Afghanistan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo both are far removed from Stittsville but their plight as areas of armed conflict and the impact of such war on people living in these countries formed the basis of a presentation by guest speaker Dominic McAlea to members of the Rotary Club of Ottawa – Stittsville at its meeting on Wednesday, May 11.
And McAlea is a good one to talk about such a topic. Now retired after a 35 year career as a legal officer in the Canadian military, he was deployed in the first Gulf War, was involved in United Nations war crimes work in Bosnia, served in the Congo as well as at NATO headquarters in Brussels and was a defense attaché in Kabul in Afghanistan.
He pointed out that the Democratic Republic of the Congo is about as large as all of western Europe, taking in two time zones, and yet the country has only about 200 kilometers of paved road because of a civil war which raged in the country from 1996 to 2008. He said that the country and its people should be well off but they suffered from a ruthless dictator who allowed the security forces (police and military) to do anything that they wished against the country’s civilian population.
It led to years of civil war, with over five million deaths from disease, starvation and the fighting itself.
This has led to a survival way of thinking by those in the Congo, living for the present rather than engaging in any kind of long term planning.
Afghanistan is another example of a prolonged civil war with many ethnic groups involved throughout the country.
There was a war against the Soviets, followed by fighting involving the Taliban.
McAlea pointed out that before 9/11, most armed conflict in the world was the result of conflict between states. There was the Cold War with the Warsaw Pact countries facing off against the NATO countries. The result was either what he called “proxy wars” or regional conflicts.
But the end of the Cold War and 9/11 changed things. Most armed conflicts in the world today are between armed non-state actors such as groups like the Taliban. He said that these non-state actors use force to try to achieve their objectives. He advised that Canadians do not have to like these non-state groups and their actions but Canadians have to understand them. He said that the idea of conducting a world-wide jahad and trying to make everyone Muslim may be a crazy assumption but it is a reality that has to be understood.
And right now there are lots of armed conflicts going on in the world, with thousands killed in some of them. In Asia, these include conflicts in Syria, Iraq, Yemen and Pakistan. In Africa, these conflicts include Nigeria, Sudan, Somalia, Egypt, Libya and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. In South America, there is conflict in Columbia and Peru while in North America, there is conflict in Mexico because of the drug war being waged there. In Europe, there is conflict in the Ukraine which McAlea termed a proxy war being waged by Russia.
He said that terrorists can be viewed from a criminal law perspective but noted that such terrorists are politically motivated and so if convicted in a Canadian court, they feel no shame whatsoever. He said that terrorists, as true believers, are “hopelessly brainwashed.”
McAlea noted that whatever the specific cause of an armed conflict in the world, such armed conflict almost always coincides with a weak democracy that shows no respect for individual rights. This results in a country with a ruling elite with distinctly impoverished masses.
He said that if the armed forces and police of a country exist simply to protect the government of a country, then that country is in trouble.
He noted as well as in war and conflict areas in countries, most people do not survive. They die of disease, starvation, malnutrition or from the conflict itself. Many become displaced persons, moving around the country to get away from the fighting, or become refugees, leaving the country altogether. Some who stay in the country become fighters themselves.
McAlea said that Rotary International may not be able to stop a war but that it can do a lot to help, for example, by working in the areas of health care and education.
He said that if machinery such as an x-ray machine is provided, make sure that the recipients have the ability to maintain the machine. If not, it is of no use to them in the long run.
He urged that investments should be made in democratic countries before dictatorships but he warned that Canadians have to be realistic in such expectations. He said that Canadians cannot be sanctimonious in their attitude in dealing with other countries. For instance, he said that while Saudi Arabia may have executed 100 or so people in the past year, China has killed thousands. And yet there are calls to cancel a military equipment purchase by Saudi Arabia while continuing to promote trade with China.