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Child Soldiers and Fiction: Black Panther

Dustin Johnson

Warning: this post contains spoilers for Black Panther.

This is the first post in an ongoing series on the portrayal of child soldiers in works of fiction.

Whether explicitly acknowledge or not, child soldiers commonly appear in works of fiction, some speculative like Black Panther or the Hunger Games, some historical like books on the Second World War. Child soldiers are often portrayed across a spectrum of sometimes conflicting roles, whether as heroes, victims, villains, or children caught up in the events of their world.

Black Panther portrays child soldiers both as victims of adults waging a war, worthy of being saved from their circumstances, and as heroes necessary to the defeat of the movie’s villain.

Early in the movie, T’Challa, the king of the fictional African nation of Wakanda, and known as the Black Panther, attacks a convoy of militants driving through the forest and easily dispatches them. Just as T’Challa is about to kill the last militant, the Wakandan spy Nakia, who had been posing as one of a group of kidnapped girls in one of the trucks, stays his hand, as the final militant was a child soldier kidnapped at the same time as the girls.

The location is specifically identified on screen as Sambisa Forest, an area in northeastern Nigeria that until recently was the stronghold of the very real armed group Boko Haram, infamous for their use of child soldiers and child suicide bombers. The dress of the militants and of the girls they are holding captive, and their use of child soldiers, along with the location, indicates that they are in fact supposed to be Boko Haram.

This scene realistically depicts child soldiers as we often think about them in the real world: children forced or coerced into fighting or carrying out other tasks for an armed group, who deserve a second chance even after they have been given a gun and put into battle. With some useful, if last-minute, intelligence from Nakia, T’Challa is able to avoid killing one of the child soldiers, who can now return home with the kidnapped girls.

It should be noted though that leaving the children to fend for themselves in the forest, rather than first taking them to the appropriate child protection authorities before returning to Wakanda, was probably not in their best interest.

Later in the film, we see a different portrayal of a child soldier, one who is a hero and only fights because of the circumstances she is pressed into. T’Challa’s sister Shuri is a genius who leads Wakanda’s technological development, and is 16 in the movie. During the final battle with Killmonger, the movie’s charismatic villain, she joins the fight with some of her technology, firing on Killmonger before he almost kills her.

These differing portrayals of child soldiers in the film illustrate the complexities of the use of child soldiers in the real world, across different motivations, ages, and roles. Children can be forced or coerced into fighting, but also choose to do so, whether for survival, protection, or supporting a cause. They take on a variety of roles, some involving fighting, some in support. Some are quite young, others are older teenagers, and many view themselves as adults, as Shuri likely does due to her significant responsibilities.

These tropes of child soldiers as either heroes, villains, or victims are quite common in Western literature and cinema. In some works, one or more is used simplistically or uncritically, while in others they are woven together with more nuance. While Black Panther does not dwell on these issues as much as movies they are central to, such as the Hunger Games series, it draws in very real-world scenarios and complexities with Boko Haram, and portraying a very politically engaged and important child who comes to fight through necessity.

Photo from European Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid Operations under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0.

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Allons-y Volume 3: Call for Papers on Children and Armed Conflict

When it comes to international peace and security, children are often viewed as an afterthought.

We focus mostly on the geopolitical dimensions of conflicts and crises, the involvement of major powers like the United States, Russia, and China, and the potential of crisis to escalate into major international wars. We ignore how conflict and crisis impacts children and youth, and how they influence these events.

Whether it is the use of child soldiers by most parties to the conflicts in the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the children injured and killed by chemical weapons in Syria, the fifty percent of Rohingya refugees in Bangladesh who are children, Venezuelan kids growing up hungry, or the fear experienced by their counterparts in Hawaii due to a missile attack false alarm, conflict and crisis has a profound effect on children and youth, harming them and the future of our societies.

All too often children and youth are considered an afterthought, unimportant actors on the global stage—except when viewed as a threat. Despite the Convention on the Rights of the Child being the most ratified human rights treaty in the world – the US alone has not ratified it – issues facing children and youth are seldom considered in peace negotiations, their voices often go unheard in politics and government, and their contributions to and role in the world are underappreciated by academia, governments, businesses, and the general public.

To understand, respond to, and help resolve crisis and conflict, we need a better understanding of all the actors involved, and this includes children and youth. The ways they experience, contribute to, and help to resolve these challenges require exploration and attention, while the voices of children and youth must be listened to and amplified.

Children and youth bring unique perspectives and fresh ideas, and tend not to be as jaded, cynical, or reactionary as their older peers.  Even more importantly, they have a deep desire to feel empowered to address some of the world’s largest challenges. To bring the energy and expertise of youth to questions of children and armed conflict, we at the Roméo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative have been publishing an academic journal focused on contributions from authors under 30. Now in its third volume, we are seeking papers from young scholars and practitioners on how the most pressing conflicts and crises, as examined by International Crisis Group last month, impact and are impacted by children and youth.

When published, this volume will pair the work of young scholars with short commentaries by experts in the field, presenting a combination of fresh insights with expert knowledge. In previous volumes we have published papers examining such questions as whether and how we should view children involved in cyberwarfare as child soldiers, and how the traditional involvement of children in cattle raiding in South Sudan was leveraged into a key recruitment method in the current civil war there.

We invite you to contribute to Allons-y by February 26th.

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Sierra Leone Education Project

Dustin Johnson

Students doing a story mapping exercise in Makeni. Photo by Dustin Johnson

By: Dustin Johnson

During the first week of April, our research officer Dustin Johnson visited Sierra Leone to conduct an initial round of monitoring and evaluation of the Dallaire Initiative’s education project. Along with staff from our in-country partner, Pikin-to-Pikin Movement, he visited the three primary schools in Port Loko, Bombali, and Moyamba districts where the project is being piloted.

At each school, 48 students from grades 3 to 5 are members of a Dallaire Initiative Peace Club. Through drama, songs, and discussions, the students learn about peace, child protection, and preventing interpersonal violence, and then spread these messages among the other students, to other schools, at home, and in the community. At each school, Dustin and Pikin-to-Pikin staff conducted mapping exercises, group interviews with the students, and one-on-one interviews with the teachers who coordinate the clubs and local Pikin-to-Pikin staff to gather information on the project from a different perspective.

From the responses provided by the students, staff, and teachers, it is clear that the project is already beginning to have an impact on the students, the school, and their communities. The messages disseminated in the clubs appears to be causing behaviour change among the students, including reducing bullying and fighting, and encouraging them to talk to their friends and intervene to prevent this kind of behaviour. Many of the students also reported talking to their parents about peace and what they learned in the clubs, encouraging them to reduce conflict and abuse in the home.

The clubs also undertake activities like visiting other schools to spread their message, tackling fighting that occurs at sporting matches and other events between schools, and visiting local courts and chiefs to learn more about conflict resolution institutions and encourage their use.

Overall, the project so far is a success and appears to already be having an impact. As time goes on, further assessments will better reveal the impact on the wider community and demonstrate the importance of this approach of working directly with children to build peace in the community and the country.

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The Dallaire Initiative Launches Toolkit to Protect Education from Attack

Director of Training, Darin Reeves, presents Implementing the Guidelines: A Toolkit to Guide Understanding and Implementation of the Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use During Armed Conflict in Buenos Aires, Argentina March 29th, 2017.

By: Darin Reeves

As a much-anticipated centre piece of this two day conference, hosted by the Argentinian Ministries of Defence and Foreign Affairs together with the Government of Norway to discuss the implementation of the Safe Schools Declaration, The Roméo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative launched Implementing the Guidelines: A Toolkit to Guide Understanding and Implementation of the Guidelines for Protecting Schools and Universities from Military Use during Armed Conflict (the Toolkit). Attended by representatives from 80 states, together with international organizations and civil society representatives from around the world, this conference highlighted the release of the Toolkit, made up of practical tools intended as teaching aids, tactical and operational guidance materials and aides-memoire specifically designed for state and non-state military planners, at both the operational and tactical levels.

In designing the Toolkit, created on behalf of the Global Coalition to Protect Education from Attack (GCPEA), the Dallaire Initiative relied upon the extensive experience and knowledge gained from working with security sector actors from around the world, together with our unique understanding of the most important issues faced by the security sector. Building on the Guidelines, which provide non-binding, practical yet aspirational guidance to encourage parties to conflict to better protect the special civilian character of schools and universities, the Toolkit itself translates this guidance into real-world approaches, contextual solutions and planning considerations of assistance to forces in the field.

Speaking to the assembly in presenting the Toolkit, the Director of Training Darin Reeves stated that the Toolkit is intended to assist security sector actors be proactive, rather than reactive, in their approach to protecting education in areas of armed conflict and that by protecting schools, children’s rights and the children themselves will remain protected. “This Toolkit emphasises the ‘Humanitarian’ in International Humanitarian Law, and by assisting security sector actors at the point of first contact with schools, students and educators will provide practical tools and guidance to ensure that education can continue. This supports our own work in creating practical, proactive solutions to ending the recruitment and use of child soldiers, and to supporting children’s rights in areas of armed conflict”.

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How Quickly a Week Flies By!

Darin Reeves

By: Darin Reeves

At the Rwandan Peace Academy in Musanze, Rwanda, another trained cadre of military professionals join the growing ranks of security sector actors trained to end the recruitment and use of child soldiers around the world. Following completion of the one week “Basic” course, delivered by the Roméo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative and in partnership with the Government of Rwanda and the Rwandan Defence Force, these newly trained and educated men and women are now better prepared to interact with child soldiers, and to protect children in areas of conflict.

Speaking on behalf of RDF leadership, Colonel J. Rutaremara stressed the importance of this training, “This initial course is very important because it marks the beginning of the operationalization of the joint framework of cooperation between RDF and the Roméo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative”, referring to the training partnership formalized through a Memorandum of Understanding between the Government of Rwanda and the Dallaire Initiaitve in May 2016.

Graduates of this program have achieved a a significant milestone in equipping the RDF to plan, organize and conduct its own training on preventing the recruitment and use of child soldiers, and now provide the RDF a unique opportunity to build a better, common understanding in dealing with children and child soldiers in a proactive, not reactive way.

https://mod.gov.rw/news-detail/?tx_ttnews%5Btt_news%5D=3404&cHash=369b9c2cd3663dbe27dda5fef6bbfca1#.WNTlzWWZkYk

http://rwandaeye.com/dallaire-foundation-trains-rdf-on-non-recruitment-of-child-soldiers/

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The Arms Trade and Child Soldiering

Dustin Johnson

By: Dustin Johnson

Header photo credit: UN Photo/Patricia Esteve

The image most commonly brought to mind by the phrase child soldier is that of a boy holding an AK-47 assault rifle. While not every child soldiers carry a gun, the availability of small arms and light weapons has helped precipitate the security concern child soldiers pose.

The importance of small arms to the use of child soldiers has always been acknowledged by campaigners and the UN, who point out that modern assault rifles are simple, cheap, and relatively light. A child can learn to operate and maintain them in under an hour proficiently. Consequently, a child can quickly mobilise into a capable fighter. However, small arms have traditionally been ignored by the international arms control regime, with its focus on heavy weaponry, aircraft, missiles, and weapons of mass destruction.

A recent report from Terre Des Hommes Germany and three other German NGOs highlights how small arms and light weapons produced by German companies end up in the hands of child soldiers in multiple countries. Pathways include the supply of arms to unstable countries where they are later diverted to paramilitary groups, or looted by armed groups, using child soldiers. German guns, built under license in secondary states, can be exported to third countries where they fall into the hands of child soldiers. Loopholes in arms control legislation and the government placing other factors ahead of child soldiers in the decision to grant export licenses. While the longevity of firearms, with German-made guns from as early as the Second World War still being used in conflicts worldwide.

The issue of small arms and light weapons are certainly not a purely German problem though. Many countries make and export small arms around the world, and some governments directly supply foreign armed groups despite the use of child soldiers. Weapons from countries such as the USChina, Iran, and Sudan end up in the hands of armed groups that use child soldiers around the world, whether as the result of intentionally supplying them, or their diversion by corrupt officials or their looting from government caches. The complex interaction of the legal arms trade, illegal arms trafficking, and insecurity and corruption too often leads to weapons intended for legitimate state security forces ending up in the hands of children.

The report puts forwards three key recommendations, which are relevant to all countries engaged in the manufacture and trade of small arms, light weapons, their components and ammunition:

  • Make national arms export requirements more restrictive, and not let strategic or economic interests override child protection when it comes to their implementation;
  • Restrict military training and aid for armed forces that use child soldiers; and
  • Push for the implementation of better international treaties and safeguards on the arms trade, such as the Arms Trade Treaty.

Preventing the use of child soldiers requires a multifaceted approach, and this report highlights important steps that national governments can take to reduce the access to weapons for armed groups and forces that use child soldiers.

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Protecting Children’s Rights and Preventing Their Use by Terrorists

By: Dustin Johnson

Header photo: Unsplash/Alessio Lin

A recent in-depth piece in the Washington Post examined the ISIS-directed or inspired attacks that have taken place in Germany over the last year, all perpetrated by children. 10 children, mostly teenagers, were involved in 5 different plots or attacks over the past year, and the German intelligence agencies have identified another 120 children suspected of having been radicalized to violence.

Many of the children involved in these plots come from an at-risk background, making them easier for ISIS to recruit. According to the Post:

“Religious extremist propaganda, Salafist propaganda, can only work if it is addressed to an audience that is already marginalized and feeling uncomfortable in society,” said Goetz Nordbruch, co-director of Horizon, a German group offering counseling and workshops on Islamophobia in German schools. “The public discourse is turning against these kids, against Islam… It is making it harder for them to feel both Muslim and German.”

As ISIS loses ground in Iraq and Syria to the various forces fighting it, they have focused more on directing or inspiring attacks in Western countries, through propaganda and communication over social media and messaging apps. Children are intentionally targeted. As the Post article relates:

“The amount of Islamic State videos and propaganda aimed at children has really jumped in recent months,” said Daniel Koehler, director of the German Institute on Radicalization and Deradicalization Studies. “We haven’t seen anything quite like this, not on this scale and of this quality. They know that in the West, you don’t expect a 10-year-old to be a terror suspect.”

This shows that ISIS is intentionally recruiting children for these attacks due to the advantage they bring from being less likely to be detected. In the case of Germany, laws constrain the ability of the intelligence services to track children suspected of being radicalized, while in general we do not usually assume that a child might pose such a threat.

Unfortunately, growing awareness of this latest challenge from ISIS does not always lead to balanced responses based in a thorough understanding of the use of children by ISIS. Germany’s response has included positive steps such as deradicalization programs for children, while changes to laws governing how intelligence and law enforcement authorities can track children will need to be carefully balanced to both protect children’s rights and the safety of the public.

Other countries have not provided as nuanced a response however. One need not look further than the United States, where the now-rescinded and highly controversial travel ban led to the temporary detention of a 5-year-old American boy of Iranian ancestry by border patrol agents. White House press secretary Sean Spicer defended this action by saying “To assume that just because of someone’s age and gender that they don’t pose a threat would be misguided and wrong.”

While ISIS is clearly seeking to exploit gaps in counter-terrorism when it comes to children, such an action as described above is not what is needed in response. Given the chaotic implementation of the travel ban and the age of the detained boy, it is certain that there was no actual evidence indicating a threat, and he was detained simply for who he was. Such an approach to countering the use of children by terrorists is both counterproductive and immoral.

An effective strategy that protects human rights, children, and the public must be primarily preventative, while equipping law enforcement with the right abilities to prevent attacks, and providing programs to deradicalize children who do become involved in groups like ISIS, or any other terrorist group of any ideology.

Prevention should encompass, inter alia, interfering with the ability of adult terrorists to recruit and inspire children by countering propaganda and targeting law enforcement action at them; addressing factors that increase vulnerability to recruitment and inspiration such as prejudice against Muslims; and equipping law enforcement with the tools and knowledge to more effectively counter the use of children by terrorists while preventing the use of counterproductive strategies.

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10 years on: Marking the 10th anniversary Paris Principles and Commitments

By: Dustin Johnson

Header Photo: © UNICEF/UNI142246/Matas

Reliable data on child soldiers continues to be very difficult to obtain but tens of thousands have been recruited over the past few years: 17,000 in South Sudan, 10,000 in Central African Republic since 2013, 2,000 by Boko Haram in the Lake Chad Basin region last year alone, and 1,500 in Yemen since the beginning of the conflict there.

This week is the 10th anniversary of the Paris Commitments to protect children from unlawful recruitment or use by armed forces (Paris Commitments) and the Paris Principles and guidelines on children associated with armed forces or armed groups (Paris Principles). Coinciding with this important anniversary, UNICEF released its latest numbers on the use and recruitment of child soldiers.

The numbers of recruitment provide a sobering assessment of the scale of violence targeted at children in modern wars. But progress has been made over the last decade of international action.

Over the past ten years, at least 65,000 children have been demobilized from armed forces and groups and returned to civilian life. In the words of Anthony Lake, Executive Director of UNICEF, “Ten years ago the world made a commitment to the children of war and matched it with action – action that has helped give 65,000 children a new chance for a better life”.

All children should be spared the physical and mental trauma, destruction of family and social ties, and interruption of education and normal development that child soldiery brings. In order to preserve progress and increase momentum towards the complete elimination of the use of child soldiers, it is imperative that the international community devotes increased resources and attention to the prevention of recruitment. For example, demobilized former child soldiers can be vulnerable to re-recruitment, as their prior training and experience fighting can make them attractive targets for armed groups.

“Ten years ago the world made a commitment to the children of war and matched it with action – action that has helped give 65,000 children a new chance for a better life”. Anthony Lake, Executive Director, UNICEF

To prevent the re-recruitment of demobilized child soldiers, a range of steps are needed. These include providing sufficient support to demobilization programs to ensure the rehabilitation and reintegration of children into their communities, provision of education and work opportunities to provide viable alternatives to joining an armed group, and training security sector personnel—military, police, peacekeepers—to provide appropriate, rights-based protection and security to children, their communities, and demobilization centres.

At the Dallaire Initiative, we bridge the gap between humanitarian responses and the roles of the security sector personnel. For example, our training programs for security sector personnel provide both the tools and knowledge for military, police, and peacekeepers, to recognize those vulnerable to recruitment and where along with the necessary responses to protect. These interventions by security personnel complement the efforts of other organizations such as the UN,  humanitarian and development NGOs whose programs provide other important interventions in affected countries. Though such a holistic and preventative approach that addresses all facets of the recruitment of child soldiers, we can work towards the complete elimination of this abuse of children.

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Prevention of the Recruitment and Use of Children during Armed Conflict: Training in Nairobi, Kenya

By: Darin Reeves

After two weeks of in-class training and education at the Humanitarian and Peace Support School (HPSS) located in Embakasi, Kenya, including two days conducting live-action simulations of interactions with children and child soldiers, course participants from AMISOM and the Federal Government of Somalia (FGS) concluded their program on Friday and are now prepared to assist with ending the recruitment and use of child soldiers in Somalia. This training, conducted by the Roméo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative in partnership the British Peace Support Team (East Africa) (BPST-EA) was immensely successful and is the first training of its kind to be delivered specifically for AMISOM and Somalia.

In his closing remarks, Mr. Kareem Adebayo as the representative of the AMISOM SRCC thanked the Dallaire Initiative and representatives of the UK, noting that both had come from so far away in order to assist the children of Somalia. He went on to describe that this course was very intensive and very practical and that this is exactly what he and the SRCC wanted. “This training is very important to ending the cycle of violence in Somalia, and protecting Somali children.”

Colonel Leakey, commanding officer of BPST-EA also expressed his appreciation, remarking on the partnership between AMISOM, BPST-EA and the Dallaire Initiative as an excellent example of a new atmosphere of cooperation. “By protecting Somali children, we will greatly help this vulnerable group – the sooner we break the cycle of violence plaguing Somalia, the sooner we can help return Somalia to peace.” In particular, he noted that a portion of the course training had been viewed personally by Her Excellency Ms. Sara Hradecky, the Canadian High Commissioner to Kenya, which was demonstrative of Canada’s commitment to the region and to the safety of children.

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2 November 2011. El Fasher: Sheij Aldine is a member of the  center of the Sudanese Association for Disabled People in El Fasher. He works at the workshop, making crutches, wheelchairs and special shoes for disabled persons. He is also disabled and he is given a motorbike by the organization to facilitate his mobility. 
The organization takes care of all disabled people in Darfur.
Photo by Albert Gonzalez Farran - UNAMID

Exploring the Intersection of Child Soldiering and Disability

By: Dustin Johnson

Despite the considerable research into the use of child soldiers over the past two decades, there are still many areas that remain under-explored in the literature. One of these is the intersection of disability and the experience of child soldiering. Last year, Dallaire Initiative research officer Dustin Johnson and executive director Dr. Shelly Whitman wrote an article for a special issue of the journal Third World Thematics on child soldiers and disability, which was recently published.

In this article we explore the current state of knowledge on child soldiers and disability, opportunities that the post-conflict environment can provide for improved inclusion, and what avenues exist for us to be more inclusive in our own work. It is important when considering disability to view it from the social perspective: inevitably, some people have physical, mental, or sensory impairments which interfere with their everyday functioning. Disability results when stigma, ignorance, and lack of inclusivity marginalizes impaired people and prevents them from fully participating in society. Disability can be addressed by changing the attitudes, policies, and environments which disable.

There has been little research previously specifically on child soldiers and disability; most relevant studies have either focused on specific mental or physical injuries which may lead to disability, or on disability among children or ex-combatants in general. There is a high likelihood that at least some child soldiers will emerge from conflict with a disability, leaving them even more marginalized. Therefore, it is critical that services provided to demobilizing child soldiers be inclusive, and support the specific needs to disabled children. Civilian children also face many of the same traumas which can lead to impairment, and should not be neglected.

There are often substantial changes to national laws and institutions during the post-conflict reconstruction period, providing a valuable window to shift norms and promote inclusivity. Reconstruction of physical infrastructure also provides an opportunity to build it into international accessibility standards. When it comes to child soldiers, the demobilization, disarmament, and reintegration (DDR) process is the most important area for inclusivity. Current international standards for DDR make some advances in this area, but a more explicit consideration of disability is needed to ensure that accessibility is not ignored as it too often is. Marginalization due to disability could potentially leave children vulnerable to re-recruitment in the future, so inclusive DDR is important for conflict prevention as well as being just.

The researching and writing of this paper was our first intentional examination of the intersection of disability and our work. A number of opportunities exist for us to be more inclusive in our work, including partnering with disability focused organizations in countries we work in, and using our high-level advocacy contacts to advance inclusivity in relation to child soldiers.

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