Today is the 10th anniversary of Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict. On February 12, 2002, the protocol, adopted by the UN General Assembly to ban the recruitment of soldiers under the age of 18, became legally binding. As of today, it has been ratified by 143 countries.
But in spite of all the agreements and official commitments, there are still an estimated 300,000 child soldiers in the world. At an age when most of their peers are expected to be in school (or are not yet even old enough to attend) these children are caught up in lives of unspeakable violence. Abducted from their homes, abused, terrorized, and often drugged or raped, they are trained to maim and murder at the behest of their adult overseers, and sometimes forced to carry out atrocities against their own communities and their own families.
Surprisingly, according to estimates cited by organizations such as War Child and the Child Soldiers Initiative, almost 40% of child soldiers are girls. Not only do they serve as combatants, but many are also taken as "bush wives", a term used by militia commanders to refer to sex slaves. In 2010, Raymond Provencher looked at female child soldiers in his National Film Board of Canada documentary Grace, Milly, Lucy ... Child Soldiers:
Retired Lieutenant-General and current Canadian Senator Romeo Dallaire saw first-hand the effect of conflict on children when he commanded the UN mission in Rwanda in 1994, at the height of the genocide that killed over 800,000 people in that country. In recent years, he has worked to help end the practice of using child soldiers around the world: Along with relentless advocacy efforts, Dallaire founded the Child Soldiers Initiative to help raise awareness about the issue, and wrote the book "They Fight Like Soldiers, They Die Like Children."
He has also sought to hold Canada to account on its approach to child soldiers. This country was once "at the forefront in developing the normative framework to protect the rights of children," he wrote in an op-ed last year. But now, he says, "our position on this issue has diminished."
Dallaire has expressed outrage at the treatment of Toronto-born Omar Khadr, who was captured at the age of 15 in Afghanistan after throwing a grenade at a U.S. soldier, and was sent to the U.S. detention centre in Guantanamo, Cuba. Dallaire has expressed the view that it is a mistake to see Khadr only an enemy combatant, and not as a child in a combat zone.
"The rage I have is towards our ineptness and sense of irresponsibility to those who expect us to be in a leadership role," he said in an interview with the Globe and Mail at the time of Khadr's conviction. "This country ... is changing its fundamental philosophy towards humanity and values and moral standing. It has already happened."
Dallaire will make a statement commemorating the 10th anniversary of the Optional Protocol in the Canadian Senate on Tuesday, in which he will ask Canadians to consider the ordeal faced by the hundreds of thousands of child soldiers still active in the world today, as well as those who bear the scars of their history.
He will also ask Parliament to consider using the sanction of the International Criminal Court to pursue those who finance and employ child soldiers, such as the financiers of piracy in the Horn of Africa (where many pirates are children, abducted and put to work by their adult bosses), and funding education and employment alternatives for children in the region.
Romeo Dallaire was in the red chair shorty after the release of "They Fight Like Soldiers, They Die Like Children" in 2010. Here he is talking to George in about child combatants, the Khadr case, and what hope lies ahead: