Retired general Roméo Dallaire says he believes Canadian troops will be mentally and tactically prepared to handle encounters with child soldiers on future deployments – such as a Mali peacekeeping commitment Ottawa is considering – as long as pre-mission training reflects a new Forces directive on dealing with underage combatants.
He said Canadian soldiers must learn how to defuse or de-escalate confrontations with child soldiers rather than withdraw from such incidents. Otherwise, he said, they play into the hands of belligerent forces who use children to fight precisely because unprepared foreign troops are reluctant to shoot children and confused about how to deal with them. "Pulling away … has been so much the norm and gives the advantage to the guy who is recruiting these kids."
The Globe and Mail reported on March 6 that the Trump administration has told Ottawa it has no problem with Canada dispatching soldiers on a United Nations peacekeeping mission to Mali, but Prime Minister Justin Trudeau is holding back approval as he assesses the risks of fighting Islamist rebels who use child soldiers.
In conflict zones, children are often recruited or forced into service as fighters, spies, messengers, manual labour and sex slaves.
Mr. Dallaire and an organization he helped found – the Roméo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative, based at Dalhousie University – helped the military write a new Canadian Armed Forces "joint doctrine note" that provides guidance for planning and carrying out operations in which troops might encounter child soldiers, including specialized pre-deployment training.
It is the first time the Canadian military has produced a directive that specifically provides strategic direction regarding child soldiers. The use of underage combatants is endemic in conflicts throughout Africa.
"In every one of the [future] conflicts we might find ourselves in … child soldiers are a significant threat to our forces," the former general said.
Mr. Dallaire said Canadian troops encountered increasing numbers of child soldiers in the later years of Canada's participation in the Afghanistan conflict but were not adequately prepared.
He recalls a meeting in Quebec City with a Forces sergeant whose job in Afghanistan had been to protect convoys. As they discussed his service in Afghanistan, the man broke down crying, telling him it had been four years since he had returned home but he still had not hugged his children. The sergeant's task during the deployment, Mr. Dallaire said, had been "to oversee patrols where children were being used as suicide bombers – and he had to take them out."
Mali has been high on the list of possible deployments for the Trudeau government, which has pledged to increase Canada's peacekeeping commitment after it waned under former prime minister Stephen Harper. The West African country is on the front lines of the fight against terrorism, including al-Qaeda in the Maghreb. It is a haven for terrorist groups despite French military intervention and a UN stabilization mission.
Mr. Dallaire said the use of children has undergone a metamorphosis in the past seven years with the emergence of particularly brutal groups such as East Africa's Al-Shabaab and West Africa's Boko Haram. These groups have forced thousands of boys to fight as jihadis and perpetrate "more vicious and unpredictable" acts of violence than children in past conflicts.
Foreign peacekeepers in Mali were taken aback when they encountered such child combatants, he said.
"What caught a lot of these guys by surprise – the Dutch, the Germans and the Italians and the Chadians – in Mali was they were facing these Boko Haram kids and they didn't know what the hell to do."
He said Canadian soldiers must practise encounters with children. "What they don't need is two to three hours of international law to put them to sleep. What they need is scenario-based training in facing the possible threat that they will be encountering overseas."
Mr. Dallaire said Canadian soldiers will still be unable to defuse some situations and will have to fight children. "These kids are under duress, a lot of them are drugged up, a lot of them are indoctrinated, a lot have not seen civilization for years. … You may in certain circumstances still have to use lethal force."