A Cause close to home

A Cause close to home

A cause close to home

By Emma Skagen

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Think child soldiers are an issue that escapes our country’s borders? Think again.

In many senses, child soldiers walk down Canadian streets every day. They’re not in a traditional war zone, and they may not be wearing the sort of uniforms you’d expect, but in many senses teens recruited into gangs, or youth radicalized by those looking to use them as weapons nationally or internationally, share a lot in common with the more traditional image of a child solider.

Last week, the Dal-based Roméo Dallaire Child Soldier Initiative hosted a round table discussion with 14 Canadian police officers from Ottawa, Toronto, and Halifax, sharing expertise about addressing youth in conflict situations.

“Understanding the broader implications and connection between child soldiery, criminality, and radicalization is a critical first step,” says Shelly Whitman, the Dallaire Initiative’s executive director.

According to Dr. Whitman, the child soldier problem has always been seen by large-scale organizations as a side issue — something to be dealt with once we’ve dealt with all the other important things related to peace and security.

“What we’re saying is actually it should be much higher up on that agenda and [in fact] it should be one of the central issues … If you can address this issue, then you’re addressing the fact that people who might have been involved in armed conflict or criminal activity at a young age won’t get involved, and that has important implications.”

Linking with domestic police

Since the police officers involved all have international experience, they’re able to bring their experience to the table to put together a method of training their peers in interactions with youth and in the prevention of their recruitment in both international and domestic contexts. The initiative’s role in the talks was to provide guidance to the security sector actors present but also to seek input on how that guidance could be improved for future training.

The initiative has created a handbook to train security sector actors around the world, available on its website. Dr. Whitman says that so far, the primary focus of this publication has been on what the military forces should be doing to address child soldiers.  Bringing police forces at home into the discussion is a logical next step: they “are a presence in communities before conflict, during conflict and after conflict both here at home and abroad.”

And that’s important, because ultimately stopping the use of child soldiers requires addressing the front end of the problem. Dr. Whitman says most people and organizations try and address the aftermath of child soldiering: “after a child has this experience, how do you rehabilitate them, work with them? That’s good, it’s important, but what we’re saying is that that doesn’t break the cycle [of recruitment].”