Photo: "Towards Life" by Syrian photographer Abdulazez Dukhan (used with permission).
On Aug. 3 1993, Rwandan president Juvenal Habyarimana signed a power-sharing agreement between the country's Hutu and Tutsi tribes that was designed to secure peace in that region of Africa. Eight months later his murder initiated a country-wide massacre that resulted in the genocide of 800,000 men, women and children.
Canadian Lt-Gen Roméo Dallaire, who led the failed peacekeeping mission to Rwanda and witnessed the massacres first-hand, recounted the gridlocking of the UN security council and the failure of the international community to stop the genocide in his 2003 memoir, Shake Hands With the Devil. The story is devastating. Dallaire is well-acquainted with the international community's indecisiveness and its lack of willingness to intervene in a critical war. In the case of Rwanda, it effectively rendered the UN helpless.
Given the political gridlock involving Syria, perhaps it shouldn't be so surprising that on Sept. 26, 2016, during my daughter's meeting with Harjit Sajjan on Parliament Hill, he independently brought up the subject of the retired lieutenant-general. After Dallaire's release from military service in 2000, he served on the UN Advisory Committee on Genocide Prevention, acted as special adviser for the ministries of National Defence and Veteran's Affairs, and completed a nine-year term in the Canadian senate.
Sajjan's talk of Dallaire stood out in our visit, because my young adult years were largely shaped by a 2003 visit to Rwanda. My conversations with Sajjan, however, have mostly centred around Syria and my daughter's quest to help refugees. I didn't realize the importance of Dallaire's lessons and struggles, and how they might have impacted Canadian politics, until Canada announced it was circumventing the normal diplomatic routes to facilitate a more effective UN intervention in Syria.
In recent weeks the suffering in Syria has intensified tenfold due to the nonstop bombing of civilians in Aleppo. Hospitals have become a favourite target of the Assad regime, and the deaths of at least 20 Red Crescent workers following the bombing of a UN convoy demonstrate the lack of interest the regime holds for respecting the rules of war. War crimes and human rights violations continue to mount as the estimated death toll reaches 500,000 civilians.
At this point, Syria is only 300,000 deaths away from becoming another Rwanda -- only this time, it's not propaganda-incited tribal warfare. It's an autocratic government bent on eradicating all traces of dissent from the country through indiscriminate killing. If justice rang true, Russia's roles in the bombings and war crimes should have disqualified it from participating in the UN security council, and resulted in further discipline or sanctions. Unfortunately, diplomacy doesn't often work that way, and Russia's veto gives the Assad regime a free pass to continue destroying its own country.
Less than three weeks after our visit on Parliament Hill, where Sajjan talked both about Dallaire and the challenges facing Syria, 68 nations joined Canada's lead in requesting a special meeting of all 193 UN member states to circumvent the UN security council in an effort to facilitate peace. It is unknown, at this point, what changes that meeting could produce.
Pressure is mounting to address the war crimes committed in the Syrian conflict, and a CBC article raised the possibility of establishing a United Nations mandate to collect war crimes evidence and prosecute accordingly.
It has also been suggested that Syria could somehow be ousted as a member of the UN, but the greatest need -- the establishment of a no-fly-zone in Syria -- can't happen unless general assembly establishes a miraculous work-around that doesn't require approval from the security council. Russia has already vetoed a motion to end the aerial siege in Aleppo.
Whatever the solution, it won't be easy.
Whatever the solution, it won't be easy. The deep chasms that separate the interests of every country involved in the Syrian war will make it impossible to achieve consensus. Iran, Russia, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, the US, the Assad regime, the Kurds and the various rebel groups all have their own conflicting agendas that impact various regions of the country. We can only hope that there is enough agreement within the international community that it brings some measure of relief for the innocent civilians who are facing death.
A day after Canada's letter to the United Nations was drafted by Canadian Ambassador Marc-Andre Blanchard, Sajjan personally visited the UN and posted a photo of his meeting with Ban Ki-moon. Sajjan follows the lead of many Canadian diplomats who have led complex international initiatives for peace. It was, after all, Canada's Lester B. Pearson who proposed the first officially designated UN peacekeeping mission in 1956. His diplomatic and peacekeeping work on behalf of the Suez crisis while navigating Canada's external affairs earned him the 1957 Nobel Peace Prize.
More than 40 missions later, in which Canada sent over 120,000 troops to stabilize conflict zones across the world, Canada has renewed its promise to act as a leader in peacekeeping and has taken a definitive stand on the international stage for Syria.
It is now up to us to raise our voices and affirm the global community's intervention. The world needs to break the diplomatic gridlock and achieve relief for those under fire. At this point it's not about political gain or economics. It's about humanity.
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