A Unique Commitment With a Powerful Champion

by Glen

Yesterday’s story by Toronto Star’s Tonda McCharles on the possibility of Canada’s peacekeeping future being tied with the demilitarization of child soldiers could represent a clear departure for this country’s foreign agenda.

Two key influencers have come together to move Canada in that direction. The first is the UN Peacekeeping Defense Ministerial forum to be held in Vancouver in November, and the second is the redoubtable General Roméo Dallaire.   The global forum, designed to gain pledges from the participating nations towards peacekeeping, will be interested in Canadian input since this country’s participation on that file has been under review for an extended time. Still, the idea of having a rapid deployment military unit that can move quickly and be trained on preventing the recruitment and mobilization of child soldiers would prove a unique and intriguing contribution to the global commitment to peace.

The international event comes at a pivotal time for Dallaire, the former military general, and senator, who launched the Child Soldier Initiative in 2007 and which is housed at Dalhousie University. In venues around the world, he has struggled to help decision makers come to grips with the growing immoral problem of using youth in combat and especially the increase in the use of girls for such a purpose. His 2010 book, They Fight Like Soldiers, They Die Like Children, revealed his extensive understanding of the problem and his commitment to working on a solution.

While an MP, I worked with the General as he launched his initiative and watched in real time his increasing sense of urgency over the fate of youth in combat – he became a man possessed and a formidable global voice on the matter. At one point he wrote: “The ultimate focus of the rest of my life is to eradicate the use of child soldiers and to eliminate even the thought of the use of children as instruments of war.” That’s a pretty strong commitment, and coming from Dallaire it is a binding promise.

There was a time when the use of kids under the age of sixteen as warriors was frowned upon and rare, but that all changed with the increase of regional conflicts across the globe, especially in Africa. Dallaire told me in my office one day that creating a child to kill was much like moving a product through an assembly line. The molding of the young mind towards hatred and violence is a complex arrangement and breaking down that process is no simple matter.

Should the Canadian government commit to the demobilizing of child soldiers it must understand the recruitment process in troubled regions. To assume that armies sweep through a village and forcibly mobilize kids to kill is something of a misnomer.   In South Sudan, as an example, idle boys with nothing to do gravitate to a military unit encamped in the area, often intrigued with the camaraderie of soldiers, fascinated with weaponry and hopeful of some kind of wage. Without urging, they follow along with the units, offering to cart supplies or undertake physical labour. In most cases, they are denied participation yet they continue to “track” the unit in hopes of joining forces.

“The ultimate focus of the rest of my life is to eradicate the use of child soldiers and to eliminate even the thought of the use of children as instruments of war.”

For girls it’s different. Many have lost parents in the fighting or face famine and sickness. The military forces have their own food supplies, doctors, medical provisions and security, so they begin to shadow the soldiers in hopes of survival or protection. After a time they are set to work cleaning and cooking and, almost inevitably, take on something of a concubine status. Some are trained as killing units, while most remain in support roles.

This kind of recruitment wouldn’t transpire if medical and educational services were readily available in the regions. In addition, host governments, even rebel commanders, are conscious of the breaking of international legal protocols through the use of child soldiers. For these reasons, any effort on Canada’s part to launch anything to do with demobilizing child soldiers must be partnered with effective development. To incorporate one without the other can only result in ongoing enlisting. Canada’s development assistance must take this into account, especially for women and girls.

The possibility of Canada providing a peacekeeping component to effectively deal with child soldiers is a project worthy of both our past and future. As Dallaire said about the possibility: “To lead must be your aim … Bring your new-found depth of argument to the political elite of our nations and remind them of their enormous responsibility to protect, to assist, to intervene.” Sounds like an intriguing Canadian venture, one that we must enact with understanding and commitment.