02/18/2014 05:46 EST | Updated 04/20/2014 05:59 EDT

Canada Must Protect the Children of the Central African Republic

In 1994, the world witnessed the Rwandan genocide, when at least 800,000 people were murdered over a 100-day period. The horrors were detailed in Romeo Dallaire's book, Shake Hands with the Devil. Canadians were outraged by the terror of those fateful months, and vowed "never again." Almost 20 years later, peacekeepers uncover a mass grave at a military camp in the Central African Republic's (CAR) capital, Bangui. And a top United Nations official warns of "ethnic-religious cleansing."

This most recent statement comes on top of previous warnings by French and UN officials -- who both stated that CAR showed elements of a potential genocide -- and innumerable atrocities, including execution, rape, sexual slavery, and torture.

While sectarian violence continues to intensify, Canadians should remember that in any conflict, children suffer most. Nearly one-million people, the majority of whom are women and children, have been forced to escape. A total of 2.3-million children are at risk of becoming victims of attacks, and there are more than 6,000 child soldiers in CAR, many of whom are forced to commit atrocities. And sexual violence against girls is increasing.

These attacks against children have reached appalling, indefensible levels. They violate international humanitarian and human rights law and must stop immediately; and the perpetrators must be investigated, prosecuted and punished.

UNICEF officials report being "horrified by the cruelty and impunity with which children are being killed and mutilated in CAR." Children are increasingly targeted because of religion, or because of their community in which they live. In the past two months of escalating ethno-religious violence, at least 133 children have been killed and maimed, some of them in horrendous ways.

As a first, urgent step to protect the children of CAR, all armed factions must agree to stop involving children in hostilities and targeting them deliberately. As a next step, militant groups must be disarmed immediately, security must be restored throughout the country, and humanitarian aid must reach the children most at risk.

However, serious concerns have been expressed about the ability of the under-resourced African Union (AU) force, or MISCA, to protect civilians and restore security. The arrival of French troops has helped to improve the situation, but a more robust international presence is necessary to stabilize the country.

Canada's partners have mobilized significant resources -- both financial and material -- to assist the French and African Union in protecting civilian populations and restoring security in CAR. The United States alone has contributed over $100 million and is providing strategic airlift to transport African peacekeepers from Rwanda and Burundi.

Surely Canada can, and must, do more beyond this week's announcement of an additional $5 million. Canadians should demand to know what the government is planning to protect civilians, and particularly, the children, in CAR.

Will Canada play a supportive role in the EU deployment to CAR? Canada has a framework agreement with the EU to participate in European crisis management operations. Will Canada engage with our partners through this agreement to help protect civilians in CAR and restore security?

On other fronts, will Canada explore the options of increasing funding to the UN Trust Fund to support the AU MISCA force; sending technical advisors to assist the force to establish effective command and control functions; and providing logistical support, including strategic airlift, as we did in Mali to assist the French and AU?

The question of direct participation in a UN-led peacekeeping operation is at once more ambitious and more divisive. Our country has a long, well-established tradition of peacekeeping. The Canadian Armed Forces and Canadian police officers have proven their strength, their capability, and their commitment in Afghanistan and so many other places in the world. On the other hand, the Canadian public will be weary of the financial and human costs of putting our men and women in harm's way.

Should there be a call for broad-based participation in an international peacekeeping operation, what criteria will the Government apply to formulate its response? One criterion must always remain the protection of the most vulnerable of the society in conflict, in this case, the children of CAR.

Once the security and protection of children are ensured, Canada should play a role in the medium and longer term. The reality is that nearly half a million children have been displaced by the violence in the past year, and many remain hiding in the forests with little or no access to assistance or basic services. Schools across the country are closed, health clinics looted, and water systems destroyed. This already precarious humanitarian situation will be made worse by the rainy season which will begin in March.

Canadians should ask whether the Government will put children at the heart of its response and increase its investment. The children of CAR are waiting and counting on us.


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