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By: Jocelyn Edwards

One of the most effective strategies in preventing the use of children as weapons of war is shame, according to retired lieutenant-general Romeo Dallaire.

“You hit (a commander’s) ego,” he said. “You stand your ground and continue to try to break that individual’s power base with his peers by insulting him as not a real commander if he has to use children to do his fighting.”

Dallaire, the commander of the ill-fated United Nation’s peacekeeping force in Rwanda during that country’s genocide, was in Calgary this week to be honoured at a dinner held by the B’nai Brith Lodge and to raise awareness and support for his organization, the Romeo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative.

Shaming leaders who recruit children as soldiers is a tactic that worked in Sierra Leone at the end of the country’s civil war, according to the retired officer, who also serves in Canada’s Senate.

Retired lieutenant-general Romeo Dallaire. Photo: Stuart Gradon

Dallaire recently returned from Sierra Leone, where his organization is in the first year of a countrywide initiative to train soldiers and police on how to prevent the use of children in war. In addition to training leaders, the organization has introduced picture books to the country’s school system to warn children against the dangers of becoming involved with armed groups.

The organization has also trained Canadian soldiers and RCMP likely to be deployed on peacekeeping missions on methods preventing of child soldiers. Peacekeepers can assist by providing families and children with information, by “making families and the youth aware of the extend to which (children) are being exploited in becoming child soldiers, versus thinking that they are going to get food and clothing and money,” according to Dallaire.

The celebrated humanitarian first encountered child soldiers as the commander of the UN forces in Rwanda.

“They were not only on the front lines as combatants but they manned all the road blocks and checkpoints and conducted a significant amount of the killing,” he said.

Facing children in combat can be particularly traumatic for those trying to keep the peace, said the general who has been public about his own struggles with PTSD.

“It causes an ethical dilemma for peacekeepers after they come home and start looking at their own kids after they have been engaged in fighting child soldiers. How do you face your own?”

Dallaire has declared in the past that he is dedicating the rest of his life to the prevention of the use of children in war.

“I consider it the most horrific possible degradation of a society,” he said.

In 2010 Dallaire published a book on the topic, They Fight Like Soldiers, They Die Like Children, and earlier this year, a film based on the book was released.

The former general goes so far as to advocate international intervention in situations were children are widely used as soldiers. “I think that we should be considering conflicts where children are used massively as a worthy enough cause for us to intervene,” he said.

While there are many international groups doing the work of rehabilitating and reintegrating child soldiers, Dallaire’s initiative is the only organization in the world dedicated to prevention.

There are more than 250,000 children being used in armed conflicts worldwide, according to the Child Soldiers Initiative. Forty per cent of these children are girls.

The use of child soldiers is a relatively new phenomenon in the history of warfare. According to Dallaire, child soldiers were first seen in Mozambique in the 1980s.

“The proliferation of small arms has made (children) easy to arm and to train to the absolute minimum standard,” Dallaire said.

The use of child soldiers is not just limited to Africa. Children have also been employed in Asian countries such as Sri Lanka and in the drug wars in South America. In Canada, law enforcement is becoming more concerned about the use of youth in diaspora gangs, according to Dallaire.