Fighting child soldiers

booksFormer Canadian general Romeo Dallaire is calling on the world to use the Remembrance month of November to honour child soldiers lost in battle. The UN estimates 250,000 children, boys and girls, are being used as child soldiers and Dallaire has long drawn on his own experience to build a campaigning case against the use of child soldiers. Dallaire was the Force Commander for the UNAMIR mission in Rwanda that tried in vain to stop a genocide of 800,000 people in 1994.

Child soldiers, says Dallaire in his book They Fight Like Soldiers, They Die Like Children (now a movie) are the most “available cost-effective and renewable weapon system in existence today.” Children are vulnerable and easy to catch, plentiful in Africa and easily able to carry light weapons and ammunition. They are excellent combatants, good ambush bait and easy cannon fodder. Girls are an even bigger prize than boys, able to everything they do and also set up camp, prepare the food, control younger children and act as sex objects. This was well known as far back as Mozambique’s Graca Machel’s 1996 report to the UN The Impact of Armed Conflict on Children. Machel would also later be instrumental in developing the 2007 Paris Principles which tried in vain to galvanise countries to enforce existing laws against the use of children under 18 in armed combat. After Dallaire had finished exorcising his Rwandan experience in his book Shake Hands with the Devil, he threw himself full time into the issue, particularly military tactical responses to the problem and doctrines to deal with child soldiers in the field.

Child soldiers played a significant role in the Interahamwe paramilitary Rwandan slaughter and were also recruited into the Tutsi resistance, some of whom were “cocky, gun happy and arrogant” and caused mayhem with the UN. The defeated young militia members of the Interahamwe fled to DRC where they continued to cause chaos in the refugee camps. As the years progressed the number of conflicts escalated, each one needing an ever-increasing number of children. These wars are intractable and self-sustaining with little ideology or clear goals. Non-state actors such as the Lord’s Resistance Army, Coalition des patriotes resistants congolais (PARECO), Mai-Mai, CNDP and FDLR all extensively use children. Psychologically vulnerable and easily manipulated, children were also easy and cheap to maintain, eating and drinking less, unpaid, and not well clothed, sheltered, armed or logistically sustained. Adults also make the mistake of underestimating child soldiers, failing to see them as a threat.

Dallaire sees the need to prosecute leaders who use child soldiers but what should happen to the child soldiers themselves? Picking up the pieces of broken children is hugely difficult and rarely a top priority in conflict resolution. It requires a process Dallaire called DDR disarmament, demobilisation and reintegration. Each step is difficult. He quotes the 2008 Global Report of the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers which estimated half of child soldiers in Uganda registered for demobilisation fearing the army or rejection by their communities if they were identified as ex-LRA. Girls particularly were worried by stigmatisation. Disarmament was also difficult with many peace agreements not requiring child soldiers to surrender weapons after a ceasefire. Dallaire argues for a campaign to reduce illegal small arms trade by stressing the link to child soldiers.

Reintegration also requires long-term funding of child protection agencies and programs to ensure continuous support for education and training plus follow-up and monitoring once they return to civilian life. Dallaire says DDR is under-funded and cannot be isolated from the larger economic and social issues that plague embattled and impoverished states. Donors are drawn away by the next crisis. Dallaire’s Child Soldiers Initiative research project has been in existence for eight years and he admits it needs to change minds and many old ways of doing things to fix the problem. Dallaire understood child soldiers as ‘weapons systems’, victims of horrible abuse and agents of conflict.

Dallaire’s message to the public is to get involved. “Become an activist,” he concludes in They Fight Like Soldiers. “Inform others, influence public policy and public opinion, join an NGO’s efforts, and get engaged in advancing humanity beyond the evil that it does.”

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