Dallaire & Whitman: A world without child soldiers

Original Article Link

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.

Kayla Hounsell in Africa: ‘I was young by body and I was young by mind, but I was not young’

Original Article Link

By: Kayla Hounsell

He doesn’t know when he was born, and therefore he doesn’t know how old he is, but he believes he was around four years old when he became a soldier.

“I was not young,” he says. “I was young by body and I was young by mind, but I was not young. I was well aware that I’m there to fight, so I thought of fighting.”

Today John Kon Kelei is a lawyer, a university instructor, and an advocate for children affected by war. He dedicates his time to speaking out about his experience as a child soldier in South Sudan.

“It is a matter of choice,” he tells me. “You keep quiet and maybe some other children will be victims by the fact that people are not aware of it, or you talk about it and maybe you will save some few.”

We are meeting just days after the United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF) secured the release of 3,000 child soldiers in South Sudan, one of the largest ever demobilizations of children. 280 have been released so far.

UNICEF has reached out to an organization in Halifax for help.

Kelei is not working with UNICEF but he has been to Halifax several times to work with the Romeo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative at Dalhousie University.

“I’m fond of that program,” he says. “That’s why I joined my hand with them, to at least raise awareness around the policy makers.”

Founded by retired Lt.-Gen. Romeo Dallaire in 2007, the Dallaire Initiative aims to eradicate the use of child soldiers worldwide.

Executive Director Shelly Whitman says people like Kelei give reality to the work they do.

“Asking children who were recruited if the interventions we propose would have made a difference,” she says via email from Halifax. “If they endorse your work then that is a million times more worthy than any donor or government’s thoughts on the value of your work.”

Both Whitman and Kelei say it is always good news to hear of the release of child soldiers, but they caution there is much more work to be done.

“When you leave the military barracks that is the only thing you know, and that’s the only skill that you have to survive,” says Kelei. “But then you are sent to a civilian world which is totally new for you…I have always been complaining within the UNICEF itself to please stop with the short-sighted programs of rehabilitation and reintegration.”

UNICEF says this latest program will mean at least two years of constant work with the children, more if necessary depending on the child’s individual needs.

“It is significant to have this release of 3,000,” says Whitman. “But the worry is that each time South Sudan goes back to war children get used again, and we need to break this pattern.”

Whitman, who will be travelling to Uganda from Halifax later this month, is now hoping to also visit South Sudan. UNICEF wants to distribute the Dallaire Initiative’s handbooks here.

John Kon Kelei was not released from the army. After five years, he defected.

“If you don’t do it well and you are caught, you can wind up before the firing squad, so it is very dangerous,” he says. “It could mean death.”

Kelei urges people not to dismiss former child soldiers.

“People always think that these are children that went through the war, they can never achieve something higher. No, that’s wrong. Because if I could be the holder of a Master’s degree today, why not they?”

When the release secured by UNICEF is complete, there will still be an estimated 9,000 child soldiers in this war torn country.  John Kon Kelei stresses the continued need for organizations like the Dallaire Initiative.

“To my friends in Canada, in Nova Scotia as a whole, please support this initiative. It is about the lives of some children. You can see me now, nice in suit, in a red tie. Many of the children are there outside, who may be much more beautiful in suits than I am, and they need your support.”

A plea from a man, who knows the realities of war no child should ever see.