03/14/2012 11:06 EDT | Updated 05/14/2012 05:12 EDT

Child Soldiers Didn't Start -- and Won't End -- with Joseph Kony


Ask General Romeo Dallaire anything about child soldiers, and he assembles all his forces in a well-strategized campaign to convince you that something must be done. And the resources at his disposal are compelling. Following his failed attempt to gain UN permission to intervene during the Rwandan genocide, Dallaire, now a Canadian Senator, applied his impressive experience to initiatives like the "Responsibility to Protect" and the "Will to Intervene." He has also spoken our forcefully on issues like the International Criminal Court and the need to destroy nuclear weapons.

A year ago, he came to my hometown of London, Ontario, and we presented together on a subject that has become urgent. He stood before the crowd assembled and laid out for them what would be required if the world were to seriously do away with the tragic practice of recruiting and abducting children to serve in military purposes. He had just released his newest book on the subject titled They Fight Like Soldiers, They Die Like Children, appropriately subtitled "The Global Quest to Eradicate the Use of Child Soldiers."

He spoke of helping the world come to grips with one of the great casualties of war. Unlike others, he likens child soldiers to a kind of weapon system. While we view them as individuals caught in a world beyond their control, those recruiting them see a faceless and mindless group, ripe for the taking and training, and expendable in the place of a more experienced guerrilla warrior.

He poignantly asked the audience, "Why is this child soldier weapon system the most sophisticated, low-tech weapons system on the battlefield today?" The answer was simple, though troubling -- an abundance of material. Children are everywhere, even in war. They are vulnerable, fearful, and ultimately able to be moulded.

But to be effective they must lose certain things: their parents, community ties, faith affiliations, and ultimately an inherent sense of right and wrong. Conversely they must also take on other important materiel for their work: hatred, loss of memory, total dependency, and a kind of fearlessness. And to be ultimately useful they require guns, lots of them.

Throughout East Africa the wholesale moving of small arms and light weapons into the hands of kids continues at a troubling rate. Dallaire is working with the UN in its efforts to curb such supplies by helping to conclude the International Arms Trade Treaty that would see clear controls put on the use of such implements of violence.

In other words, an entire system lies behind the use of child soldiers, ranging from supplies, to human engineering, to potent use on the field. If you were to ask the general what he thought of the KONY 2012 video, he would tell you that the scope of Joseph Kony's criminal actions wouldn't have been possible if the world had moved in such a way as to deconstruct the weapon system before people like Kony could unleash his bloody havoc.

But we didn't, and now we stand in shock as the video helped us to learn of one of the most dubious practices in the world. Dallaire would point out that the video shouldn't mix the messages of apprehending a war criminal with abolishing a system. There will be other Konys and wars of all kinds. But a system that has been permitted to assemble itself through a lack of democracy, proper educational systems, and vibrant community life, coupled with an unbridled arms trade, will only produce other henchmen regardless of how many people wear wristbands seeking Kony's capture.

Romeo Dallaire and I worked together for almost five years, attempting to get both the House and the Senate to ratify legislation banning the use of child soldiers. He would sponsor the bill in the Senate and I would steer it through the House in order to gain final approval. The election in May of last year put an end to that venture, but it must be introduced again and it will likely be the general who does it.

In a few weeks, Dallaire will be in London to deliver the Claude and Elaine Pensa Lecture on Human Rights. I've been honoured by being asked to introduce him. No sooner will I sit down than the general's eyes and compelling voice will remind us all that Joseph Kony is not a child soldier's worst enemy. It is our own lack of international action on legislative protection for children of war.

It will be a difficult message to hear, but it will be the one real chance we will have to assist child soldiers in places like Uganda.