By: TONDA MACCHARLES, Toronto Star
OTTAWA—Canada’s top soldier is issuing the first-ever guidelines for Canadian military personnel on how to deal with child soldiers in advance of deployment to Africa, the Star has learned.
Gen. Jonathan Vance, the chief of defence staff, and senior military officials have consulted with the Roméo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative and others on how to best prepare troops for a soon-to-be decided UN “peace operations” mission.
In September, Vance issued a draft version of the new guidelines which was expected to be finalized this week.
Called the CAF Child Soldiers Doctrine, it is not country-specific but will provide overarching principles to military personnel, no matter what the mission or mandate. The Star reported last week that Mali has emerged as the likely destination for a large contingent of up to 600 Canadian Armed Forces personnel, but the federal cabinet has not yet given its nod.
According to information obtained by the Star, excerpts of the new guidelines say the “aim is to provide the interim guidance required to address and mitigate the broad challenges posed by the presence of child soldiers in areas where we may undertake missions.”
The United Nations in 2005 identified six categories of grave violations against children that include killing and maiming of children, the recruiting of children as soldiers, sexual violence against children, attacks against schools, denial of humanitarian access to children, and abduction of children.
The military’s guidelines will make clear that all Canadian Armed Forces personnel have a legal duty to report any such violations, and it recognizes that the issue of child soldiers “needs to be better addressed within Canadian Forces doctrine.”
“It is important to ensure our soldiers are prepared to respond to the presence of children and vulnerable populations while on operations. Implementation of such steps will greatly contribute to the operational effectiveness of the CF when reinforced during developmental and pre-deployment training,” it says.
“It will also help prepare troops for the tactical and psychological challenges found in modern theatres.”
The move was hailed by the Roméo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative, a global partnership based at Dalhousie University. Executive Director Shelly Whitman said “it means essentially that the military’s efforts, or the training, have to be guided by the doctrine; it’s like a bible of the military.”
“When you have a doctrine note come out and it says in it that we’re going to have to understand what this means operationally, strategically, tactically for how our forces address such issues, it’s a huge step forward,” Whitman said in an interview.
Canadian Armed Forces doctrine spells out everything from fundamental principles to details on how to execute operational tasks “to achieve a specific aim,” according to the military’s website.
More specific how-to operational guidelines such as when and how to engage with child fighters would be set out in the rules of engagement of a mission, which are usually classified information.
The guidelines have been a long time coming.
More than seven years ago, former army commander Andrew Leslie, now a Liberal MP, appointed now-retired colonel Jake Bell as the army’s liaison officer with the Dallaire Initiative “to essentially look at this issue to see the things that we could do to incorporate that knowledge into what we do,” Bell said in an interview with the Star.
During his military career, Bell was posted to Bosnia, Eritrea, Ethiopia, and in 2012-13 was chief of operations for the United Nations mission to the Democratic Republic of Congo. Now a consultant for the Dallaire Initiative, he recently travelled to Congo to work with the Congolese army on developing a training curriculum on child soldiers for its officers and non-commissioned troops.
He believes it’s important for the Canadian military and other armed forces to have realistic, practical and scenario-based guidance in dealing with children in a operational theatre, and says “where you can really make an impact is in the prevention of recruitment of child soldiers.”
The Dallaire Initiative consulted with Vance, the chief of defence staff, and Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan in March about the issue.
Whitman said military leaders learned many lessons from “challenging situations” in the past, including the war in Afghanistan, dealing with detainees and “also the chai boys, the tea boys.”
That’s a reference to allegations that Canadian soldiers turned a blind eye to abuse of boys by Afghan troops. An inquiry reported to Vance on the issue shortly after he took the top job in Canada’s military.
Earlier this year in response to that inquiry, Vance assured Canadians the military has changed how it trains soldiers for overseas deployments, with more focus on ethical issues, cultural differences and addressing human rights violations.
The Canadian Armed Forces do not identify a specific motivation for this new doctrine.
In an emailed response to the Star’s questions, a military spokesperson said the forces “continually revise and update doctrinal documents in order to ensure operational effectiveness and relevance. Providing our members with a better understanding of issues is therefore critical to mission success.”
“We are doing the responsible thing and recognizing that issues — such as the recruitment of child soldiers by illegal armed groups — can and do occur,” wrote Daniel Le Bouthillier, head of media relations.
“This is why we plan, prepare and ensure our members uphold our legal requirement to report any grave violations against children, as identified by the UN secretary general. The protection of the most vulnerable populations is of the utmost importance.”
He said the Canadian Armed Forces “takes its international obligations extremely seriously and will continue to help ensure our proud men and women have the tools required to carry out their mandates responsibly and with the ethos expected of them by Canadians.”
The concept of child soldiers is defined broadly by the United Nations.
The UN says “a child associated with an armed force or armed group refers to any person below 18 years of age who is, or who has been, recruited or used by an armed force or armed group in any capacity, including but not limited to children, boys and girls, used as fighters, cooks, porters, spies or for sexual purposes.”
Whitman said she hopes the military will now focus part of its pre-deployment training on the kinds of “moral dilemmas” soldiers will face, and how best to deal with them.
“Our hope is by doing that it means a) it more success overall in their mission and b) we protect children better and c) when our troops come back home we are reducing levels of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder) and operational stress injury because we will have emotionally and practically prepared them for that and have it not be the first time that they thought about it—the first time they saw it on the battlefield.”
Whitman hopes to offer support and training for military trainers at the military’s Peace Support Training Centre in Kingston. It trains over 1,000 members of the CAF and other government personnel each year, prior to deployment on operations.
In each of the countries to which Canada has looked at deploying — South Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Central African Republic or Mali, children are recruited by military forces, whether to act as fighters, intelligence gatherers, sex slaves or domestic labour. In Mali, in particular they have been used by Islamist groups as suicide bombers, says Whitman.