International promises to end the use of child soldiers have not translated into sufficient action. We must do more.

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

As we recognize February 12, the International Day Against the Use of Child Soldiers, we must move beyond words on pages to preventative action in the field.

In South Sudan, $1.2 billion U.S. was budgeted for the Demobilisation, Disarmament and Reintegration (DDR) — once again picking up the pieces after war and placing time, money and resources solely on reactive solutions. Yet when conflict erupted in South Sudan in December, we once again witnessed the recruitment and use of child soldiers.

At this moment there are more than 55 state and non-state armed groups operating on three continents that are using child soldiers. Amongst this group, 32 are persistent perpetrators that have been on this list for at least five years in a row. Seven of these persistent perpetrators are state armies — nation states using children in their military. Despite numerous international legal mechanisms that exist, children are still being recruited with impunity. Ongoing conflicts in Central African Republic, Mali, South Sudan, the DRC, Syria and Somalia illustrate the extent to which children are still used as weapons of war and mass atrocities.

Bosco “The Terminator” Ntaganda, notorious rebel leader in Congo, has been sitting in an ICC prison since March of last year. Thomas Lubanga was found guilty in 2012 and sentenced to 14 years in prison for the war crimes of enlisting and conscripting of children under the age of 15 years and using them to participate actively in hostilities — it took six years to bring him to justice. International law is slow, and while it is essential it must not be the only tool employed to end the use of child soldiers globally.

We must use all means at our disposal to recognize early warning indicators of youth recruitment and abuse and take a holistic approach to preventing the use of child soldiers. This means not relegating the issue of child soldiers as a “minor” or “secondary” problem to the conflict, but seeing how fundamentally child soldier recruitment and use is directly linked to the severity and impact of conflict.

The responsibility to end the use of child soldiers cannot rest solely with the humanitarian sector or at the level of UN resolutions. It requires the inclusion of new actors, not traditionally thought to have a role to play in preventing of the use of child soldiers, such as police forces, judicial authorities, religious leaders, as well as the military. These actors must be prepared to recognize opportunities to intervene, trained on appropriate interventions, empowered to act and encouraged to collaborate with the humanitarian sector.

If we had acted in 2004, 2007, 2012 … when the first signs of recruitment of children were taking place in the Central African Republic, perhaps many lives could have been saved and we’d be talking about children thriving rather than people being lynched in the streets of Bangui.

The abuse of children in conflict has long-term consequences and leads to a cycle of violence that if not addressed can always provide a spark to future conflicts. Action must be taken in times of peace in fragile states — recognizing the connections between child labour, trafficking, piracy, and criminal activities to child soldiery. We must not wait until conflict breaks out before we intervene and only concentrate efforts on rehabilitating those that we have failed to protect, but rather we must work across the full spectrum of actors, to find new solutions for prevention. We must be bold in this effort for the attainment of peace, it is our responsibility to the world’s children.

Lt General Romeo Dallaire is a former UN Force Commander for UNAMIR and now a Canadian Senator. Dr.Shelly Whitman is Executive Director of the Romeo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative.