College Quarterly
Summer 2007 - Volume 10 Number 3
Reviews Shake Hands with the Devil: The Failure of Humanity in Rwanda
Roméo Dallaire
Toronto: Random House, 2004

Reviewed by Anna Malecki

Roméo Dallaire’s chilling account of his year spent in Rwanda as the Force Commander of UNAMIR (UN peacekeeping force in Rwanda during the genocide) brings the reality of peacekeeping missions and the international community’s selective humanitarianism into sharp focus. Shake Hands with the Devil depicts one man’s struggle against the immovable bureaucracy of the United Nations and the more troubling apathy in the West toward a tiny African country with a well repressed history of violence.

In the few years since the book was originally released, it was hoped that the memoir would have a substantial effect on international public opinion. Now that a film based on this memoir has been released (2007), it is a good time to reassess the impact that Dallaire’s book has had on the global political conscience, and to raise some questions about humanitarianism in the twenty-first century.

Lt. Gen. Dallaire’s story may be of special importance to Canadians, in light of the fact that Lt. Gen. Dallaire, who was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and contemplated suicide in the wake of his African service, has been embraced by the Canadian public as arguably the most highly regarded military man in Canadian history, and now serves as a member of the Canadian Senate. At the same time, the Canadian government seems to have distanced itself from its traditional peacekeeping role by taking up a far more aggressive role in Afghanistan, and the international community seems even less likely to undertake robust humanitarian missions elsewhere.

Shake Hands with the Devil stands out among the many books about the genocide as it is a chronicle of a Westerner who witnesses the genocide and ought to have been able either to prevent or to halt it, but who had neither the resources nor the mandate to do much more than to observe. (Although he is credited with saving the lives of as many as 20,000 Tutsis and Hutus, the total number of deaths recorded in only a few months rose above 800,000, and no one blamed Dallaire more for the failure to stop the killing than he himself.) In his book, Dallaire recounts the Arusha political process and the multiple political and cultural causal factors that led to the genocide, while attempting to identify the catalysts and those who are truly to blame for this immense humanitarian failure. Dallaire, initially an ardent believer in the usefulness and power of international law and the bodies that promote it (including the United Nations and its peacekeepers), questions the ability of the UN and its subsidiaries to promote peace as it is mandated to do, because of the lack of political will within the United Nations Security Council (UNSC) to intervene in humanitarian crises in non-Western countries. Evidence that the genocide would occur was in the hands of the UNSC by early January of 1994, yet the permanent members declined to act on the information and ultimately reduced Dallaire’s already small contingent. Furthermore, after the genocide had erupted, the UNSC continued to decline requests from Dallaire to increase the size of the contingent and to expand the mandate in order at least to be able to protect the civilians in the UNAMIR’s care. Even Belgium, Rwanda’s erstwhile colonizer and the country which had been most willing to intervene, was scared away by the deaths of ten Belgian soldiers, as the Interahamwe (the genocidal wing of the MRND, the Hutu majority party) had anticipated. The international community reluctantly began to pay attention only after the major killing was well under way; non-governmental agencies flooded into Rwanda as soon as it was safe to do so, and have been a permanent part of the political landscape ever since, ignoring the premise of humanitarianism which is that its purpose is to intervene in a time of crisis, bring stability, and then leave the governance of the state to its own citizens.

Had the international community learned anything since 1994? After the devastating abandonment of Rwanda, the General Assembly of the United Nations, led by Canada, drafted a report entitled “Responsibility to Protect”. It states that when a state has lost the ability to protect its own citizens, the international community has a responsibility (never a duty) to protect. The initial consensus had been undermined initially by the invasion of Iraq, supposedly on humanitarian grounds, and the simultaneous apathy toward the genocide in Darfur, Sudan. Dallaire’s book reminds us of historical and current failings; however, like so many accounts of Africa, it does little to dispel the myth of a dark, impenetrable, violent continent which brings righteous Westerners to despair.

Anna Malecki teaches in the School of English and Liberal Studies at Seneca College in King City, Ontario. She can be reached at


• The views expressed by the authors are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect those of The College Quarterly or of Seneca College.
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2007 - The College Quarterly, Seneca College of Applied Arts and Technology