Romeo Dallaire

Romeo Dallaire’s new book on child soldiers exposes the plight of hundreds of thousands of war-affected children worldwide.

Child soldiers are pushed into manual labour, force-fed cocktails of drugs and alcohol, and coerced into committing atrocities. From Burma to Sierra Leone, from Sri Lanka to Colombia, They Fight Like Soldiers, They Die Like Children examines the use of children as “the perfect low-technology, cheap and expendable weapons system.”

Dallaire, a Liberal senator and retired general, will be in Ottawa promoting the book at a media event on November 26 and at the Ottawa Writers Festival December 2.

When asked about the ‘weapons system’ metaphor, Dallaire said, “so far I’ve not had anyone come to me to say that I’m using a gimmick to get people engaged in the plight of children being used in conflicts.”

“On the contrary, I’ve been getting comments like ‘I’ve never looked at them that way, but that’s exactly what they’re doing’.”
“As long as combatants have access to light weapons and to children, there is no impetus to want to bring a resolution to a conflict, particularly if they are gaining from it in areas that are not necessarily territorial. They can be economic like diamonds and gold,” Dallaire said.
Dallaire hopes that his Child Soldier Initiative (CSI) can address the root of the issue. CSI focuses on “capacity building and the training of police, military and NGOs in regards to the use or application of force in the face of child soldiers, and what means should be used.”

Dallaire personally encountered child soldiers in 1994 when he was the Force Commander of UNAMIR in Rwanda.

“To prevent them [child soldiers] from gaining the upper hand, from preventing them from doing the massive killing or brutalization, we’ve got to find a far more effective way of rendering them a liability to being used, than in fact just confronting them and shooting them,” Dallaire said.

“I think we [CSI] can do better than the Gulu walk, that the poor kids have been taking in northern Uganda, as the means to protect themselves,” Dallaire said. “That is where they’re walking 12 to 13 kilometres a day to the town of Gulu to be in a large enough urban area that no one can really get at them.”

“CSI is still doing operational research in places like the Democratic Republic of Congo getting hard data for our training field.”

Dallaire was also outspoken about a highly publicized ‘child soldier’ – Omar Khadr.

“I think that Canada failed horribly in not taking back its prisoners of Canadian origin from Guantanamo Bay and putting them through the due process here soon after his capture.”

“The Canadian government reacted in the same way as the rest of the western world after 9/11 with a comprehensible sense of panic, because it was a new threat that they were absolutely not prepared for after the end of the Cold War,” Dallaire said.

“However, a number of nations recovered from that initial shock and took actions which included repatriating their prisoners from Guantanamo Bay, and taking care of them themselves.”

Dallaire is currently working on a legislative envelope he hopes to table for next February. He remained tight-lipped as to the exact details.

“I’m not going after the rehabilitation and reintegration side. I’m trying to stop recruitment,” said Dallaire.

“The Minister of Foreign Affairs did not negate the fact, not did the Immigration Minister, that the new form to even get a visa is requiring that people identify whether they’ve ever been in a military organization or a youth movement, and if they’ve ever been engaged in any altercation,” he added.

“That’s why I’m trying to introduce legislation,” Dallaire said. “If they’re afraid to be recognized, then of course it’s difficult for us to rehabilitate them.”

Shelly Whitman, the Director of CSI in Halifax, corroborated the nature of this Catch-22.

“When they [child soldiers] come to Canada, their past is seen as a tick against them and it can negatively impact their chances of entering Canada.”

“So to immigrate to Canada they cannot reveal this information, it means that when they come here they feel like they’re under a cloud of secrecy,” Whitman said. “On the other hand, we can’t trace how many there are in the country and how many need psycho-social assistance, or counselling or specific social services.”

“People are then left struggling to integrate and re-locate.”