figures, such as Jacques-Roger Booh-Booh and Faustin Twagiramungu, are missing.

Films like Shake Hands With the Devil are important -- particularly for Canada, and our underexplored history. Right now, films such as this are especially important, as Canada pursues a rotating seat on the United Nations Security Council.

Certainly, a seat for Canada on the Security Council would be a very good thing. But Canadians need to understand precisely why Canada is seeking such a position. There must be a reason.

One such reason seems obivious: international prestige.

Another is international influence. This is the motive Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon recently alluded to while speaking on the subject.

"Today, Canada is contributing to peace and security and making sacrifices in places as diverse as Afghanistan, Haiti and Sudan. Each of these Canadian engagements flows from a UN mandate. For Canada, a seat on the Security Council is a further way of stepping up to our global responsibilities," Cannon said. "With your support on the Security Council, Canada will push for greater transparency in the Council work, which I believe would be beneficial to the whole international community."

Cannon also spoke of the pragmatic role that Canada has previously played in the Security Council.

"With a seat on the Council in 2011 and 2012 we would continue this tradition, pursuing an active agenda for the United Nations in such areas as peace building, conflict prevention and conflict resolution. Activities, as you know, that contribute to global stability and security are common goals that we all share," he announced.

But we as Canadians need to be mindful of the important responsibilities that come with Security Council membership. Romeo Dallaire and his haunted mental state stand as sombre reminders of what can happen -- both on an international basis and on an individual basis -- when the Security Council shirks its responsibilities.

The United Nations Security Council had a responsibility to stop the genccide in Rwanda. Wrapt up in petty politics, it shirked this responsibility. But it did not do so alone.

When it became obvious that the United Nations was not living up to its responsibilities in Rwanda, Canada -- having been committed to the mission -- should have done everything within its power -- both diplomatically and militarily -- to fill the breach.

Years of intransigence by Conservative and Liberal party governments in Canada sadly rendered the country unable to do enough. Canada's shirking of its responsibility to the Rwanda mission sadly began decades before the tragedy officially occurred.

If the Canadian government really wants a seat on the UN Security Council, it has to be prepared to live up to Canadian values and live up to its responsibilities as a member of that body.

If our government is only seeking a Security Council seat as part of quest for international prestige and influence, then we are truly shaking hands with the devil.


  1. Brilliant post sir...

    I think Rwanda was the perfect example of the shortcomings of the UN security council. I also think that the security council has not changed very much in since then. Tragedies continue to unravel across the globe without the UN doing anything about it except vote on non-binding resolutions.

    If Canada is allowed a rotating seat on the council, it must be ready to step up and assert itself along with Canadian values and not take no for an answer. Not stand idly by as hundreds of thousands get slaughtered.

  2. There's little question that Rwanda is a prime example of that organization's shortcomings. I personally consider it to be an absolutely immoral affair.

    The matter is very simple to me: if you're going to deploy a peacekeeping mission, then you have a responsibility to the men on that mission, the people of that country, and to the mission itself.

    If the UN isn't prepared to meet its responsibilities to those missions, then it has no business deploying them -- maybe even no business existing.

  3. Just like the old league of nations became outdated... I fear the same fate for the UN.

  4. I think the UN has become far too entrenched to become outdated.

    Which is a good thing, too. While we are right to be frustrated with the UN's failures, it's easy to forget that they succeed sometimes, too.

    We just have to understand that the world is a very different place now than when peacekeeping began. As both Michael Ignatieff and Romeo Dallaire have noted, peacekeeping requires the ability to take the offense to avoid atrocities such as the one that happened in Rwanda, and those happening in the Sudan right now.

    It's a big responsibility. Either we're up to it, or we aren't.


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