In 2000, Canada was at the forefront of multilateral efforts to safeguard the interests of children during wartime. In July of that year, Canada was among the first countries to ratify the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict. Among other measures, the protocol requires signatories to rehabilitate and reintegrate former child soldiers within a country’s jurisdiction. The U.S. signed on in 2002.
In September, 2000, Canada hosted the first International Conference on War-Affected Children in Winnipeg, which galvanized the international community to act on behalf of children. Graca Machel, an advocate for women’s and children’s rights and Nelson Mandela’s wife, remarked: “After this conference…when we come to the next Special Session of the UN on Children…we’ll be able to say: ‘Winnipeg made a difference. There are results’.”
Indeed, the Optional Protocol went into force in 2002.
In 2004, the Canadian government published its first report on the Optional Protocol, highlighting CIDA’s funding for the demobilization, rehabilitation and reintegration of child soldiers in the DRC, Sri Lanka, Afghanistan, Sierra Leone, Somalia, the Great Lakes Region of Africa, Uganda and Sudan.
Of course, nowhere in this report can one find the name of Omar Khadr, a Canadian citizen, who had been indoctrinated by his father to the ways of al-Qaeda, and sent to the battlefields of Afghanistan by the age of 13. He was captured and charged with the murder of U.S. Sergeant Christopher Speer at the age of 15.
Omar was incarcerated in Guantanamo Bay as its youngest inmate, subjected to torture, mind games and denied counsel for his first two years of detention. Ten years later, he is back in Canada after the grudging acceptance of a plea deal by our government. Omar is also the last Western detainee to be repatriated (all of whom have a 0 per cent recidivism rate). By all accounts, Omar fits the description of a child soldier, as defined by the Optional Protocol. Why have Canada and the U.S. ignored their treaty obligations?
Once a terrorist, always a terrorist, some believe. In their minds, Omar is a traitor who cannot change. They are willfully blind to successful rehabilitation programs of child soldiers.
A prominent example is Ishmael Beah, a former child soldier from Sierre Leone. Recruited into war at the age of 13, Mr. Beah committed horrific atrocities before entering a Unicef rehabilitation camp at 16. He later made his way to New York and eventually graduated from Oberlin, a liberal arts university. In 2007, he published his memoir, A Long Way Gone. His personal redemption and efforts have been lauded.
Mr. Beah has been critical of handling of Omar’s case by the Canadian and American governments. He succinctly observed, in a 2008 interview with The Toronto Star’s Michelle Shephard: “But you can’t say that one person’s life is more valuable. So, if a 15-year-old kid in Sierra Leone, in Congo, in Uganda, in Liberia, if they kill somebody and shoot somebody in the war it’s fine, but as soon as that kid kills an American soldier... they are no longer a child soldier, they are a terrorist.” He also noted that it’s easy to have compassion for child soldiers in a distant land; the true test of sincerity occurs when the individual is in your own back yard.
Mr. Beah, like Senator Roméo Dallaire, cautions against releasing Omar back into society (unsupervised) too quickly, as ample time and space are needed for reorientation of thought. This will require separation between Omar and social networks that espouse extremist, anti-Western ideology, which may include his family.
Role models often play a significant role in the rehabilitation process. Maher Arar, for example, can be called upon to share his principled, non-violent struggle for justice, not to mention Mr. Beah and Mr. Dallaire.
The program must address mental-health issues, provide religious counselling that emphasizes common ground between Islamic principles and Western norms, closely monitor Omar’s progress and provide educational opportunities.
The latter has been under way since April. King’s University professor Arlette Zinck has traveled to Guantanamo to provide Omar with a U.S.-approved curriculum, which includes Canadian literature, science, and the Canadian Charter of Rights. Apparently, Omar has been a model, voracious student.
In the coming days, some will argue for compassion, others for punitive justice. Remember, 12 short years ago, we urged the world to safeguard the rights of children affected by war. We made a difference. We have demonstrated our belief that youth can change for the better by our financial commitments overseas.
Why not build upon our hard-fought legacy right here at home?