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By: LGen Roméo Dallaire (Ret’d) and Dr. Shelly Whitman

We are living in an era in which the level of human suffering as a result of intra-State conflict seems to be escalating exponentially. The essential challenge remains how to create the political impetus for timely, non-selective responses to human suffering (MacFarlane and Weiss, 2000). At the very heart of the human suffering we are witnessing is the plight of vulnerable populations, and most notably children. Of all the threats that define contemporary conflict, the use of child soldiers presents one of the farthest-reaching and most disturbing trends today. If in the past children were made to fight in spite of their youth, they are now being made to fight because of their youth.

New approaches to conflict prevention must include how we prioritize the protection of children. As Graça Machel stated: “Our collective failure to protect children must be transformed into an opportunity to confront the problems that cause their suffering” (2001, p. XI). It is possible that our failure to prevent and react to conflict is directly correlated to our failure to protect children and prevent their deliberate use in armed conflict.

Early Warning

Since its introduction in 2005, the Responsibility to Protect (R2P) doctrine has attempted to promote prevention of conflict. Using the idea of early warning indicators, R2P aims to compel the global community to take action early to prevent mass atrocities. The United Nations intended to establish “‘an early warning capability’ to inform timely and decisive action” (Guéhenno, Ramcharan and Mortimer, 2010). If we can understand and recognize when this mobilization towards mass atrocities occurs at its earliest stages, we can use this critical opportunity to create more effective responses.

“There is an apparent failure within the United Nations system to fully appreciate that the character and urgency of situations leading to genocide requires a unique analysis and approach, justifying a mandate narrowly tailored for this purpose” (as cited in Akhavan, 2011, p. 21). R2P is specifically designed to prevent mass atrocity crimes and genocide by engaging a “narrow but deep” approach as outlined by the Secretary-General of the United Nations, Ban Ki-moon: Our conception of R2P, then, is narrow but deep. Its scope is narrow, focused solely on the four crimes and violations agreed by the world leaders in 2005. Extending the principle to cover other calamities, such as HIV/AIDS …would undermine the 2005 consensus and stretch the concept beyond recognition or operational utility. At the same time, our response should be deep, utilizing the whole prevention and protection tool kit available to the United Nations system, to its regional, subregional and civil society partners and, not least, to the Member States themselves (2008).

There needs to be a comprehensive list of early warning indicators that the global community can draw on in order to justify action. The recruitment and use of child soldiers falls under the mandate of R2P, but has yet to be used as an early warning indicator. It has the potential to galvanize global support, while at the same time achieving Ban Ki-moon’s call for a “narrow but deep” approach.

In April 2012, Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon established an Internal Review Panel to examine United Nations actions in Sri Lanka. The report of the Panel concluded that there had been a “systemic failure” of United Nations action. It also stated that some of the failings were similar to those that had occurred in Rwanda. As a result of the recommendations of this Panel, Deputy Secretary-General Jan Eliasson led work to design a plan to carry out the recommendations—referred to as the Rights up Front Action Plan. It now must be translated into action. The Rights up Front initiative seeks to prevent large-scale violations of human rights.

With the adoption of United Nations Security Council resolution 2171 (2014), the Security Council “committed itself to better utilizing all tools of the United Nations system to ensure that warning signs of impending bloodshed translated into ‘concrete preventative action’” (United Nations, 2014). Such action may be illustrated in prioritizing the protection of children on the peace and security agenda, which could warn us of possible genocide.

A Priority Security Concern?

The shortcomings of the current efforts to address the use of child soldiers is evidenced by the lack of attention paid to child protection, and prevention of the recruitment and use of children in armed conflict within peace agreements: “Since the adoption of the Convention on the Rights of the Child in 1989, 180 peace agreements have been signed between warring parties. Of these, only ten contained specific provisions for child combatants” (Whitman, Zayed and Conradi, 2014). Prioritizing the prevention of the use of child soldiers, versus overall child protection, is critical to understand because of the connection of child soldiers as an early warning indicator.

While the focus of the global community has been largely reactive to situations where children have been used as soldiers, a larger focus needs to be placed on prevention. In fixating upon disarmament, demobilization, rehabilitation and reintegration and not upon the eradication of the use of child soldiers, the international community has merely attempted to fix the broken, rather than to protect the whole. Until this issue is elevated within the security agenda, the international community will continue to squander excellent opportunities to prevent the recruitment of children as soldiers (Whitman, Zayed and Conradi, 2014).

Rwanda 1994

In 1994, I was the Force Commander of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR). While I have written extensively on the genocide that ensued over that period, I have not detailed the connection between my witnessing the recruitment and use of child soldiers and the build up towards the Rwanda genocide. Much like the rest of the international community, I did not make the connec- tion about the recruitment and use of child soldiers as an early warning indicator for mass atrocities or genocide, until I began to look at this phenomenon through the lens of my work with the Roméo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative.

On 4 August 1993, the Arusha Peace Agreement was signed. My first duty was to collect information and report on the implementation of the peace agreement. Looking back now, as we conducted our first visit to the Rwandan Patriotic Front (RPF), the first thing that struck me was how young the soldiers were. As of 1990 the RPF only had 3,000 troops, but by 1993 they had swollen to 22,000. In large part this could be understood due to the sheer need for human resources and the small size of the available population for recruitment by the RPF. The child soldiers all appeared to be disciplined, well fed and appropriately treated. We did not file reports specifically on the recruitment and use of child soldiers, but we did state in the technical report of 1993 that the soldiers appeared “very young”. In addition, we did not have any training or awareness to raise this issue.

The Forces armées rwandaises (FAR) had grown from 5,000 to 28,000 troops from October 1990 to August 1993. Migrant labour and unemployed men were easily picked up to be recruited by the FAR at that time. By November 1993 we began to witness men marching through the streets, not in uniform, but wearing baggy pants and shirts in the colours of the Mouvement républicain national pour la démocratie et le développement (MRND)—the Interahamwe. The Interahamwe was the youth movement of the extremist MRND party. You would expect them to be under 18 years of age as in any political youth movement, but there were lots of people in it that seemed to be older. We would later come to understand that the older people were the “leaders”.

In December 1993, I received a letter signed by members of the FAR, which referenced the warning about youth movements. In January 1994, as street demonstrations increased, we observed children being used increasingly by the Interahamwe. An informant by the name of Jean Pierre told us his job was to train the Interahamwe to kill. He explained that one could witness children being taken for recruitment and trained to kill Tutsis. He came to UNAMIR to arrange for the arms caches to be seized so that they could not be distributed. Once they were distributed, he indicated that they could not stop the killing.

Guns were distributed to the hardcore Interahamwe who gave the orders, while children were given machetes. It would be much easier to get back machetes than guns; also, children were used to machetes in agricultural work. We then visited some of the training sites. At that time we witnessed many children around, all in civilian clothing.

In addition, one of the military observers with UNAMIR reported in January 1994 that he observed teachers telling children that they had to go home to ask their parents what ethnicity they were. Teachers stated their concern with this new directive, which was preparing their students for the genocide. Children under 14 years of age did not have identity cards, thus this new directive allowed everyone to see who the Tutsis were in class. That should have signaled a warning bell, but nothing was made more of this at the time.

By the time the genocide was in full swing by mid-April 1994, the Interahamwe were very visibly using the children to commit acts of killing and man roadblocks. The use of children was a deliberate tactical and strategic plan by the extremists. Had this alarm bell been raised as a critical early warning factor that could have been addressed, it may have been possible to mobilize support to put resources towards protecting the children, and to have possibly prevented or greatly reduced the capacity of the génocidaires.


Understanding the use of child soldiers as a precondition for mass atrocities also allows more room to address the issues through structural measures. In weak and fragile States, children are more easily swayed into participating in criminal activity. The factors that render them vulnerable to such work are extremely similar to those faced by child soldiers: they are plentiful and readily available, financially desperate, under or uneducated, have little expectation of finding gainful employment, and are continuously exposed to the violence and degradation that is endemic to failing States.

The evidence of children participating in mass atrocities and genocide has occurred from the Hitler Youth of the Second World War, to the killing fields of Cambodia, and to the genocide in Rwanda. It is not a new phenomenon, however understanding the connection between child soldier use and recruitment and the potential for more effective early warning mechanisms has yet to be put into action. This approach can lead to actions that place emphasis on the protective mechanisms being strengthened for children—from the education processes, to community sensitization, to security sector reforms, and rethinking the most cost-effective investments for communities at risk. Expanding the list of early warning mechanisms to recognize, prioritize, and prevent the use of children as soldiers may be that tangible action which has eluded the global community and yet has the power to create long-term systemic change.


Akhavan, Payam (2011). Preventing genocide: measuring success by what does not happen. Criminal Law Forum, vol. 22, Nos. 1 and 2 (March), pp. 1-33.

Ban, Ki-moon (2008). Address at event on “Responsible Sovereignty: International Cooperation for a Changed World”. Berlin, 15 July. Available from http://www.un.org/sg/selected-speeches/statement_full.asp?statID=1631.

Guéhenno, Jean-Marie, Bertram G. Ramcharan, and Edward Mortimer (2010). UN Early Warning and Responses to Mass Atrocities. Meeting Summary. 23 March. Global Centre for the Responsibility to Protect. Available from http://www.globalr2p.org/media/files/un-early-warning-and-responses-to-mass-atrocities.pdf.

MacFarlane, Stephen Neil, and Thomas G. Weiss (2000). Political Interest and Humanitarian Action. Security Studies, Vol. 10, No.1 (Fall), pp. 112-142. Available from http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/09636410008429422#.VTEPJGRViko.

Machel, Graça (2001). The Impact of War on Children. New York: Palgrave.

United Nations (2014). Security Council, adopting resolution 2171 (2014), Pledges Better Use of System-Wide approach to Conflict prevention. Available from http://www.un.org/press/en/2014/sc11528.doc.htm .

Whitman, Shelly, Tanya Zayed, and Carl Conradi (2014). Child Soldiers: A Handbook for Security Sector Actors. 2nd ed., Halifax: the Roméo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative.