Nova Scotia·Q&A

Children 'targeted for violence' by armed groups in Venezuela, say advocates

As the political crisis deepens in Venezuela, human rights advocates are warning about another concerning development for the country's children.

'So what we are seeing and hearing is very disturbing news related to the treatment of children, generally'

Local residents looks for recyclables at a pile of trash at Jose Felix Ribas neighborhood in Caracas, Venezuela, on Jan. 30, 2019. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

As the political crisis deepens in Venezuela, human rights advocates are warning about another concerning development for the country's children.

The Roméo Dallaire Child Soldier Initiative, a research and advocacy organization against the use of child soldiers in wars, has been developing a tool for assessing when children are at risk of being recruited into armed conflict 

Shelley Whitman, the initiative's executive director, said the assessment tool has alerted them to a disturbing trend in Venezuela. She spoke with CBC Radio's Information Morning host Portia Clark.

This interview has been edited for length and clarity. 

What are you seeing and hearing is going on in Venezuela now?' 

So what we are seeing and hearing is very disturbing news related to the treatment of children, generally. However, what we've been watching over the last year especially is that children are being targeted for violence ... some children are being lured into specific armed groups and gangs by food, because of the lack of access to food. Children are being abandoned as well by parents who can't afford to feed them, and so therefore there is an increased number of children who are unaccompanied. 

Shelly Whitman gives a presentation in South Sudan to a group of peacekeepers from Rwanda. Retired lieutenant-general Roméo Dallaire is seated far right in the front row. (Submitted by Josh Boyter)

There are also reports very recently that are about children actually being abducted by armed forces in the streets, children between the ages of 12 and 15. Although we don't have official reports that are coming out to relay this, this is the message we're getting from ... concerned child protection actors on the ground.

And when you say kidnapped, possibly, by armed forces, which armed forces?

We are hearing that there are possibilities of this happening with [President Nicolas] Maduro, the government forces ... and we're seeing signs of this that are very troubling, in terms of people being concerned about their children being abducted and keeping them inside after 5 p.m. to ensure that they are not abducted.

We know that the Maduro forces are certainly concerned about defection of troops and there's been an inflow of weapons [into the country], particularly with the polarization of the world on this issue. 

You've seen this pattern before in other countries. What has been the the outcome?

Exactly. So I would say before the Syria conflict was starting to erupt six, seven years ago, we started to raise the flag about the violations against children in Syria, and we started to raise the concern about children being indoctrinated and recruited in Syria. 

At that time, we had a lot of media as well as organizations who were saying, 'But there's no evidence that child soldiers are being used in Syria yet.' What we know now is that there's no doubt about the level of child soldiers being used in Syria. In fact, it's an epidemic proportion and is a critical element to trying to address how we're going to move forward in that context. 

So we have witnessed this in places like Syria, we have witnessed it as far back as [when] Gen. Dallaire saw it in Rwanda in 1994, prior to the genocide. And we're seeing it now. 

With files from CBC Radio's Information Morning.

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