Lt.-Gen. Roméo Dallaire is best known for his efforts to prevent genocide in Rwanda in 1994, when 800,000 people were murdered in 100 days as part of a horrific civil war.
Infamously, he was denied permission to intervene in Rwanda, but he defied orders and stayed on to provide refuge to those who could make it to UN forces.
These days, Dallaire is founder of the Roméo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative, which aims to end the recruitment and use of child soldiers. He'll be in Sudbury on May 25 to present a keynote address an event sponsored by Huntington University that will spotlight the work being done by Lifeline Sudbury, a group working to bringing refugees to the city.
The fundraising event begins at 7:30 p.m. at Science North.
Dallaire will talk about the current refugee crisis in the Middle East, where people again are trying to flee another brutal civil war.
"When I was in Rwanda, I ended up with four million refugees internally displaced,” Dallaire said Wednesday in a telephone interview. “And nobody gave a damn then.
"I find it terrible that the world sat there and watched (the civil war in Syria) degenerate before really getting engaged significantly."
His perspective is one of the reasons he has no time for politicians who are trying to make political gains by demonizing victims of war.
"I think this is political posturing on the emotions of the general population who are, I think at times, being duped by the sensationalism of exaggerated responses that some people are, in fact, nurturing," he said.
Dallaire said someone who wanted to sneak into Canada to do us harm would not pick the expensive and lengthy vetting process legitimate refugees must use.
"These are not people who are jumping on a ship and arriving here in a container – this is a hell of a lot more sophisticated than that," he said. "I truly believe that some politicians are posturing on something that is really quite significant and dangerous. I'm not sure if that's ethical in any way to be acting in that way."
In fact, he said this is the first time Canada has vetted refugees fleeing from war so carefully. He compared it to the boat people who fled the civil war in Vietnam in the 1970s and early 1980s.
"If anything, there could have been a lot of (communists) sneaking in amongst them — subversive elements,” Dallaire said. “This was during the Cold War. But at no time during that period did I ever hear or read — and I was serving at the time — anybody raise the fact that these people might be subversive communists. Nobody every raised that.
"But because (the current refugees) come from an Islamic region, automatically (there's an assumption) that they're being infiltrated by extremists. I think that's a horrific fabrication."
He's critical of the global response to the Syrian war, arguing that the world should have gone in much earlier with a large force to protect civilians – without taking sides.
"What you have now is another proxy exercise going on between Russia, which is trying to re-establish itself as a world power, and the Americans, who one would have thought would be ... protecting civilians,” he said. “But they are going about it in a rather poor fashion, just like they did in Libya, by taking sides, instead of simply having gone in early, and having established protection for innocent civilians as we sort out the problems with the government."
The problem with taking sides is it's difficult to see who the good guys are. He's visited refugee camps three kilometres from the Syrian border, where he said families are harassed on social media to send their 13-year-old sons over the border to fight with the Free Syrian Army, a group the U.S. supports.
"All sides are using kids,” he said. “That is one of the most horrific demonstrations of a civil war going really, really towards a mass atrocity situation. The use of chemical warfare only reinforces that."
Canada has agreed to take in 35,000 refugees, while there are at least eight million living in camps in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey. But Dallaire said Canada's contributions are still significant.
"I think Canada's response, and in particular the new Canadian government ... I consider to be progressive and to have a sense of urgency," he said. "At least we're trying to respond to some of the refugee problems. It's not a drop in the bucket, because every human being counts. So we have 35,000 and that's a good start. But it doesn't mean it's the end."
Canadians shouldn't deny refugees access to what we have, because Canada was largely built by those fleeing repression.
"We have been able to build our country, our democracy, thanks to immigrants, people running away as refugees,” Dallaire said. “Remember, a lot of people ended up in North America because they were refugees, either religious or other persecutions in the 19th Century."
Tickets are $50 per person and available by calling Nilgiri Pearson at 705-207-5246 or the Northern Life office at 705-673-5667. All proceeds in support of Lifeline Sudbury refugee initiatives.