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One of Canada’s signature foreign-policy initiatives, a global campaign against child soldiers, is facing new challenges after United Nations investigators found evidence that Rwandan-backed rebels are recruiting child combatants in eastern Congo.

The UN allegations against the M23 militia in the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) could become an embarrassment for Ottawa, which has chosen Rwanda as a key hub for its child-soldiers initiative. The federal government has given more than $5.6-million to a Canadian organization that has a training partnership with the Rwandan military.

Congolese critics, including the Congolese government and the Nobel Peace Prize laureate Denis Mukwege, allege that Rwanda and its neighbour Uganda are supporting M23′s use of child soldiers.

“We call on the community of states to sanction Rwanda and Uganda for their support for the M23, which recruits and uses children as soldiers in DRC,” Dr. Mukwege said in a tweet last month.

The UN has provided extensive evidence of the Rwandan military supplying weapons and other military equipment to the M23 rebels, and even sending Rwandan soldiers into the battle zone to fight alongside the militia. Rwanda has denied this, but the United States and several other governments have repeated the UN’s allegation.

In their offensive in eastern Congo, M23 fighters have allegedly massacred hundreds of villagers and committed dozens of sexual assaults and other atrocities. The offensive has triggered a humanitarian disaster in the region, with more than 800,000 people forced to abandon their homes. Many are now in horrific conditions in temporary camps where cholera is spreading.

In a report to the UN Security Council in December, the UN Group of Experts on Congo said M23 has targeted “unemployed youth and children” as part of its recruitment strategy.

The experts said they interviewed 15 captured or surrendered M23 combatants of Congolese origin. Most were “very young” – including several children, the report said.

It said the combatants were lured into M23 with payments of US$50 to US$100 and false promises of employment. They were transported across Congo’s border to Rwanda or Uganda and, from there, re-entered Congolese territory that M23 controlled, “where they received military training and instructions before being deployed for combat,” the UN report said. Those who attempted to flee the training camps were executed if caught, it said.

M23 is not the only militia to be linked to child soldiers. More than 100 armed groups are reported to be active in eastern Congo, and many have a history of recruiting children. In the past, the Congolese military has also sometimes been linked to the use of child combatants.

The evidence in the latest UN report could spark questions about Ottawa’s decision to finance a Canadian organization that has a close partnership with the Rwandan military, known as the Rwandan Defence Force (RDF). At least two federal departments have given funding to the Dallaire Institute for Children, Peace and Security, and to the institute’s Rwanda-based branch, the African Centre of Excellence on Children, Peace and Security – both of which have worked closely with the RDF.

Global Affairs Canada says it has provided about $4.6-million to the Dallaire Institute, and Veterans Affairs Canada announced in 2021 that it had provided a further $1-million to the institute for research on the mental health effects of exposure to child soldiers during military service.

The Dallaire Institute, based at Dalhousie University in Halifax, was founded by retired Canadian lieutenant-general Roméo Dallaire, famed for his role as UN force commander in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide. In 2017, the institute was a co-developer of the Vancouver Principles – a set of international commitments against the use of child soldiers, which became a central pillar of the Canadian child-soldier initiative. It has also trained Canadian soldiers on child-soldier issues.

Rwanda’s state-controlled media have heavily promoted the RDF’s partnership with the Dallaire Institute and its Rwandan centre, which the media describe as the main hub for the institute’s African activities. In numerous articles and photos, Rwandan media have publicized the meetings and agreements between the Dallaire Institute and the RDF, citing the partnership as proof of Rwandan leadership on the child-soldier issue.

International Development Minister Harjit Sajjan said in a press release last year that he had met Rwandan President Paul Kagame to discuss the “co-operation” of the two countries in preventing the recruitment and use of child soldiers.

He also disclosed that Canada is planning further support for the Dallaire Institute to “promote and operationalize” the Vancouver Principles in Africa. Rwanda often boasts that it was the first African country to sign the Vancouver Principles.

The Globe and Mail asked the Global Affairs department whether it was aware of the UN reports about M23′s recruitment of child soldiers, and whether Rwanda’s alleged support for M23 would be a violation of the Vancouver Principles. Department spokesperson James Emmanuel Wanki did not directly answer the questions, instead providing a general statement about Canada’s opposition to the recruitment and use of child soldiers by any military or armed group.

“When children are unlawfully recruited and used in armed conflict, they may witness, participate in or experience grave acts of violence,” Mr. Wanki said. “This can have immediate and lifelong consequences for their health and well-being. These violations of children’s rights can amount to war crimes or crimes against humanity.”

Shelly Whitman, executive director of the Dallaire Institute, did not respond to questions from The Globe about M23′s reported recruitment of children and whether this raised doubts about Rwanda’s commitments, saying that the questions should be directed to the UN.

Dr. Whitman said the institute works with both Rwanda and Congo on child-soldier issues and has an office in Congo’s capital, Kinshasa, and a partnership with Congo’s military (known as FARDC). “The Dallaire Institute engages with state militaries like the FARDC and the RDF in their efforts to prevent the recruitment and use of children in armed conflict,” she told The Globe in an e-mailed response.

“More than 106 nations have endorsed the Vancouver Principles and all are in need of assistance for understanding the implementation of the principles,” she said. “Our commitment is always to ensure all parties to conflict prevent the recruitment and use of children in all instances.”

Dr. Whitman noted that her institute issued a statement last November calling on combatants in eastern Congo to protect children from armed conflict and child recruitment.

Citing the Vancouver Principles, the institute’s statement said: “We know that the governments of the DRC, Rwanda and Uganda have a common shared commitment to preventing children from one of the worst forms of human-rights abuse.”

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