Child pirates: A world away from play

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By: DalNews

When an international naval vessel is being attacked by modern day pirates off the coast of Somalia or Nigeria, the crew is not scrutinizing the pirates’ appearances — they are focusing on staying alive. But if they did get a good look at the group of armed pirates, they would see that sometimes, up to one in three of them are children.

“You can get killed just as easily by a 10-year-old as by a 30-year-old,” says Hugh Williamson, lead investigator of the Dalhousie Marine Piracy Project.

Children are being used in piracy for the same reasons they’re used in armed conflicts around the world: they are cheap, easily available and easy to lead, says Prof. Williamson. But the lasting impact on both the children involved and the piracy market is massive.

When “catch and release” no longer works

Piracy is complicated from a legal perspective, in that the attacks do not take place within national borders. Because of this, many countries adopt the “catch and release” tactic, confiscating the pirates’ weapons and releasing them back to the high seas instead of dealing with the legal process.

But recognizing the role of children complicates the legal scenario even further, because vastly different standards exist for dealing with juvenile criminals. Not only do countries have a obligation to deal with children differently in the legal system, they are bound by obligations of the International Labour Organization (ILO). Piracy is considered one of its “worst forms of labour,” which means that nations have a responsibility to remove children from the line of work.

Prof. Williamson, an adjunct professor with the Marine Affairs Program, has actually been criticized at international meetings for raising the issue. He’s been confronted by dignitaries and delegates who prefer terms like “possible juvenile pirate suspects” as opposed to “children in piracy.” It’s easier to just avoid the problem, which is what Prof. Williamson and his team of researchers are trying to change.

“Our attitude is that if it’s everybody’s problem, then everyone has an entitlement to work on these issues,” he says. “A country cannot turn around and say it’s not their problem.”

Huge financial impacts

Last year, the two-year interdisciplinary project, which goes by the acronym PIRACY (Policy Development and Interdisciplinary Research for Actions on Coastal Communities, Youth and Seafarers), hosted an international workshop to identify areas of piracy that are not being dealt with adequately despite the large amounts of money spent on combating the issue — and money wasted because of inaction.

It’s estimated that the global transportation industry loses $7-12 billion each year due to piracy, raising the price of consumer goods that are travelling the globe.

“For $7-12 billion a year, I could hire every pirate in Somalia into a semi-professional soccer league, provide them all with uniforms and have them play soccer,” says Prof. Williamson, speaking hypothetically to the opportunity cost of avoiding the piracy issue. “It would be a lot cheaper doing that then paying the cost of piracy.”

Given that cutting off child labour would represent a huge economic hit to global piracy, the Dalhousie Marine Piracy Project, working with the Dalhousie-based Roméo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative, is developing strategies to combat the issue, starting with raising awareness.

“If you can get the problem recognized and have it added to the responsibilities of international agencies so they will be looking at the issue and identifying the problem, then you’ll start getting some international action,” says Prof. Williamson.

If the use of children in piracy can be recognized as an international crime against humanity, then systematically the adult pirates coercing children into their crews can be arrested for that, as well as for their piracy crimes.

Another asset will be reliable data. Prof. Williamson is pushing for the international shipping organizations to start recording the numbers of children in piracy, in order to address the severity of the problem.

Next, the project is seeking support for a handbook that would help organizations address children in piracy.

“The idea would be that it is a set of rules, procedures and best practices to be distributed to security forces and shipping companies so that when they run into a situation, they would know which steps to take and how to deal with it,” says Prof. Williamson, suggesting that the Child Soldiers Handbook will be a starting point.

Fire prevention

Despite their work so far, the people involved in the Marine Piracy Project see that the international community is doing more firefighting than it needs to. Consider a country like Nigeria, which has become a new hotbed for piracy and where the world really only took notice when international shipping community was affected.

“The easiest way to stop a fire is don’t let it get started in the first place,” says Prof. Williamson. For that reason, the project is working on pre-emptive strategies such as local radio programs and a PR campaign to encourage parents and children not to get involved in piracy.

“If we can keep youth from getting involved, it can really weaken the capabilities of piracy to evolve into a well-organized entity.”

The project still has a long way to go, but Prof. Williamson is pleased with the work that they’ve accomplished to date.

“The first step to any solution is recognizing you’ve got a problem, and we’re recognizing it and publicizing it.”

New Initiative Sets Out to Prevent Child Soldiers

By: Nina DeVries

It’s been over a decade since the civil war ended in Sierra Leone.  During the war, 50,000 people were killed and millions displaced.  Child soldiers played a key role in the conflict, as rebels recruited them to pick up weapons, fight and be used as sex slaves and spies.  Now, a non-profit group is looking to help Sierra Leone change its image and become a leader in the campaign against the use child soldiers in Africa.

Twenty-seven-year-old Adama – not her real name – was recruited by rebels in the north of Sierra Leone during the country’s civil war.

“They asked my father to have sex with me, he refused, when he refused, he lost his life… Seeing your dad [killed] in cold blood in front of you, it’s not easy,” she said.

A rebel then raped her at 12 years of age.

Adama says she spent two years with the rebel group The Revolutionary United Front (RUF).

She says normally she would’ve become a permanent sex slave for them but brigadier general’s wife took a liking to her, and she only had to cook and clean for the RUF members.

Or act as a spy.

“So we are the ones they send as intelligence to get info for them, so we go back and say hey, there’s this many police and soldiers around and they get ready to go for the fight,” she said.

She eventually managed to escape to Guinea where she received refugee status before coming back to Sierra Leone when the war ended.

Thousands of other children captured by rebels during the Sierra Leone civil war have similar stories, according to a Canadian-based organization, the Roméo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative.

The organization, created in 2008 by Roméo Dallaire, a retired lieutenant-general and former force commander of the U.N. Assistance Mission for Rwanda, estimates that 10,000 children were victims of military recruitment in Sierra Leone.

Shelly Whitman, the executive director of the organization, says the initiative aims to create training and education programs to prevent the future use of child soldiers.

Whitman says the organization plans to with work the military and police in Sierra Leone as well as youth.

“So teaching kids that if conflict does break out, you need to be aware that you could be taken by an armed group, here is how we suggest how you might prevent yourself from being taken, if you are taken, here are some pointers on how to escape being taken,” she said.

Whitman says the Child Soldiers Initiative has trained troops around the globe on how to deal with child soldiers in combat but this is the first time the organization is working directly with a country for a nationwide project.

“What if we look at this as creating a model for how the rest of world could prevent the use of children in armed conflict and take it and mold it so can be used in DRC [the Democratic Republic of Congo] or Somalia or other contacts around the world,” she said.

Kalia Sesay, the officer for police peacekeeping operations in Freetown, Sierra Leone’s capital, says many former child soldiers have now been reintegrated into society but more rehabilitation could still be done.  Some former child soldiers have gone on to lead a life of drugs and crime.

“There might be one or two bad eggs that need rehabilitation and it is a police concern which we need to work on,” said Sesay.

Meanwhile, Adama is pleased the initiative is happening.  She says it’s been hard to be accepted back into society because of her past.

“When these things have happened, there are stigmas around us.  Some are even afraid of coming close to us and interacting with us so I think with this program things will change,” she said.

The project is expected to be fully operating in Sierra Leone by June.

Analysis: Girl child soldiers face new battles in civilian life

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By: IRIN News

JOHANNESBURG, 12 February 2013 (IRIN) – Girl child soldiers are often thought of only as “sex slaves”, a term that glosses over the complex roles many play within armed groups and in some national armies. This thinking contributes to their subsequent invisibility in the demobilization processes – in fact, girls are frequently the most challenging child soldiers to rehabilitate.

The broad categorization of girl soldiers as victims of sexual abuse obscures the fact that they are often highly valued militarily. While sexual abuse is believed to be widespread, girls’ vulnerability may vary, as attitudes toward women differ extensively across militias: In Colombia, the Marxist-leaning groups the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) and National Liberation Army (ELN) treated female soldiers as equal to males, while right-wing paramilitary groups were known to embrace gender stereotypes.

Some have argued that disarmament, demobilization and reintegration programmes (DDR) are ill-equipped to address the needs of girls. DDR was designed for adult male combatants, and over the years has incorporated female combatants, followed by boy soldiers and then girls.

A January 2013 World Bank briefing, Children in Emergency and Crisis Situations, says: “The use of girls [by armed forces] has been confirmed in Colombia, DRC [Democratic Republic of Congo], East Timor, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Uganda and West Africa. There are some 12,500 in DRC. However, girls are generally less visible and up to now have hardly benefited from demobilization and reintegration programmes for child soldiers.”

“No one knows what has happened after a DDR process to the large majority of girls associated with the armed groups,” the briefing said.

About 40 percent of the hundreds of thousands of child soldiers scattered across the world’s conflicts today are thought to be girls, but the numbers of girls enrolling in child soldier DDR programmes dwindles to five percent or less.

Girls often conceal their association with armed groups, Richard Clarke, director of Child Soldiers International, told IRIN. In traditional societies, enrolling in DDR could confirm a past that imperils their future: “In contexts of entrenched gender discrimination, and in situations where a girl’s ‘value’ is defined in terms of her purity and marriageability, the stigma attached to involvement in sexual activity, whether real or imputed, can result in exclusion and acute impoverishment,” he said.

Seeking gender equality

Then there is the uncomfortable reality that some conflicts may actually fast-track gender emancipation.

A 2012 report by Tone Bleie of the University of Tromsø’s Centre for Peace Studies (CPS) explores this issue. During Nepal’s civil war, when Maoists conscripted “one member per house”, some parents offered their daughters to spare “sons whom they considered as their life insurance.” Of the Maoists’ 23,610 combatants at the cessation of hostilities, 5,033 were female, and of them 988 were girls.

“Female combatants developed a new sense of pride and dignity due to personal sacrifices, military courage, feats in the battlefield and prospects of promotion in the ranks”

“Female combatants developed a new sense of pride and dignity due to personal sacrifices, military courage, feats in the battlefield and prospects of promotion in the ranks,” the report says.

In the wake of Nepal’s 2006 ceasefire, during the cantonment of Maoists rebels and the subsequent reintegration process, girls and women were returned “to [the] very low position of women in traditional Nepalese feudal society,” Desmond Molloy, a panellist at the International Research Group on Reintegration at the CPS, told IRIN.

“Inter-cast marriage, and marriage in general, was encouraged in the cantonment. This is taboo in Nepali society and proved a major obstacle for reintegration of young girls back into society, especially when they have children, as many do. Further there is in [Nepal’s] society a perception of a promiscuous environment in the cantonment. So many young girls were viewed with suspicion by their families, rejected by their new in-laws or ostracized by the community,” Molloy said.

Abdul Hameed Omar, programme manager for the UN Development Programme’s Interagency Rehabilitation Programme, told IRIN that acceptance of inter-cast marriages was particularly problematic. “Children have been denied birth certificates, and women have been denied their citizenship certificates. When the community knows that a woman has been part of the PLA [People’s Liberation Army], these women sometimes face a stigma,” he said.

He said attitudes of male Maoist ex-combatants “vary widely” but that “many voiced opinions that were not in line with their previous [gender equality] beliefs during the conflict. Other male ex-combatants who played traditionally female roles during the conflict, i.e., cooking or childcare, no longer feel that these are appropriate roles for men outside of the PLA.”

Loss of power

Many Colombian girl soldiers, who fought as equals to their male counterparts, struggled with the double standards of civilian life.

“For some girls, belonging to an illegal armed group gives them a sense of power and control that they may not otherwise experience living in a relatively conservative, ‘machista’ [chauvinist] society,” said Overcoming Lost Childhoods, a Care International report about rehabilitating Colombian child soldiers.

By the end of Eritrea’s 30-year-long liberation war, in 1991, females comprised between 25 and 30 percent of combatants. The gender-equality ideals espoused by the Eritrean People’s Liberation Front’s (EPLF) had proved an attractive lure for female recruits, including some who were teenagers or younger.

“Many Eritrean female ex-fighters experienced the years of war as preferable to the time that came afterwards”

But “many Eritrean female ex-fighters experienced the years of war as preferable to the time that came afterwards… They had felt respected, equal and empowered, but this was all lost after the war when women were pushed towards traditional gender roles,” said the 2008 report Young Female Fighters in African Wars, Conflict and Its Consequences.

Eritrea’s DDR programmes initially tailored economic opportunities for women to traditional gender roles – basket weaving, typing and embroidery – but this did not provide a sustainable livelihood. Training women in traditionally male trades also proved fruitless because society’s norms ultimately dictated who could get which jobs.

“Furthermore, female ex-fighters had a hard time getting married after the war as men usually claimed that these women had lost their femininity during the war. Many male ex-fighters also divorced their fighter wives for this reason and married civilian women,” the report said.

Duality

Girl soldiers’ versatility – they serve as combatants, spies, domestics, porters and “bush wives” – makes them highly valued among armed groups, which can also increase their difficulty reintegrating into civilian life.

Despite this, punishments for girls in northern Uganda, such as whipping or caning, were meted out for the smallest infractions, Linda Dale, director of Children/Youth as Peacebuilders (CAP), told IRIN.

“There is a strong tendency to force a kind of passivity on girls while at the same time they are expected to be combatants. This duality, as well as the effect of sexual violence, makes their rehabilitation more complicated, in my view,” she said.

The length of captivity also differed between the sexes; average internment period for girls in northern Uganda was six to seven years, while boys faced about three years, Dale said. “Because of that, the effects of the experience, and therefore the need for more assistance in re-integration, will be higher. For example, many girl returnees are illiterate because they have been out of school so long.”

Shelly Whitman, executive director of the Roméo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative told IRIN that some girls can be seen as suffering from Stockholm syndrome, where captives develop a sympathetic association with their abusers.

“Girls were raped but then given to or chosen by a commander to be a ‘wife’. They are confused about their experiences, their guilt, their families’ expectations and religious beliefs. Additionally, many have children fathered by their captors. They are often rejected when they return home and viewed as non-marriageable material, damaged goods. With this kind of a homecoming, it creates confusion about your identity and your self-worth,” she said.

Invisibility

The assumptions and expectations of people operating DDR programmes may also affect girls’ reintegration.

Girl soldiers are often assumed to be “‘following along’, rather than girls who have been recruited and used, however informally, for military purposes… These assumptions have resulted in tens of thousands of girls being literally ‘invisible’ to DDR programmers, although the situation has improved somewhat in recent years,” said Clarke of Child Soldiers International.

“Boys with guns are easier to see and easier to fear”

Phillip Lancaster, former head of the DDR programme for the UN Organization Mission in DRC, told IRIN, “Boys with guns are easier to see and easier to fear.” DDR programmes might “ignore girls on the assumption that they don’t present the same threat.”

“My own experience is that girls are often invisible to DDR programmes that draw narrow categories around the notion of combat,” he said. “It’s tricky to avoid getting caught up in categories as soon as one starts trying to define parameters of qualification for DDR programmes, and most of the decisions tend to have a somewhat arbitrary flavour simply because of the complexity of the subject matter.

“Most of the Congolese armed groups… draw on local community resources… The definition of girl child soldier in this setting could, in theory, extend over all the young females in a community who were supporting, supplying, informing or directly fighting with a relevant armed group.”

Coming of Age in a Guantanamo Jumpsuit

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TORONTO, Oct 3 2012 (IPS) – Plenty of monikers have been attached to Omar Khadr, one of the most famous Guantanamo Bay detainees – child soldier, terrorist, war criminal, Al-Qaeda family member, security threat.

One thing is certain: Khadr’s release last weekend to Canadian custody after 10 years has proven highly provocative. His return to Canadian soil has triggered passionate debate about how he should be regarded and whether a man born into a radical family championing terrorism can reintegrate into a society he barely knows.

The tendency to characterise Khadr as a convicted war criminal, given that his confession was made under duress, indicates there are “so many factors related to this particular case that are not being challenged enough” and that the context of children’s use in armed conflict must be reexamined, said Dr. Shelly Whitman, the director of Dalhousie University’s Child Soldiers Initiative in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

Now 26, Khadr, a Canadian citizen, was a 15-year-old when captured during a 2002 firefight with U.S. military forces in Afghanistan. He threw a grenade, killing Sergeant First Class Christopher Speer, for which he pleaded guilty to murder, although his supporters argue evidence points to a death resulting from friendly fire.

Khadr, whose sentence began in 2010 and will end in 2018, also admitted to providing material support for terrorism, attempted murder, conspiracy and spying, according to a statement issued by Public Safety Minister Vic Toews over the weekend. The minister added that Khadr, raised in Canada, Pakistan and Afghanistan, was an Al-Qaeda supporter whose accomplices included Osama bin Laden and Ayman al Zawahiri.

While Khadr’s life thus far has been a whirlwind of activity, the challenges will not end once he is a free man. Whitman told IPS that he will face hurdles to find employment, struggles to catch up with education and “deep problems” from a psychosocial perspective because he experienced torture. However, she cast doubt on the negative influences of his family.

“As far as I’m concerned, this notion that because they have an association and they’ve said some things which are viewed as radical to others in this country, it doesn’t mean necessarily that he’s going to want to commit anything (that forces him) to go back to prison… Why would he do anything to jeopardise going back to that context?”

A poll conducted last month suggested the aversion of many Canadians to Khadr’s return, a problem some say is rooted in the tendency of his portrayal as a child soldier or as a terrorist.

Under the Paris Principles of 2007, guidelines to protect children from recruitment and to assist those already involved with armed groups, “the things that define a child soldier are the very things that would define a child terrorist,” Whitman said. As it stands, there are perception problems in Canada about the definition of a child soldier, a worldwide phenomenon involving boys and girls assigned a variety of roles depending on the particular conflict, she said.

Gail Davidson, executive director of Lawyers’ Rights Watch Canada in Vancouver, disagrees with both the terrorist and child soldier claims.

The United States has not presented any evidence to any court that Khadr threw the grenade killing the U.S. soldier, she told IPS, adding that it would have been classified as “murder according to the laws of war” had he, as an armed combatant, killed an opponent.

“As far as Mr. Khadr being a child soldier, we don’t know whether he was a child soldier or not,” Davidson argued. “We don’t know of any instance of him ever bearing arms or otherwise engaging in warfare.”

The October 2010 plea agreement by which the U.S. government agreed to limit his additional imprisonment to eight years if he pleaded guilty to all the U.S. offences “should be properly viewed as a confession obtained through the use of torture and not as a reliable and legitimate determinant of guilt or innocence”, she said.

During his detention, Khadr complained of being forced into painful stress positions, threatened with rape and rendition to third-party countries, hooded, and confronted with barking dogs, some of which was confirmed by U.S. government witnesses, according to a Sep. 29 press release issued by Human Rights Watch. The organisation added he was denied legal counsel until 2004.

For the most part, Khadr has received positive assessments by psychiatric experts.

Last year, psychiatrist Stephen Xenakis reported no “indication of aggressive or dangerous behavior” after 300 hours of interaction with Khadr, who has “consistently emphasized his goal to establish a constructive and peaceful life as a Canadian citizen”, according to a letter written to Minister Toews.

In several conversations, Khadr “repudiated” the beliefs of terrorist groups and demonstrated a “capacity to engage with others in a healthy way”, added Katherine Porterfield, a clinical psychologist for the defence team, in a letter to the minister in 2011.

Still, there are detractors, among them psychiatrist Michael Welner. Welner worked with Khadr for 500 to 600 hours and described him as dangerous. Citing the Canadian’s demonstrated capacity to kill, Al-Qaeda affiliations and “hardened” family members conveying “belligerence towards the United States”, Werner testified that he feared the young man’s history and associates will all “contribute mightily” to bolstering Al-Qaeda’s North American presence.

Khadr advocates are concerned that Welner’s testimony heavily influenced the Canadian government. Upon Khadr’s release to Canadian authorities, the public safety minister expressed anxiety about the 26-year-old’s romanticisation of his father’s activities (which he viewed as NGO-related) and many of the issues raised by the psychiatrist. Ottawa pledged to offer appropriate programming during Khadr’s imprisonment and strict conditions if he is granted parole as early as next year.

Other reintegration proposals are based on keeping Khadr away from the negative influences of his family, but it was never clear which feasible assurances could be offered since media reports indicate his family wishes to see him, David Harris, the director of the international and terrorist intelligence programme at INSIGNIS Strategic Research Inc. in Ottawa and a former chief of strategic planning for the Canadian Security Intelligence Service, told IPS.

Overall, the saga of Omar Khadr has been impacted by “possible simple-mindedness” surrounding the question of his child-soldier status, as some have insisted on the label without fully examining the specific merits and implications of the evidence, Harris said. Certain individuals have regarded as “wholly irrelevant” the issue of criminal responsibility, he added.

These “sentimental” views neglect to a large extent the public safety implications of cases like Khadr’s and understate the “burgeoning terror issue that I fear will become an extremely prominent feature of Canadian life”, Harris said.