How many of us are aware that about 250,000 children are being used as soldiers in conflicts around the world? In addition children are used by street gangs in the drug trade, by the drug lords in Brazil, as slave labourers moving illegal diamonds, drugs, precious woods and coltan, a mineral used in cell phones, in African areas where there are weak states, and as intelligence agents elsewhere in the world. These are children who are nine to sixteen years of age. How can this be?
I went to several authors to get answers: Roméo Dallaire, Canadian Senator and retired Canadian Lieutenant-General, who participated in United National peacekeeping expeditions and tried to prevent the 1994 massacre in Rwanda, wrote They Fight Like Soldiers, They Die Like Children, (Random House, Canada, 2010); Ishmael Beah, a child soldier in Sierra Leone, wrote A Long Way Gone:, Memoirs of a Boy Soldier, (Douglas & McIntyre, Vancouver/Toronto, 2007); Ian Brown, who interviewed child soldiers, wrote Khomeini's Forgotten Sons:, The Story of Iran's Boy Soldiers (Great Seal Books, London, 1990); and H.K.Shin, a Korean child soldier, wrote Remembering Korea, 1950:, A Boy Soldier's Story (University of Nevada Press, 2001).
This essay describes some of the results of my search for reasons why and how children are being used as weapons of war and what becomes of these children.
The enlistment of children:
(1) Children are easy to enlist because:
(a) They don't have an ideology or firm goals, and they can readily be coerced by propaganda and drugs and are easily indoctrinated. They are apt to quickly transfer loyalty to an adult, especially a superior with the power to reward or punish. Girls are sought since they can become sex slaves or because they can manage the cooking and other care-giving needs of their group.
(b) In many instances the child has been separated from the rest of the family, is desperate, totally alone and seeks security. Child soldier Ishmael Beah of Sierra Leone, described how he was lost at age twelve, joined a group of thirty children age seven to sixteen to plunder villagers for food and finally was picked up by the government army. Under the influence of drugs which gave him energy, he witnessed children made to kill their own parents, won a contest for slitting the throat of a comrade and participated in other grave atrocities. (Beah - 72, 111, 121-124)
(c) In other cases the family is destitute and unable to care for their children. This scenario is described in the biography of H.K. Shin, who was sixteen years old when North Korea invaded South Korea.
(d)Brown describes how children were sent to blow up mines to clear the way for tanks and quotes reasons children gave for joining the fight: They wanted to show that they were grow up, they wanted to fight for their country or were willing to be martyred for Islam.
(2) Children are cheap to maintain and are easily manipulated with drugs, punishment or rewards. (Beah - 24, 108)
(3) Children can fire a sub-machine gun as well as an adult, and guns and ammunition are readily available. It is said that "650 million light, simple to use, deadly small arms are cheaply available anywhere, anytime." (Dallaire - 12, 120)
(4) Those employing child soldiers know that when trained militia men come face to face with a child soldier, the veteran soldiers often hesitate to counterattack and become disillusioned with their mission. Children are the ultimate expendable frontline weapon.
Through the centuries many societies have articulated through laws, religions and philosophies that all human beings are equal in species and evolution. Until humans learn to value human life, men will continue to impose their ways on others by war, and children are being sacrificed to do the deed for adults.
Dallaire wrote, "I'm a passionate humanist, and while I long for and strive for universal peace, as ex-military I understand that my resolve to protect and preserve human rights must be tempered by the sad reality that lethal force is sometimes necessary." (Dallaire - 224) "Our peacekeepers and peacemakers believe that they will use their training, their power, their expertise and their weapons to protect life, not to take it." (Dallaire - 186) Yet there is a contradiction. During training the recruits are taught how they are expected to bypass this instinct to preserve and protect the lives. Peacekeepers believe that they are in combat with equals, and they respond when they are given the order to kill those who threaten the vulnerable people in foreign lands. (Dallaire - 188) Still every peacekeeping soldier has to deal with the actual killing of other human beings, which can create "the most heinous of consequences on your mind, soul, moral fibre and humanity." (Dallaire - 186)
Dallaire's heinous experience in the case of a child soldier:
Both forces of government troops and rebel groups had been subjecting the inhabitants of a small village to stealing, kidnapping, raping, mutilating and killing, however the villagers, who had lived in that area for decades, did not want to move.
The United Nations peacekeeping commander sent twelve blue helmeted soldieries to offer some protection. During the evening those peacekeepers met with the village elders trying to persuade them to vacate that area, and finally the elders agreed to consider the option and meet again in the morning. Believing that displaying the presence of the UN would deter raids by both the government troops and the rebels, Jeeps hoisting blue UN flags were dispersed and the peacekeepers were deployed in strategic positions. The rules of engagement for the UN Peacekeepers were clear. "...we were to use deadly force if necessary to protect the population from any group that endangered them by the use of deadly force." (Dallaire - 190)
At night, the UN soldiers took turns at sentry duty, and between shifts, they huddled under mosquito nets until a quick downpour sent some scurrying for protection inside Jeeps. But when morning came there arose the sounds of gunfire and soon the rebels in wet, green camouflage ran screaming and firing weapons toward the centre of the village. Turning the corner, Dallaire came face to face with a rebel aiming and firing an AK-47. Dallaire returned the fire instantly. The rebel was hit and his body was flung backward. Dallaire wrote: "The glance downward was surreal. The rebel with his blazing gun, who had raced around the corner of the building firing away at anyone and everything, including me, now lay face up and dying in the mud, twisted, bleeding and barely able to breathe,. Lying there was a young teenager, at most thirteen or fourteen years old. A child. A girl. ...I was witnessing the grossest of human indecencies, I was, for probably only a few seconds, but for what felt as long as my whole life to that point, observing the transformation of a warrior back into a child and that child was now dying--of wounds I had inflicted on her child body." (Dallaire - 196, 197) Dallaire has been haunted by this deed, and like others who abhor the use of child soldiers, has taken on the task of curtailing the use of children in conflicts.
The Child Studies Institute:
Along with his efforts to prevent genocide and the non-proliferation of nuclear weapons, Dallaire has founded the Child Studies Institute (CSI) which investigates how children are recruited, made into soldiers, used, disarmed, demobilized and reintegrated. The agency works through Dalhousie University, Halifax, Canada. (www.childsoldiersinitiative.org)
Refusal to prosecute:
David Crane, the American lawyer who served as chief prosecutor for Sierra Leone's UN-backed crimes tribunal refused to prosecute child soldiers and told about his findings in a report before the Canadian Subcommittee on International Human Rights in 2008. (Dallaire - 126)
Our ethical obligation to advance peace:
Although many believe that it is the natural state of humans to be combative for survival, many archaeologists have found evidence showing that our primitive hunter/gatherer ancestors depended on each other for survival. They distributed the work so that all members of the community benefitted through greater food supply, security and must have reaped serenity of mind. Leaders like Desmond Tutu, Mohandas Mahatma Gandhi and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. taught that we have an ethical obligation for the larger social good, to advance the quest for peace. We cannot survive in isolation. Dallaire refers to Archbishop Desmond Tutu who said that it is the essence of being human that you cannot diminish the worth of others without diminishing yourself. (Dallaire - 242) We are interdependent on this earth. If you think that the drug dealer employing child soldiers in Latin America is far removed from influence in your life, think again. When you travel, you will be searched for the drugs this child helped to produce or distribute; you will pay highly for the police forces in your country who track down illegal drug imports; you may even experience murder in your community where gangs fight over control of drug money. We live in one world and our lives interconnect. The problems of far-away people impact on our everyday lives. Can't we drop the thought of "them" versus "us" and find ways to be friends, friends who see the needs of others and strive to fulfill those needs?
Public action can eliminate the practice of employing child soldiers:
(1) Ensure that your priorities are known to your government and are passed on to other agencies such as the UN. The UN can only act according to the mandates of its membership. Some progress has been made. In 1989 the UN passed The Convention on the Rights of the Child. Graca Machel prepared and presented her report "The Impact of Armed Conflict on Children" to the UN General Assembly in 1996. It called upon the international community to note and respond. The UN appointed a special representative for children regarding armed conflict and passed "An optional protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child (which) pledged signatories to limit the military use of children." Are these pledges being met? In September 2000, Lloyd Axworthy, the Canadian Minister of Foreign Affairs, and Maria Minna, the Canadian Minister in Charge of Canadian International Development, convened a conference in Winnipeg calling attention to the "gaps in the international efforts to protect children affected by war." (Dallaire - 217-219) Representatives from 132 countries as well as from the corporate sector, academic circles and former child soldiers attended. What are you doing to urge that your country act? Voters can ensure that their priorities are supported by their elected representatives, yet voters are often lax. I In Canada during the May 2, 2011 Federal election almost 40% of eligible voters failed to turn out to vote for a representative.
(2) Governments are highly influenced by media coverage. It is the media that often tells us what is important, and we follow their lead. We must define to programmers of radio, television, newspapers and magazines what we think is important and engage public opinion to support measures that stop the use of child soldiers. Look what was done about land mines in the 1990s. "The international movement, which roused public and media support around the world, led to a ban that took this weapon completely out of the inventories or arsenals of most nations." (Dallaire - 231)
(3) Support the practice and teaching of conflict resolution within the military, and I would add, in our everyday lives. Dallaire writes that: The military "are coming to understand that the use of force is perhaps not the first and best option in many situations for the armed forces and their political masters." This realization comes about because of experiences in Iraq and Afghanistan working with the local military and civilian populations. Dallaire quotes from advice of the U.S. Secretary of Defence, Robert Gates in Chris Thatcher's May-June 2010 Vanguard article: "integrate the work of various players in conflict zones, both at national and international levels, to achieve a coordinated, collaborative and more effective outcome." (Dallaire - 230)
(4) Address the problem of manufacture and distribution of small weapons. There are over one million small weapons manufactured every year. China, Russia, France, United Kingdom and the United States, all members of the UN Security Council, are the biggest producers, but there are other producers. Bring to justice illegal drug dealers and tell public servants to destroy surplus weapons, not so sell them, except to legitimate states with legitimate security needs, and never to states that curtail the freedom of their own citizens through powerful policing. "States that cannot or will not stop internal atrocity crimes are the kind of states that cannot or will not stop terrorism, weapons proliferation, drug and people trafficking, the spread of health pandemics and other global risks." (Dallaire - 250) Embargoes and other measures have not been successful to stop this proliferation and distribution. The same concerns arise over production and distribution of ammunition. What can we do about the guns in our communities, and what are we demanding that our government leaders do locally and internationally?
(5) Re-education. Children who were child soldiers can't remember what life was like before they enlisted. Their moral judgement is corrupted since they had to focus on ways to survive at any cost. Their conscience is destroyed; they have no compassion or capacity to empathize. Many are addictive to drugs. Communities ostracize girls who have been raped, and many girls have children to support. Former child soldiers often say that they miss the security of serving a leader and the fellowship of belonging to a group. Most have little formal education or skills to make a living. Having experienced power over others these child soldieries challenge us to interest them in ways to use their leadership qualities toward beneficial ends.
I have endeavoured to call your attention to reasons why children are enlisted as child soldiers, to some of the measures, which are being taken to eradicate the use of child warriors and to list some of the problems of rehabilitation. More needs to be done to arouse public action to stop the atrocity of depriving children of the right to grow up with healthy minds by turning them into child soldiers. If you aren't convinced that there is a problem, you can read the gory details of mutilation and forced addiction in the referenced books. Hate, prejudice and selfish drives for power over other people and resources seem to be forces that drive people to action, but I agree with Dallaire who wrote that it is possible to be energized by empathy, compassion, courage, determination and altruism. (Dallaire - 248) Dallaire believes that public sentiment can move governments to make the changes we seek. I hope that this essay will motivate you to teach others about the atrocity of employing child soldiers and will motivate you to act. Action to stop the recruitment of child soldiers can be a measure toward establishing peace in our world.
Dallaire, Roméo, Senator, L.Gen. (Ret'd). (2010).The Fight Like Soldiers, They Die Like Children. Random House, Canada.
Beah, Ishmael (2007). A Long Way Gone, Memoirs of a Boy Soldier. Douglas & McIntyre, Vancouver/Toronto.
Brown, Ian (1990). The Story of Iran's Boy Soldiers. Great Books, London.
Shin, H.K. (2001). Remembering Korea, 1950, A Boy Soldier's Story. University of Nevada Press.