According to the Child Soldiers Initiative, “the use of child soldiers is one of the farthest-reaching and most disturbing trends in contemporary conflict”. It would be very easy to forcefully say that it is wrong and that the people who put children in the line of fire are cold, calculating and vile people. And that might all be true. But holding onto that stance of judgment not only will not save those children, it will not solve the plight of child soldiers.
Retired Lieutenant-General Roméo Dallaire, a celebrated humanitarian and outspoken advocate for war-affected children, and Jonathan Somer, an expert on the engagement of armed non-state actors in the protection of children, were in Halifax the evening of July 5, 2017 for the first in a series of lectures. This one was titled “Bridging the Divide: Engaging States and armed non-state actors”. It was moderated by Dr Shelly Whitman who took up the post of Executive Director of The Romeo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative in January 2010, an engaging speaker in her own right and strong moderator. They spoke about the roles that states and armed groups have to play in respecting international humanitarian norms and supporting child protection.
More than that, they spoke about the necessity of changing the conversation with states and armed groups to expand the possibility that something can be done to alleviate the plight of child soldiers.
It was fascinating to listen to a couple of the stories. Dallaire told a story about child soldiers in the Sudan. He talked about the eventual release of 300 child soldiers into the care of his organization. This only happened by establishing dialogue with a willingness to listen, to ask questions and to learn.
There are underlying circumstances or conditions – history and reality – that lead to the tactical and strategic use of children as a weapon of war. We heard about the reduced population of older people through both war and the ravages of AIDS, leading to a much higher percentage of children in the population. And we heard about poverty and few options for children or families. Ironically, becoming part of an armed initiative can provide a sense of safety for children or a sense of belonging.
Ultimately through establishing a dialogue with this armed group in Sudan, Dallaire and his team were able to ask a different set of questions – not questions of accusation or blame. They asked questions like, are these children winning battles for you? Will they win the war for you? Are they able to sustain conflict over a long period of time? Are you able to sustain them as a group of soldiers? What about the International reaction to the use of child soldiers – does this help your cause?
The answers to the questions were ultimately no, they don’t win battles or wars and we can’t sustain them the way we can an adult army and the impact of international scrutiny because of child soldiers is not helpful. They asked questions that invited a closer look at an expanded reality. This is what ultimately led to the surrendering of those children.
Canada is playing an innovative and leading edge role in raising awareness of child soldiers, in understanding the underlying patterns as well as the tactical and strategic uses, that lead to the ongoing use of child soldiers. They are changing the nature of the relationship and the conversations to find new ways forward and make progress on a disturbing and challenging trend in some conflict zones. This is essentially a worldview exploration and we know that applying the skills of Worldview Intelligence changes outcomes. While there is a long way to go on this issue, there is hope.