There are a quarter of a million children fighting in wars. Can the international community do anything to help them?
The ongoing legal proceedings surrounding Omar Khadr’s detention in Guantanamo Bay have attracted much-needed attention to the issue of child soldiers. And while academic and legislative debates about whether Khadr qualifies as such rage on, hundreds of thousands of children around the world are regularly forced into combat.
A handful of efforts to stop this horrific symptom of war are underway, and in Canada, the effort is led by the Child Soldiers Initiative (CSI), a group founded by Lt.-Gen. the Honourable Romeo Dallaire, former force commander of the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Rwanda. Right now, CSI workers are in the Democratic Republic of Congo conducting research on the use of child soldiers in combat. You can track their progress here.
According to the CSI, there are a quarter of a million child soldiers involved in wars, mainly in African countries. These children are mostly between the ages of 14 and 18, but some are as young as nine years old. While many are forcefully recruited, some “voluntarily” enlist as a means of escaping the unbearable conditions of a country ravaged by war.
The activities associated with war are unimaginable for an adult, let alone a child, but after daily exposure, they become a routine means of survival. Children carry guns, kill people, and move bodies; they’re subjected to confinement, rape, brainwashing, slavery, starvation, intoxication, and isolation. And it’s estimated that up to 40 per cent of child soldiers are female. Many of these girls must then cope not only with being forced to kill and endure other atrocities, but also with unwanted pregnancy.
As this issue represents not only a universal affront to human rights, but also a threat to international security, in 2002 the global community began to address it with legislation such as the United Nations Optional Protocol on the involvement of children in armed conflict, which is part of the Convention of the Rights of the Child. (To date, more than 100 countries have ratified this protocol).
This legislation asserts that 15 is the minimum age at which children can be involved in conflict and demands of state officials to “take all feasible measures” to prevent underage participation. But in the sometimes murky bureaucratic language of international legislation, while it demands that states provide special protection for children over 15 who are “voluntarily” recruited for combat, it does not require a minimum age of 18.
This protocol is slowly garnering support, but a cohesive political will amongst the international community is lacking when it comes to enforcement and devoting resources. But a unified international political is just what is essential to tackle this issue, because, as identified in a report by Dallaire, weak individual states and a lack of agency amongst collective leaders are part of the problem.
In this report, written for the Harvard Kennedy School Carr Center for Human Rights Policy (which uses data from case studies in Angola, Liberia, Uganda, Sierra Leone, and the Democratic Republic of Congo), Dallaire outlines a strategy that strips away emotion and distances itself from the theoretical framework of human rights.
Specifically, Dallaire argues for a pragmatic approach and suggests that the issue must be examined from a security perspective. Although Dallaire acknowledges the Kantian framework of universal human rights, his theory returns to the pragmatic and fundamental question of why the practice of recruiting and using child soldiers has proven effective.
According to the CSI, it is relatively easy for warlords to assemble and maintain a child army, so conflicts escalate quickly as armies are amassed. Dallaire asks how these armies can be dismantled so that they are no longer beneficial for these warlords.
Another facet of CSI’s pragmatic approach is to train police and security forces on the ground to recognize and tackle this issue. The approach then demands more collaboration between the relevant actors, which include members of military and police forces, the UN, humanitarian agencies, governments, human rights and legal sectors, and civil society in general.
In the meantime, efforts to combat this problem, such as the CSI’s current research trip in DRC, continue. Specific research areas include recruiters’ tactics, girl soldiers, and the resiliency displayed by child soldiers. Perhaps it is this resiliency that, while possibly the most difficult variable to study, could prove the most illuminating.