Child soldiers: a conversation with General Romeo Dallaire

Feb 11, 2022
The horrific Rwandan Genocide in 1994 was also the first time Canadian General Romeo Dallaire encountered child soldiers.
 
“Children and youth were doing the bulk of the slaughtering. They were right in the midst of it,” recalls the former Commander of the UN Peacekeeping Force in Rwanda during a recent interview with Michael Messenger, President & CEO of World Vision Canada.
 
 

Dallaire acknowledges that both he and his troops were ill-prepared to face child soldiers in the midst of conflict.
 
“Adults were very willingly putting them in harm’s way,” he says. “Do we use lethal force like with other combatants? How do you stop it?”
 
Dallaire’s new mission
 
Those agonizing questions prompted Dallaire’s lifelong mission to end the recruitment and use of children in war. Through numerous books and other platforms, he has dedicated his life to raising awareness. In 2007, he founded the Dallaire Institute which works to prepare security forces for encounters with child soldiers and to ultimately prevent the recruitment and use of child soldiers in the first place.
 
The former Canadian Senator has also been influential with the Government of Canada to take a leadership role on this critical issue with the advocacy work of the Dallaire Institute achieving a number of notable successes. The Institute’s Executive Director, Shelly Whitman was a co-author of the Vancouver Principles alongside the Government of Canada which gained a record 59 global signatories committed to address the issue of child soldiers ahead of a UN Summit in 2017.
 
Wittman says that preventing the use of child soldiers in war is essential for global peace and security.
 
“We have data now that confirms that it prolongs a war by at least three times,” Wittman says. “If we can prevent the recruitment of children, we can shorten conflicts and even prevent them from happening in the first place. The security sector has a role as protectors and not just warriors.”
 
Persistent child soldier problem
 
Despite some progress in recent decades, global conflicts continue to put millions of children in harm’s way. The United Nations reports that one in six children—that’s 357 million girls and boys—live in areas of the world affected by war or armed conflict. Not only are children directly threatened by violence, they continue to be highly vulnerable to being recruited into militias, become suicide bombers and even be incorporated into national armies.  
 
“We are talking of tens of thousands of children how are used and abused in as many as 50 conflicts around the world right now,” Dallaire says.
 
Child Soldier Solutions
 
The Dallaire Institute’s advocacy and military training work is part of a holistic approach to stopping child soldiers that includes the work of humanitarian and development agencies.
 
World Vision addresses the issue through programs that help prevent the recruitment of children while also supporting the reintegration of former child soldiers back into their communities.  
 
Prevention programs focus on working with local communities to address root causes and strengthen their ability to protect children, promote peacebuilding and increase access to education and livelihood opportunities.  
Reintegration programs focus on breaking the cycle of violence by providing former child soldiers with psychosocial support like counselling, while supporting a different path through life skills and vocational training.
 
The role of Canada and Canadians
 
“Canadians have a leadership role in the world,” Dallaire says. “It is not an era of the classic use of force or classic diplomacy that’s going to end these problems.  It’s much more human. It’s about communities and how we protect our children. A priority of our foreign policy, our defense policy and our international assistance policy is how to support children and youth as ambassadors of peace by not only protecting them, but also allowing them to be able to live their full lives.”
 

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