Best way to end use of child soldiers is to shame the commander: Dallaire

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By: Jocelyn Edwards

One of the most effective strategies in preventing the use of children as weapons of war is shame, according to retired lieutenant-general Romeo Dallaire.

“You hit (a commander’s) ego,” he said. “You stand your ground and continue to try to break that individual’s power base with his peers by insulting him as not a real commander if he has to use children to do his fighting.”

Dallaire, the commander of the ill-fated United Nation’s peacekeeping force in Rwanda during that country’s genocide, was in Calgary this week to be honoured at a dinner held by the B’nai Brith Lodge and to raise awareness and support for his organization, the Romeo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative.

Shaming leaders who recruit children as soldiers is a tactic that worked in Sierra Leone at the end of the country’s civil war, according to the retired officer, who also serves in Canada’s Senate.

Retired lieutenant-general Romeo Dallaire. Photo: Stuart Gradon

Dallaire recently returned from Sierra Leone, where his organization is in the first year of a countrywide initiative to train soldiers and police on how to prevent the use of children in war. In addition to training leaders, the organization has introduced picture books to the country’s school system to warn children against the dangers of becoming involved with armed groups.

The organization has also trained Canadian soldiers and RCMP likely to be deployed on peacekeeping missions on methods preventing of child soldiers. Peacekeepers can assist by providing families and children with information, by “making families and the youth aware of the extend to which (children) are being exploited in becoming child soldiers, versus thinking that they are going to get food and clothing and money,” according to Dallaire.

The celebrated humanitarian first encountered child soldiers as the commander of the UN forces in Rwanda.

“They were not only on the front lines as combatants but they manned all the road blocks and checkpoints and conducted a significant amount of the killing,” he said.

Facing children in combat can be particularly traumatic for those trying to keep the peace, said the general who has been public about his own struggles with PTSD.

“It causes an ethical dilemma for peacekeepers after they come home and start looking at their own kids after they have been engaged in fighting child soldiers. How do you face your own?”

Dallaire has declared in the past that he is dedicating the rest of his life to the prevention of the use of children in war.

“I consider it the most horrific possible degradation of a society,” he said.

In 2010 Dallaire published a book on the topic, They Fight Like Soldiers, They Die Like Children, and earlier this year, a film based on the book was released.

The former general goes so far as to advocate international intervention in situations were children are widely used as soldiers. “I think that we should be considering conflicts where children are used massively as a worthy enough cause for us to intervene,” he said.

While there are many international groups doing the work of rehabilitating and reintegrating child soldiers, Dallaire’s initiative is the only organization in the world dedicated to prevention.

There are more than 250,000 children being used in armed conflicts worldwide, according to the Child Soldiers Initiative. Forty per cent of these children are girls.

The use of child soldiers is a relatively new phenomenon in the history of warfare. According to Dallaire, child soldiers were first seen in Mozambique in the 1980s.

“The proliferation of small arms has made (children) easy to arm and to train to the absolute minimum standard,” Dallaire said.

The use of child soldiers is not just limited to Africa. Children have also been employed in Asian countries such as Sri Lanka and in the drug wars in South America. In Canada, law enforcement is becoming more concerned about the use of youth in diaspora gangs, according to Dallaire.

Romeo Dallaire and Shelly Whitman: Remember the child soldiers killed in battle, too

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By: Romeo Dallaire and Shelly Whitman

November is a month of remembrance. It is a month when we should take the time to remember the military men and women who have lost their lives serving to protect others from conflict. At this time we need to also remember those men and women in police uniforms that represent our country in peacekeeping missions. Currently, Canada has deployed personnel in 13 United Nations peacekeeping missions around the world.

I served as the Force Commander for the UNAMIR mission in Rwanda nearly 20 years ago, where I was first exposed to the use of children in armed combat. My troops and I were faced with traumatic moral dilemmas that will impact us for a lifetime. At that time, we were unprepared for the situation we faced in Rwanda and today, 20 years later, military men and women are still as unprepared to face the systemic use of children in war. One only needs to turn on the news to see that children are still being used as a weapon in Mali, Central African Republic, Sudan, Somalia, the DRC and even Syria.

This November, we must also remember those child soldiers lost in battle. However, children rarely enter the conversation in this manner on Remembrance Day — they are forgotten. The UN estimates that 250,000 children, boys and girls, are currently being used as child soldiers. We will never know how many of them have been killed or lost in battles. This is despite the fact that children are not responsible for the creation of wars in which they suffer.

Child soldiers are both a humanitarian and security challenge. Militaries and law enforcement agencies have a tremendously valuable role to play in child protection, yet they are seldom given concrete tools to affect this task responsibly. Confronting children on the frontlines creates a moral dilemma; you are not confronting a man or woman who is equal in age, strength, training and understanding.

I have often referred to child soldiers as being a “weapons system.” It is an effective system insofar as professionally trained security sector personnel are largely unaware of how they should interact with kids on the battlefield. For example, what should one do if one were to encounter a checkpoint manned exclusively by children? What should one do if a pregnant girl soldier presents herself at one’s base to be demobilised? If we are to neutralize this child soldier weapons system – we must demonstrate to adult commanders that their use of children is actually a tactical and strategic disadvantage. This requires preparation and training to confront the issue and not continuing to ignore or deny this reality.

We have yet to fully explore the impact of such interactions on military and police personnel who encounter children in armed groups. Those who are faced with the no-win situation of making split second decisions that can impact the lives of your personnel, as well as the child you are encountering. How does one face their own children upon return to a Canadian setting after such an experience?

It is because of this phenomenon that I’m in Sierra Leone today, my first visit back to the country since 2001 when I was sent as Special Advisor for Children in Armed Conflict to meet with children in demobilization camps. At the time, it was estimated that more than 10,000 children had been used as soldiers during the civil conflict. This time I am back with my Roméo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative staff to educate, train and prepare security sector actors in Sierra Leone to ensure that soldiers are prepared for this moral dilemma. At the same time we are seeking to ensure that the attitudes and behaviours on the use of child soldiers are forever altered to prevent any future recruitment. This includes educating children on understanding this risk, the realities and their abilities to self-protect.

While the effective disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration of former child soldiers is undoubtedly a critical exercise, it is imperative for the international community to move beyond the familiar task of fixing the broken, towards protection of the whole. In order to do so we need to work to prevent child recruitment in the first instance, during times of both peace and conflict. We need to be proactive and not reactive.

Child soldiers are a reality on the battlefield today. The entire world should be outraged at this phenomenon and at a minimum take the time to remember those children who have died and been lost this November 11th as well as appreciate the impact it has here on our troops at home.