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By: LGen Roméo Dallaire (Ret’d) and Dr. Shelly Whitman
February 12 is the International Day to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers. On this day, and through the creation of international legal instruments, the world recognizes the use of children as soldiers as a grave violation of human rights. We acknowledge that a child soldier cannot be held criminally accountable for their actions while in an armed group and that it is the adults who cause this abuse who must be brought to justice.
The Paris Principles and Guidelines of 2007 outlines the definition and functions of a child soldier:
“A child soldier is any person below 18 years of age who is or has been recruited or used by an armed force or armed group in any capacity, including but not limited to children, boys and girls, used as fighters, cooks, porters, messengers, spies or for sexual purposes. It does not only refer to a child who is taking direct part in hostilities.”
The functions carried out by child soldiers are not restricted to a specific war, rather they resonate across continents, conflicts and armed groups or forces. However, Canadians’ reactions and emotional responses to child soldiers, and their portrayals — “child soldier” vs. “child terrorist” — seem to be coloured based on the conflict and the proximity of these conflicts to our own sense of security.
Is a young Islamic girl child used in a suicide bombing in Pakistan more blameless then the Christian boy used by drug traffickers in Mexico or the African boy used on the frontlines in the Democratic Republic of Congo or the girls abducted by Boko Haram in Nigeria? Somehow each of these situations evokes very different images and assumptions to the Canadian observer — yet each illustrates children being used illegally and unscrupulously by adults.
The massive and horrific use of child soldiers by ISIS has brought a renewed urgency to this discussion. Whether these are Canadian youth lured to fight overseas by targeted social media campaigns or drawn into the fray by parents or family members, they represent a challenge to Canada’s commitment to upholding the international conventions we have signed on to.
How we choose to deal with — and even label — child soldiers at this moment is critical
Over 14 years ago, amongst the rubble of a freshly attacked hut in Afghanistan, American soldiers pulled out a gravely injured Omar Khadr. He was 15 years old and there under the direction of his father. American Forces accused Omar of inflicting a fatal wound on Sergeant Christopher Spear.
Under the auspices of Canadian and international law and norms, Omar Khadr was undoubtedly a child soldier. Canada established a dangerous precedent of recognizing his actions as those of an “adult terrorist” and not as a “child soldier.” What are the implications for our nation and others who are facing the return of children who were radicalized and used by armed groups be it under the flag of a terrorist group or rebel movement in a civil war? Do we send them all to prison? And if so, will our prisons only serve as a hotbed of radicalization?
How we choose to deal with — and even label — child soldiers at this moment is critical. Our commitment to national security must not be at the cost of our humanity and our duty to uphold the rights of the child. Our failure to do so may only serve to further the campaigns of extremists and those that prey on our youth.
Roméo Dallaire is a retired lieutenant-general, celebrated humanitarian and founder of the Roméo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative. Dr. Shelly Whitman is the executive director of the Roméo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative.