And Michaëlle Jean shouldn't be apologizing on our behalf
There is a great deal for all the occupants of this planet to rue, repent and repine.
The Rwandan genocide isn’t one of them. Certainly not in the sense of distant, uninvolved nations that had no capacity to intervene in the slaughter of 800,000 Tutsi and moderate Hutus murdered in a chaotic – yet methodical – rampage by frenzied, machete-wielding mobs.
That was not the fault of 3 billion people going about their business ‘round the world. And it certainly wasn’t the fault of 33 million Canadians.
Powerful individuals — most especially U.S. President Bill Clinton — and the hapless, fingers-in-its-ears United Nations can carry the cross for that colossal crime against humanity.
It is an empty and self-serving gesture to apologize now, 16 years on, as Governor General Michaëlle Jean did Wednesday in Kigali, on the occasion of Canada’s first state visit to the African country since the 1994 massacre. “I think we could have made a difference,’’ she said. “I think we could have prevented the magnitude of the horror that brought. . . genocide here.’’
Jean is a warm-hearted woman and she no doubt expressed personally sincere sentiments, though these words were clearly vetted by Foreign Affairs. But apologizing for a catastrophe in which Canada had no hand is just the kind of symbolic exculpation, with its presumption of moral superiority (if, in this case, belated) at which this country has come to specialize. It is particularly egregious, phony, coming at a time when Ottawa is planning its military withdrawal from Afghanistan — a benighted nation where Canada has helped hold the line against insurgent violence in Kandahar and where untold abominations will likely ensue should the Americans surge out in a year’s time as they have recently surged in.
Clinton has since said his role — failure to flex American muscle at the UN — during the West’s do-nothing response to genocide percolating in Rwanda was the greatest regret of his term in office. In 1998, he apologized for that during a stop in Rwanda. On the same trip, he apologized for America’s involvement in the slave trade, though oddly pulling this mea culpa whilst in Uganda, even though slaves shipped to North America originated almost entirely on the other side of the continent, in Western Africa. But don’t let facts, history or geography get in the way of a good “sorry.’’
In fact, sorry is an ambiguous word and not very hard to say. It could express condolence without remorse as much as genuine, my-grievous-fault regret. So easily does it spill from the mouths of international leaders, once the moral statute of limitations has expired, that it means essentially nothing and even if honestly felt, what of that? What does it change?
The UN can’t go back and alter events in Rwanda after deliberately ignoring the warnings from their own people on the ground, the alarm most urgently sounded by Romeo Dallaire, then Force Commander for the UN Assistance Mission for Rwanda, who’d pleaded for logistical support and reinforcement of his 2,000 soldiers. Just 5,000 well-equipped troops, Dallaire said, would have given the UN sufficient leverage to halt the killings. The UN Security Council refused, in part because America — stung by the earlier disaster in Mogadishu — opposed the plan.
Dallaire remains haunted by what he considered his failure to avert the genocide. In Shake Hands With The Devil, he wrote: “My own mea culpa is this: as the person charged with the military leadership of UNAMIR, I was unable to persuade the international community that this tiny, poor, overpopulated country and its people were worth saving from the horror of genocide — even when the measures needed for success were relatively small. How much of that inability was linked to my inexperience? Why was I chosen to lead UNAMIR? My experience was in training Canadian peacekeepers to go into class Cold War-style conflicts; I had never been in the field as a peacekeeper myself. I had no political expertise, and no background or training in African affairs or manoeuvring in the weeds of ethnic conflicts in which hate trumps reason.’’
It’s easier for world leaders to apologize after the fact, after the atrocity, than to risk political currency at home at the point of crisis or to boldly defy popular opinion.
Thus, in Canada, we’ve had prime ministers in the last couple of decades apologize to aboriginal children forcibly separated from their families and dumped in residential schools; to Japanese-Canadians interned during the Second World War; to Chinese for the grotesque head-tax; to Maher Arar; even to a previous PM, Brian Mulroney, via an out-of-court settlement with the RCMP over allegations of kickbacks in the Airbus scandal.
This retrogressive eruption of apologia is hardly limited to Canada. Tony Blair apologized for the Irish famine. Japan’s prime minister apologized for the Second World War. The Pope apologized for the Catholic Church’s inertia during the Holocaust — and, in its limp fashion, more recently for the abuse inflicted by pedophile priests.
President Barack Obama famously had his derided “Apology Tour’’ in Europe and the Middle East last year, an international confessional during which he said sorry on three continents for what he viewed as the sins of America and his predecessors, leaving the false impression of a moral equivalence between America’s alleged geopolitical errors and those committed against the U.S. and its by-treaty allies.
This trend, the surfeit of my-bad, rings both hollow and useless. The current generation can’t apologize on behalf of its predecessors and most especially not from the perspective of 20-20 hindsight given how far the moral guideposts have shifted in modern societies.
I can’t blame a German my age because her grandfather murdered my grandfather.
And my country bears no shame in Rwanda.
They have my sympathy. I share the rage toward a world that looked away while hundreds of thousands were slaughtered. But Canada has no cause for self-reproach, not even the entitlement to say: Sorry.