03/19/2012 02:55 EDT | Updated 05/19/2012 05:12 EDT

With or Without Kony, Child Soldiers Are on the March


To some human rights activists, the conviction of Congolese warlord Thomas Labanga of war crimes for using child soldiers to commit massacres and tortures sends a clear signal to others that they will be brought to justice.

Maybe, but don't bet on it.

Labanga is the first person convicted by the International Criminal Court (ICC) in the Hague for using children under 15 (and as young as eight) to kill and maim, and to be sex slaves. His trial lasted three years, and supposedly sets the tone for future war crime trials -- assuming perpetrators can be caught.

Even the phrase "child soldiers" has a pejorative ring.

Those who have survived such "soldiers" invariably recall the helplessness they felt being threatened by children with AK-47s and/or machetes who don't have an adult's perspective and are usually without fear or mercy.

There's nothing new or unusual about child soldiers.

Ask any Canadian veteran who faced units of Hitler Youth towards the end of WWII, and you get an idea of how dangerous these kids were, how fearless and ferocious and how sometimes the only way to deal with them in war is to kill them. Or be killed.

The spectre of war doesn't intimidate the young, as it does their elders.

Officially, a "child soldier" is someone under 18. In all of the wars Canada has fought, many kids under 18 enlisted, lying about their age, lusting for adventure. Most turned out all right -- undamaged mentally by their experience in war.

But Canadian (and allied) armies are disciplined and trained.

The issue of child soldiers erupted into headlines in Cambodia in the late 1970s when Pol Pot waged a campaign of murder and terror against anyone who showed signs of being educated or had Western inclinations -- like speaking a foreign language or wearing glasses, or reading Western books.

Perhaps a third of Cambodia's population was thus slaughtered, many by eight-year-olds wielding machetes, deaf to entreaties or pleas for compassion.

Canada has been inundated with protests on behalf of Omar Khadr, detained in Guantanao Bay, because at age 15 he fought for al-Qaida and killed a U.S. soldier.

By standards of today's "child soldiers" in Africa, and dozens of countries, Khadr was a mature fighter. Some of the child soldiers of Africa are barely big enough to carry an AK-47, much less to aim one accurately and responsibly.

In the Congo area where Thomas Labanga recruited and coerced child soldiers, an estimated 60,000 were killed in the time frame of 2002.

The fuss of the moment is Ugandan Joseph Kony who heads the Lord's Resistance Army (KRA) of child soldiers and as his myth grows it's uncertain whether he'd dead or alive. Many countries and rebel groups exploit children to kill and mutilate. Among countries singled out by the UN are Afghanistan, Burundi, Central African Republic, Chad, Colombia, Congo, Myanmar, Nepal, Philippines, Somali, Sri Lanka, Sudan, and Uganda.

In the Congo -- a perpetual war zone -- some 7,000 children are said to be involved in the killing of an estimated five million people. Rebel militia prize child fighters because they are "pure" and susceptible to magic powers and believe they have immunity to bullets, and mindlessly obey and commit gruesome atrocities.

Rather than diminishing, it seems the exploitation of children in war is increasing -- perhaps because they are so effective at terrorizing their victims.