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This November 11, Remember the Forgotten Child Soldiers

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November is a month of remembrance. It is a month when we should take the time to remember the military men and women who have lost their lives serving to protect others from conflict. At this time we need to also remember those men and women in police uniforms who represent our country in peacekeeping missions. Currently, Canada has deployed personnel in 13 United Nations peacekeeping missions around the world.

I served as the Force Commander for the UNAMIR mission in Rwanda nearly 20 years ago, where I was first exposed to the use of children in armed combat. My troops and I were faced with traumatic moral dilemmas that will impact us for a lifetime. At that time, we were unprepared for the situation we faced in Rwanda and today, 20 years later, military men and women are still as unprepared to face the systemic use of children in war. One only needs to turn on the news to see that children are still being used as weapons in Mali, Central African Republic, Sudan, Somalia, the DRC and even Syria.

This November we must also remember those child soldiers lost in battle. However, children rarely enter the conversation in this manner on Remembrance Day -- they are forgotten. The UN estimates that 250,000 children, boys and girls, are currently being used as child soldiers, we will never know how many of them have been killed or lost in battles. This is despite the fact that children are not responsible for the creation of wars in which they suffer.

Child soldiers are both a humanitarian and security challenge. Militaries and law enforcement agencies have a tremendously valuable role to play in child protection, yet they are seldom given concrete tools to affect this task responsibly. Confronting children on the frontlines creates a moral dilemma; you are not confronting a man or woman who is equal in age, strength, training and understanding.

I have often referred to child soldiers as being a "weapons system." It is an effective system insofar as professionally trained security sector personnel are largely unaware of how they should interact with kids on the battlefield. For example, what should one do if one were to encounter a checkpoint manned exclusively by children? What should one do if a pregnant girl soldier presents herself at one's base to be demobilized? If we are to neutralize this child soldier weapons system, we must demonstrate to adult commanders that their use of children is actually a tactical and strategic disadvantage. This requires preparation and training to confront the issue and not continuing to ignore or deny this reality.

We have yet to fully explore the impact of such interactions on military and police personnel who encounter children in armed groups. Those that are faced with the no-win situation of making split second decisions that can impact the lives of your personnel as well as the child you are encountering. How does one face their own children upon return to a Canadian setting after such an experience?

It is because of this phenomenon that I'm in Sierra Leone today, my first visit back to the country since 2001 when I was sent as Special Advisor for Children in Armed Conflict to meet with children in demobilization camps. At the time, it was estimated that more than 10,000 children had been used as soldiers during the civil conflict. This time I am back with my Roméo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative staff to educate, train and prepare security sector actors in Sierra Leone to ensure that soldiers are prepared for this moral dilemma. At the same time we are seeking to ensure that the attitudes and behaviours on the use of child soldiers are forever altered to prevent any future recruitment. This includes educating children on understanding this risk, the realities and their abilities to self-protect.

While the effective disarmament, demobilization and reintegration of former child soldiers is undoubtedly a critical exercise, it is imperative for the international community to move beyond the familiar task of fixing the broken, towards protection of the whole. In order to do so we need to work to prevent child recruitment in the first instance, during times of both peace and conflict. We need to be proactive and not reactive.

Child soldiers are a reality on the battlefield today. The entire world should be outraged at this phenomenon and at a minimum take the time to remember those children who have died and been lost this November 11 as well as appreciate the impact it has here on our troops at home.

This originally appeared in the National Post.

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