The battle against child soldiers

by Gayle Wilson

  • <p>CONTRIBUTED PHOTO</p><p>Dr. Shelly Whitman, executive director of the Rom&#233;o Dallaire Child Soldier Initiative, addressed primary school students in Sierra Leone about some of the concerns surrounding child soldiers in January.</p>
  • <p>CONTRIBUTED PHOTO</p><p>The Rom&#233;o Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative activities reach into a number of countries, including South Sudan.</p>

A Black Point resident and mother of four boys, Dr. Shelly Whitman is at the helm of a global initiative that's gained significant ground recently in the international war on the use of child soldiers.

For the past seven years, Whitman has been the executive director of the Roméo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative, based at Dalhousie University in Halifax. The group created what it says is the first handbook on child soldiers, which is used around the world, and recently collaborated with senior officials with Canada's Department of National Defence to develop a doctrine on child soldiers for Canadian Forces.

The doctrine was released in February and will be used as a training strategy for soldiers heading off on the peace keeping mission the Canadian government is expected to announce soon.

The aim is to better prepare security personnel for the reality of child soldiers in war so that ultimately kids will be used less.

"The bad guys of the world are winning by using children," Whitman told LighthouseNOW. "As long as we don't have professional forces prepared for this, we're giving the upper hand to the other side."

Whitman teaches international development studies and political science at Dalhousie and has spent time researching issues related to peace, development and security. She was head of research on the inter-Congolese dialogue, a research consultant at UNICEF in New York and a colleague of Stephen Lewis on the Organization of African Unity's Rwanda Genocide report.

She joined the Dallaire initiative in 2010 to help set up and run its first institutional base at Dalhousie.

Until then, the organization that was founded in 2007 by the retired lieutenant general, Roméo Dallaire, a renowned human rights advocate, was "virtual."

Dallaire first experienced the issue of child soldiers as the Force Commander of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda during the 1994 genocide, when more than 800,000 people died in approximately three months.

He realized then that neither he nor his troops were prepared to face child soldiers.

In 2000, Dallaire, who is the recipient of the Meritorious Service Cross, the United States Legion of Merit and the Aegis Award for Genocide Prevention, revealed he had Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder because of his time in Rwanda and was medically released from the armed forces.

He went on to establish the child soldiers initiative, which, under Whitman, now has 10 permanent staff and an annual budget of $1.8 million and is supported by philanthropic donations.

Ironically, the Canadian government has given no financial support to the group yet, according to Whitman.

"But this government is intimately interested in what we do," she said, adding that she's been in "constant communication with at least four ministers" and is awaiting approval on two proposals.

As a result of the new doctrine, Canadian forces will be advised of prospective scenarios in which they may encounter child soldiers.

"It goes from what we would call the non-lethal to the lethal. It could be from a child that is loitering around your base, to a child that is being used as a spy to a kid you might see on the front line."

As an example, she shares the story of Canadian forces in Afghanistan who saw children on top of a wall.

"They only realized later on those kids were doing this with their hand on the other side of the wall," said Whitman, demonstrating a one-handed finger count, "because they were letting the Taliban know there are this many Canadian soldiers on this side. So they were spies. If you don't know this, that's just a kid, right? So your situational awareness has to change."

Another example was what South African soldiers experienced in battle in the Central African Republic in 2013.

"They weren't anticipating to see that it was going to be all children and many of them were refusing to shoot, and [the South Africans] lost 16 soldiers as a result. And then they pulled out their mission as a result of that. Some of the soldiers were saying, 'We didn't come here to shoot kids and we weren't prepared for it, and we could hear the kids crying for their moms.'"

Whitman says Canadian soldiers won't receive "prescriptive" instruction, but rather a menu of options.

"So you've thought through this and prepare for this before you see it on the battle field. Because what has happened previously is the first time you've thought about it is the first time you've seen it."

Another aspect of the training is something she admits is difficult for people to hear.

"In our research with former child soldiers they would tell us, 'Can you tell the soldiers not to back down from the fire fight?'"

The researchers were told that it was often in the chaos of battle that children found cover to escape.

"So, you might have to shoot one to save a hundred."

Whitman argues that military leaders who are using child soldiers know the moral dilemma they present to the opposing side, and the fact that soldiers often don't want to engage, don't know how to deal with child soldiers tactically, and either turn away or avoid the operation.

"So the bad guys of the world are winning by using the children."

The initiative group is working to ensure that leaders who do resort to child soldiers are held accountable in the International Criminal Court. And they're encouraging military strategists to take steps to mitigate situations where military personnel might confront child soldiers, such as by protecting schools where child soldiers are often taken.

Whitman refers to the situation where 100 school girls were abducted by the militant Boko Haram in Nigeria as "a great example."

She said the military had been advised the school was a security risk.

"If they had sent a perimeter of soldiers to go there, those girls wouldn't have been taken."

Whitman suggests that what the Dallaire initiative is doing is a "really critical part" in ending and preventing the use of child soldiers.

"Until we take away the tactical and strategic advantage of those who are using [child soldiers] we're not going to stop seeing them being used."

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