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Prevention of the Recruitment and Use of Children during Armed Conflict:

By: Darin Reeves

Following an intense week of classroom lectures, small group meetings and the input from every participant, the Roméo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative led training to end the use of child soldiers, in partnership with AMISOM and the British Peace Support Team (East Africa) (BPST-EA), took to the field on Monday. This course, hosted at the Humanitarian and Peace Support School (HPSS) located in Embakasi, Kenya, is the first of its kind and brings together AMISOM and Federal Government of Somalia (FGS) personnel to learn how to better end this horrible abuse of children.

Key to the innovative Dallaire Initiative led training is the use of field scenarios to take classroom lessons and bring them to life. In addition to combining the unique capabilities and expertise of all those concerned with protecting child rights, including security sector actors (military, police, corrections and border services), government departments and NGOs, this field training shows all participants the complexity and challenge of implementing lofty goals into real action.

Representing the Government of Canada to oversee commencement of this training was Her Excellency Ms. Sara Hradecky, High Commissioner of Canada to Kenya. Joined by Colonel Richard Leakey, Commander BPST-EA, and Colonel Elija Mwanyika, Commander HPSS, H.E. Hradecky expressed to all participants the confidence and support of the Canadian Government, and the symbolic importance that this field training was commencing on International Red Hand Day, dedicated to drawing attention to the fates of child soldiers.

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ISIS and Child Soldiers: Breaking Cycles of Conflict

By: Dustin Johnson

In January, the Times of London published an insightful feature by Anthony Loyd about the use of children by ISIS. In the article, Loyd meets a 21-year-old man who had fought for ISIS whom Kurdish security forces had captured and tortured. The man had been recruited at the age of 13 by ISIS’s predecessor, Al-Qaeda in Iraq, and had spent the previous 8 years fighting and killing for the group. In this young man he sees someone whose formative years of childhood have been stolen, but has also missed the normal experiences that lead to adulthood:

There was something else there that lent him the fractured aura of youth: a peculiar absence of adulthood. As if somehow all that should have naturally evolved within his mind during his teenage years – rationale and reason, preconcepts and the roots of self-belief – were missing. Just the frightful postgraduation of terror remained, so that seated before me he was at once the echo of a lost boy and the whisper of an unformed man.

Loyd goes on to discuss the thorough system of indoctrination and normalization to violence ISIS uses on children to provide an unending supply of dedicated fighters, explicitly planning for a generational war. The longer ISIS continues to fight and be able to recruit children, the more Iraq, Syria, and the international community will have to deal with this challenge. For those under the age of 18 who are removed from the group, proper rehabilitation and deradicalization are needed, and there are positive signs for the success of such problems as Loyd discusses, and the Dallaire Initiative has advocated for in our partnership with the Quilliam Foundation.

For those who were recruited as children but are now adults, such as the young man Loyd interviews, trickier questions are raised, similar to those now facing the International Criminal Court in the case of Dominic Ongwen. For someone who is recruited as a young child, indoctrinated, and forced to commit violence by adults, what degree of responsibility before the law should they face? While the case of Ongwen is particularly extreme, as he rose from an 11-year-old abductee to be one of the top commanders in the Lord’s Resistance Army, this challenge will have to be faced for hundreds if not thousands of children who fought for ISIS.

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Preventing the Use of Child Soldiers in Somalia

Dustin Johnson

By: Dustin Johnson

This month, the United Nations released their latest numbers on the use and recruitment of children by armed forces and groups in Somalia. These new numbers are sobering: between April 2010 and July 2016, 6,163 children were verified by the UN as having been recruited. These numbers are meticulously collected and confirmed, meaning that the actual number of children recruited is likely much higher.

The terrorist group Al Shabaab, which is fighting against the Somali government and the African Union Mission in Somalia (AMISOM) peacekeeping force, was responsible for 70% of the recruitment. Children as young as nine were used by Al Shabaab, instructed in using guns and sent to fight. Others were also used as porters, spies, and cooks. The UN believes that more than half of the members of Al Shabaab are under the age of 18. When a group of Al Shabaab members were captured in Puntland in March 2016, 60% of them were children.

However, Al Shabaab is not the only group that recruits children. The UN also verified 920 cases of children used by the Somali National Army (SNA) during the same time period. Previous UN reports have also found that militias allied to the Somali government have recruited children.

These latest numbers only serve to reinforce the fact that the use and recruitment of children is an integral part of the conflict in Somalia, especially for Al Shabaab. While Al Shabaab does command some popular support, the preponderance of youth in its ranks demonstrates their reliance on soldiers who can more easily be coerced, forced, and indoctrinated than adults. Consequently, the Somali government and AMISOM need to be prepared to address the use of children in the Somali conflict.

Since January 2015, the Dallaire Initiative has had a Child Protection Advisor embedded in AMISOM in Somalia, the first such position in an African Union mission. Over the course of the year, we will be conducting multiple trainings of personnel from AMISOM, and SNA, and the Somali National Police on countering the use of child soldiers, with the support of the British Peace Support Training Team in Kenya. This groundbreaking work will help to better protect children in Somalia and enhance the capabilities of Somali and African forces to bring a sustainable end to the conflict.

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VTECS: My Perspective

Ken Hoffer

By: Ken Hoffer, 2016 VTECS Participant

The VTECS program offers former members of the Canadian Armed Forces an opportunity to repurpose their knowledge and skill that will help the Romeo Dallaire Initiative to prevent the recruitment and use of child soldiers.  As Canadians, our social values and humanitarian efforts are well recognized in peacekeeping and NGO efforts around the world.  As Veterans, we continue to uphold our entrusted obligations to protect and promote Canadian ideals that will deter belligerents from dehumanizing civilians, particularly as it relates to children in all theatres of operation.   As a VTEC, you uphold these values, and soon realize that you become part of a larger vision to interrupt the cycle of hate and violence.  It is a heavy responsibility.  One can choose to ignore the problem, or you can become part of the Security Sector solution to make the world a better place.  The VTECS program is an opportunity to rediscover your true self.


Ken Hoffer was part of the 2016 Wounded Warriors Canada Veteran Trainers to Eradicate the use of Child Soldiers (VTECS) program. Utilizing his personal and career wealth of experience and expertise, in conjunction with the education and skills he grew throughout the VTECS program, Ken was later contracted to deploy to Sierra Leone to conduct the Roméo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative’s Pre-Deployment Training with local police members about to embark on a peace keeping missions in both South Sudan and Somalia.

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VTECS: My Perspective

J.L. Malainey, Maj (Ret’d), 2016 Wounded Warriors Canada VTECS Participant

By: J.L. Malainey, Maj (Ret’d), 2016 Wounded Warriors Canada VTECS Participant

Featured/Header Photo Credit: Claude Wauthier,2016 Wounded Warriors Canada VTECS Participant
Learn about the VTECS Program: childsoldiers.org/vtecs

Encapsulating my learning experience from the VTECS program in a short paragraph is difficult. The core of this program is the in-depth Dallaire Initiative training courses, but VTECS is much more than that. It’s learning about and from the experiences of our fellow veterans. It’s the interaction with Dalhousie students, with their interest and perspectives and questions and amazing ideas. It’s experiencing some of the familiar camaraderie and motivation of being engaged in an operational mission. And it’s the possibility that we can continue to make a difference – to a child, to a soldier or police officer, to a community, to the world – in a way that acknowledges and uses our individual and collective capabilities.

By the end of our course, I had gained an awareness not only of issues related to child soldiers, but also how the involvement of children in conflict and war affects the child, their families, their societies and the security sector actors who encounter them – in the moment and for years beyond.

I did not know much about the issue of child soldiers when I was accepted to the VTECS program. By the end of our course, I had gained an awareness not only of issues related to child soldiers, but also how the involvement of children in conflict and war affects the child, their families, their societies and the security sector actors who encounter them – in the moment and for years beyond. As a Monitoring Officer for the OSCE in Ukraine, I am now more observant of issues affecting children in this conflict. As a veteran, I have a greater appreciation for the complexity that child soldiers add to a mission and the necessity for better preparedness of security sector actors to face and address this situation.

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Youth Engagement and Peace – My Thoughts from the Roméo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative Peace Clubs

By: Ben O’Bright

For a week this January I was fortunate enough to accompany Shelly Whitman and the Roméo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative (RDCSI) to Sierra Leone (my second of these visits) to help provide advice and recommendations on monitoring and evaluation of conflict prevention programming. Specifically, the Dallaire Initiative is piloting a project that, in partnership with Sierra Leone’s Pikin-to-Pikin Movement, aims to establish three after-school clubs as facilitating sites for the learning of peace and conflict prevention in grade school children. The project was largely an output of a session of the Initiative’s signature programme, the Training of Trainers, which occurred in November 2016. With my background in children’s rights, youth engagement, and qualitative research, I have been working with the Dallaire Initiative for several years now in support of their work.

I have been humbled by this experience, but equally reaffirmed in my beliefs that children and young people are not necessarily those to be taught of the world, but also teachers themselves.

On this particular mission, we first travelled to Port Loko, about 1.5 hours outside of Freetown. During the drive, Sierra Leone was once again reaffirmed to me as a staggeringly beautiful country. Outside the windows of our off-road prepared 4×4, the world was pocket-marked by great plains, dense jungle, and estuaries teeming with wildlife. It is deeply saddening to recall the immense challenges faced by this country over the last several decades: war and conflict; Ebola; natural disasters. And yet, despite this, I have been consistently taken aback by the character of resilience that permeates Sierra Leone and its people, a drive to ensure that their future will be written of their own accord. In no place has this been more apparently than the three selected pilot sites for this project.

We arrived at our first school in the Port Loko District, a low building of three class rooms, built of cinder blocks and corrugated steel roofing, for what we expected to be a brief meeting with teachers and local partner coordinators. Instead, and indeed what would become a heart warming trend in the days to come, what we would be witness too was a full blown student performance, complete with song, dance, chants, and reciting of self-authored peace slogans. There were probably 80 people in attendance. We spoke about the project, in particular to sensitize parents to the purpose of the clubs and were well received. Similarly in Makeni, our second designated school, the community and students seemed thoroughly engaged in the project, facilitated by eager teaching professionals and elected club leaders.

This excitement for the work the Dallaire Initiative proposed to pursue, both by young people themselves as the designated agents of knowledge mobilization and by community members, many of whom had been witness to the country’s horrific civil war, was as positive as one could hope. In Moyamba, the site of our final school club, we were led through a procession of friendly “Hellos” and handshakes to be sat under a designated Peace Tree, the site selected by children to host their forthcoming meetings and activities. Local police were on hand to pledge their support of the project and to assure the crowd that they would be there to create a safe space for the club. CSO representatives highlighted their eagerness to get involved. Teachers expressed profound recognition of the need to teach young people of peace so as to nurture a future without war. All the while we repeated to all that this project was not ours, it does not belong to us. But instead, the community should themselves take both pride and ownership of its activities, thereby allowing for its distinct evolution according to the needs of that particular area.

To me, however, the most impressive group amongst all those we met were the young people themselves. They demonstrated a surprisingly robust understanding of peace at such early ages. They were able to ground what can often be an academically heavy and uncomfortably abstract concept in reality, displayed through their cheers, their songs, their poetry, their artistry, their skits, and their display of messages. They were identified, and they themselves self-identified, as a new generation of hope for Sierra Leone, a wealth of untapped knowledge and determination to ensure the continuing of peace and prevention of conflict in that country. They were, simply, true leaders.

I have been humbled by this experience, but equally reaffirmed in my beliefs that children and young people are not necessarily those to be taught of the world, but also teachers themselves. We must take every opportunity to engage them constructively and on equal footing, as we are doing in Sierra Leone. I look forward to continuing my participation in this project, at these three schools and, hopefully, in many more to come.

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Child Soldiers and Peace: Mapping a New Pathway to Prevention

By: Dustin Johnson

Last Tuesday, Antonio Guterres, the new United Nations Secretary-General, delivered the first address of his term to the United Nations Security Council. In it, he emphasized the need for the UN and the international community to pursue a more preventative approach to peace and security, saying “we spend far more time and resources responding to crises rather than preventing them. People are paying too high a price. Member States are paying too high a price. We need a whole new approach.”

At the Roméo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative, we agree with this approach to peace and security. For too long, the international community has addressed the use of child soldiers in a largely reactive manner, seeking to demobilize them from armed forces and groups and rehabilitate them back into society. While this approach is important, it is also not sufficient. The Dallaire Initiative aims to prevent children from becoming soldiers in the first place, avoiding the damage to peace and stability, society, and the children themselves through our training, research and advocacy activities. As part of our work on prevention, we collaborate with our colleagues in the United Nations on many fronts, including with UNICEF and the Department of Peacekeeping Operations, to advance the protection of children from armed conflict around the world.

As we enter a new year, which Secretary-General Guterres has declared will be a “year for peace”, we look forwards to continuing and expanding our collaboration with the United Nations. At the Dallaire Initiative we will continue to improve and expand our delivery of training on preventing the use of child soldiers to security sector actors around the world, while conducting world-class research on children and armed conflict, including expanding our previous work on the importance of children to early warning for mass atrocities and conflict prevention. In the words of the new Secretary-General, “prevention is not merely a priority, but the priority. If we live up to our responsibilities, we will save lives, reduce suffering and give hope to millions.”

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Child Suicide Bombers: A Tactical Innovation and a Moral Outrage

By: Dustin Johnson

One of the most disturbing uses of children in modern warfare is as suicide bombers. This practice has been seen in a number of countries around the world in recent years, particularly in Syria, Iraq, and Nigeria. Most recently, on January 4th, three girls presumably used by the Boko Haram terrorist group attempted to bomb a market in the northeastern Nigerian city of Madagali. As they approached a checkpoint, they were confronted by local security forces who then fired on the girls, sadly killing all three, but preventing what could have been a much worse tragedy.

Through the work that the Roméo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative has done on understanding the use of children as soldiers, we have illuminated some of the reasons why an armed group would choose to equip a child as a suicide bomber. The primary reason is that normally security sector actors are less suspicious of children, and therefore are less likely to thoroughly search them at a checkpoint or assume that their behaviour is suspicious. Armed groups can take advantage of this to move a suicide bomber into position with less chance of being caught. Should security sector actors discover that the child has a bomb, they may be less likely to immediately fire on them as they are a child.

One of the scenarios that we role-play in our training for security sector actors is on encountering a child suicide bomber. In such a situation, our training helps security sector actors to attempt to deescalate the situation and prevent the child from detonating their bomb, thereby both saving the child’s life, and providing valuable intelligence that can be gathered from examining a bomb, while ensuring that their utmost priority is protecting themselves and nearby civilians from harm.

Sometimes, through the actions of security sector actors and the unwillingness of a child to take their own life and those of others, such attacks are prevented and lives saved, such as the case last year of a 15-year-old boy in Iraq sent to attack the city of Kirkuk. He was successfully detained and disarmed by security forces, rather than being killed, after deciding he could not carry out the bombing his ISIS commanders had ordered him to.

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Launching the Dallaire Initiative Education Project in Sierra Leone

By: Dustin Johnson

Last month, three members of our staff travelled to Freetown, the capital of Sierra Leone, to launch our education project in the country. Working in partnership with a Sierra Leonean NGO, Pikin-to-Pikin Movement, we held a series of meetings and a two-day workshop to train local staff members and educators who will be implementing the project.

The goal of the project is to educate children, and the community at large, on child protection issues, so that children are better able to protect themselves and their peers. Children learn better when they are taught by their peers, and so this project uses the child-to-child approach: one group of children nominated by their peers are taught the material by adult educators, and they then conduct activities to pass the knowledge on to other children.

For the first phase, this curriculum will be delivered through three pilot schools in three districts of Sierra Leone: UMC primary in Bombali District; Saint Michael’s Primary in Moyamba District, and Sierra Leone Church Primary in Port Loko District.

The child protection curriculum for the project was developed by the Dallaire Initiative, the Pikin-to-Pikin Movement, and the UK-based Child-to-Child Trust. It focuses on the issues arising from the aftermath of Sierra Leone’s civil war: normalization of violence, bullying, disregard of human rights, and the possibility for renewed conflict and recruitment.

The workshop was held in a modest but well-situated hotel conference room overlooking Freetown’s gorgeous Lumley Beach. There were two groups of participants: Pikin-to-Pikin staff from each of the three districts, and educators from each of the pilot schools. Throughout the two days, we conducted a series of sessions with the Pikin-to-Pikin staff to discuss the use and implementation of the training materials, the timeline for project implementation, and the child protection challenges in their districts.

As my first work trip abroad for the Dallaire Initiative, this visit to Sierra Leone was a great and humbling learning experience for me. Doing this kind of development work requires a deep understanding of and appreciation for the context in which you are working, which can only be learned through collaboration and action with partners in-country.

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