In the Central African Republic and elsewhere, the widespread use of child soldiers was a tragic precursor to the atrocities that followed.

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By: Shelly Whitman

It has come to this. Another land-locked African nation sits on the precipice of mass atrocity, just as Rwanda did 20 years ago. There have been many warning signs, yet we seem to have failed in keeping our promise of “never again.”

The Central African Republic (CAR) has been in conflict for well over a decade and recent reports have characterized the situation as a potential genocide. The country suffers from porous borders, an ever-changing kaleidoscope of armed groups and militias, regular coup attempts and an abhorrent human rights environment that moves closer to mass atrocity each day. But it is youth who are disproportionally affected in this conflict; boys and girls who are being used as child soldiers.

The abuse of children is symptomatic of more complex issues within society at large, such as the breakdown of institutions and security. In a 2009 report on children and armed conflict, the UN Secretary-General writes that in the Central African Republic“children are the primary victims of the conflict, often recruited, forcibly displaced or abducted, and lacking access to basic life necessities such as food and clean water, or health and education services.”

Today, upwards of 6,000 child soldiers are estimated to be participating in the conflict, a number which is thought to have doubled over the past year. We have seen this before. Twenty years earlier, children played a central role in the killing of some 800,000 Tutsis and moderate Hutus during the Rwandan genocide. The similar abuse, mobilization and use of children in CAR is chilling.

The recruitment and use of children as soldiers is an early warning mechanism that points to the potential for mass atrocity and sustained conflict. We have not only seen this in Rwanda – and now CAR – but also in Darfur, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Syria and Sri Lanka, to name only a few. Reports of the use of child soldiers date back as far as 2001 in the CAR.

The international community continues to view the abuse of children as a tragedy but it fails to actively recognize how their use as child soldiers is linked to the severity of conflict and potentially genocide. Children play an active role in conflict – though often through coercion or force – and we need to devise effective solutions to prevent their use as soldiers and to also prevent mass atrocities such as those that are gripping CAR.

The Responsibility to Protect (R2P) explicitly outlines our responsibility to prevent mass atrocities, but also applies to the prevention of the use of child soldiers. In CAR, the abuse of children and their use as soldiers are signs that point to the potential genocide. It is time we understood this as the early warning it is – in CAR and Rwanda, we failed to do so.

A proactive, preventative approach to mass atrocities and child soldier use must be adopted. It is no longer acceptable to merely pick up the pieces after the tragedies occur – we must be willing to be bold and act positively. Never again do we wish to sit back and watch child soldiers being recruited and never again do we wish to sit back and witness genocide.

Shelly Whitman is Executive Director of the Roméo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative.