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Roméo Dallaire

The Right to Special Protection and Care in Armed Conflict

By: Patricia Pearson

Patricia Pearson

Historical Contributor

Patricia Pearson is an author and journalist whose books include Opening Heaven’s Door: What the Dying May Be Trying to Tell Us, a finalist for the BC Book Award, and A Brief History of Anxiety: Yours and Mine, which she adapted into an award-winning television documentary for the CBC.

She has contributed commentary and reporting to the New Yorker, the New York Times, and the Guardian, among many other outlets, and was a regular columnist for the National Post. She has a B.A. in history from the University of Toronto, and an MSc. in journalism from Columbia University.

Pearson is the co-founder of Bellwoods Press, which offers clients the chance to tell their stories to a sensitive journalist and to publish a book for their extended family and friends.

Content Warning

The content of this article discusses topics of extreme violence against children during armed conflict. This content is disturbing and readers should proceed with caution. If you believe that the reading of this article may be triggering or traumatizing, then please forgo it.

United Nations Declaration of the Rights of the Child, Article 38:

Children under age 15 shall have no direct part in armed conflict. Children who are affected by armed conflict are entitled to special protection and care.

Photo credit: Marie-Claude Michaud.

Lieutenant General Roméo Dallaire, a mustachioed Quebecer with a distinguished military record, first arrived in the African nation of Rwanda in 1993 – his mission to lead a United Nations peacekeeping force. The small cadre of blue-capped soldiers were there to help enforce a newly signed treaty between rebel forces and the Rwandan government after a bloody four-year civil war.

Ever since Belgian colonialism drove a wedge of prejudice between Rwanda’s ruling Tutsi minority and the Hutu majority – whose original difference had mainly been that one group were affluent cattle ranchers and the other subsistence farmers – the two social groups had been seesawing in and out of power. A Tutsi monarchy was overthrown by Hutu activists supported by Belgium in 1959, driving most Tutsis into exile. Ugandan-based Tutsi rebels called the Rwandan Patriotic Front returned home in 1990, fighting to regain control, but ultimately agreed to a truce in 1994 when neither side could cement a win. 

As Dallaire has spoken of so extensively since that time, no one anticipated what horrors would transpire next. “Years have now passed since I stood among the corpses of a human destruction that rivalled anything that Dante could have imagined,” he wrote in his 2011 book, They Fight Like Soldiers, They Die Like Children. “The smells, the sights, the terrible sounds of the dying in Rwanda have been damped down in my psyche to a dull roar through constant therapy and an unrelenting regimen of medication.”

“But,” he continued, “no similar intervention has liberated me from the ethical dilemma that spat in my face far too often during that catastrophic period of inhumanity in Rwanda, 100 days in 1994 that saw 800,000 human beings slaughtered in a genocide that no one in the international community could muster the will to stop.” To wit, as he braced for attack, he kept finding himself wondering, “Was that rebel coming over the hill a soldier or a child?”

As traumatized as Dallaire was by witnessing the genocide itself, it was the 10- to 12-year-old Hutu children wielding machetes in wild abandon against Tutsi women and children that redefined the arc of his career. These nightmarish scenes ultimately led him to found the Dallaire Institute for Children, Peace and Security, in Halifax, Nova Scotia.

“They were the same ages as my kids back home,” he would write in They Fight Like Soldiers, They Die Like Children. “They were children in body but they had lost their child’s soul to an adult world that had distorted their minds to the point of destroying their consciences, their compassion, their capacity for empathy.” Such a monstrous destruction of innocence could not be shrugged off as being simply yet another price of war. It was a moral crime, and a profound abrogation of human rights. By securing the buy-in of world leaders in a movement to eradicate the use of child soldiers, he wrote, “I believe we will eventually be able to do what the (former Canadian foreign minister) Lloyd Axworthys of the world did with [a global ban on] land mines in the 1990s.”

There are more than 100,000 kids being actively forced into combat right now by terrorists, militias, organized crime cartels, and government forces in several countries around the world, ranging from Colombia to the Philippines, according to UNICEF. Some kill; others spy, scout, cook, clean, and perform involuntarily as sex slaves and “bush wives.” All are psychologically devastated, as are their victims. Mariatu Kamara, now a UNICEF ambassador based in Toronto, had her hands viciously cut off in Sierra Leone when she was 12 years old by three boys the same age, who had been instructed to keep people from voting for the political candidate that the adults in their militia group opposed. 

Another victim of conflict is South Sudanese musician Emmanuel Jal, now a Juno-nominated Canadian hip-hop performer, peace activist, actor, and public speaker, whose song “Baaki Wara” features the lyric “I’m in another war/This time/It’s my soul that I’m fighting for.” Jal was recruited at the age of seven by the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, a rebel group, after his mother was killed by Sudanese government forces. The boy fought in his home country and in Ethiopia before escaping and being smuggled into Kenya with the help of a British aid worker, Emma McCune, who adopted him. McCune was almost immediately killed in a car accident, after which Jal lived on the streets of Nairobi until discovering music. His resilience is remarkable. Many in his situation fell into post-traumatic shadow lives of drug use and petty crime – if they weren’t killed or jailed first.

The recruitment and deployment of children as soldiers is actually a recent phenomenon, according to Dallaire. This is partly due to the proliferation of light yet deadly firearms that are easy for young people to carry, and partly owing to an upwelling of population amidst poverty, providing a steady stream of children – some orphaned – who have few opportunities or even sufficient meals to eat. Militias and terrorist groups can handily recruit or abduct children, and then indoctrinate, drug, terrorize, and desensitize them until they lose their moral compass. As I write this in March 2024, children are still being forcibly recruited by Sudanese rebel forces under the threat of imminent starvation, according to reporting by CNN: Join us – or go hungry

Major-General Roméo Dallaire and members of the UN Assistance Mission for Rwanda with local refugee children. Photo taken on  August 17, 1994. Image courtesy of the Canadian War Museum.

But why do these adults want to steal children’s lives? The cold truth is because children, in their eyes, are expendable, replaceable, and easy to control. For organized crime organizations like drug cartels, they are also better candidates to commit murder because, as juveniles, they receive lighter prison sentences. Essentially, the decision-making is heartless and cynical, and may well relate to the adult recruiters having been traumatized in childhood themselves.

Ever since Dallaire left Rwanda, his aim has been to encourage a growing international focus on preserving the rights of children and keeping them safely away from such brutalities, whether as victims, forced perpetrators, or both. In 1996, politician and humanitarian Graça Machel of Mozambique presented a groundbreaking report, The Impact of Armed Conflict on Children, to the UN General Assembly, calling for global action. The UN responded by appointing its first special representative on children and armed conflict: Uganda’s Olara Otunnu.The General Assembly also adopted an optional (meaning additional) protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), whose signatory nations pledged to stop or curb the use of children in war. Article 38 of the UNCRC now reads, “Children under age 15 shall have no direct part in armed conflict. Children who are affected by armed conflict are entitled to special protection and care.”

As Dallaire has noted,

“We live in a time when human rights have been championed at the international level in an unprecedented way in human history, spurred by reaction to the Holocaust and the invention of the global governance body, the United Nations. Yet at the same time as international humanitarian and diplomatic efforts have focused on codifying and protecting the basic human rights of all human beings, including security of the person, humankind has been inventing a new weapon system, now widespread, that abuses the most vulnerable, the most hope-filled among us, and uses humanity’s future in order to destroy humanity’s present.” 

The first global conference involving cabinet ministers and youth delegates representing child soldiers was held in Winnipeg, Manitoba, in 2000. At the end of Dallaire’s own presentation, in which he described vivid memories of encountering tweens with gore-covered weapons, “I was sweating – literally burning with the desire that people understand how inconceivable it was for children to be used in this fashion.” After that conference, he was appointed as special advisor to the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA) on war-affected children.

In 2005, NATO published a report called “Child Soldiers as the Opposing Force.” This paper recommended the development of a formal military doctrine on how to approach and confront child soldiers. It also endorsed Dallaire’s quest to have a collaborative and multi-pronged strategy for combatting the phenomenon, ranging from what to do on the battlefield to how to prevent recruitment.

While there have been progressively more concerted international agreements to address this shocking abuse of children, there remains an absence of practical enforcement, and insufficient attention gets paid to reintegrating such children at war’s end. “The tendency in the past,” Dallaire has written, “has been to ignore the children: the ‘adults’ basically decided that there were more important ‘adult’ issues to be responded to than the fate of the children and youths who had been caught up in the fighting.” 

As CIDA advisor, Dallaire started the Child Soldiers Initiative, a precursor to his institute in Halifax, and by 2007 he was able to oversee a week-long simulation exercise in Ghana in which participants had to come up with a collaborative way to prevent child soldier recruitment. This, he discovered, exposed the different and often conflicting approaches of military personnel, NGO workers, and political operatives in the field. Their differing philosophies tied them in knots. So, Dallaire and his team continued to focus on brainstorming practical field guides. “This is what the Child Soldiers Initiative is attempting to achieve,” he wrote in 2011:

“Build that new doctrinal base and lexicon of action verbs to bridge the gaps between different actors so that they feel comfortable with candidly exchanging information; help integrate their efforts to produce cohesive plans that are then applied and implemented in the field with the appropriate priority of resources to successfully curtail the use of children in conflict; reduce the availability of small arms and light weapons . . .”

Pushing the global community to pay more concerted attention to the suffering of child soldiers, the Dallaire Institute co-developed a set of 17 tenets that were introduced by the Canadian government in 2017 at a meeting of defence ministers and became enshrined as the The Vancouver Principles. This agreement comprises a set of political commitments related to peacekeeping that has now been endorsed by 106 UN member states – including Canada. The principles reflect what Dallaire has called a “children’s rights upfront” (CRU) approach, which centres children’s well-being as a key priority in all peace processes.

Fittingly, Rwanda was the first country in Africa to endorse the Vancouver Principles. The Dallaire Institute then established the African Centre of Excellence in 2019 in Kigali, Rwanda, to produce and disseminate regionally appropriate strategies in line with the principles. Front-line workers, from military and police officers to social work and aid agency actors, receive training on how to protect young people from conflict. To date, the African Centre of Excellence has trained more than 15,000 military personnel, police, and other security sector actors from more than 100 countries. And, in partnership with the Rwanda National Police, it has held workshops for female police officers in particular, to enable them to do outreach to children at risk of recruitment.

Much remains to be done to safeguard every child’s right to play, learn, and laugh rather than carry a weapon of war. (For one thing, the Rwandan government has been accused by the UN of funding the Congolese rebel force M23, which relies on child soldiers.) But, by increments, thanks to dedicated humanitarian activists like Roméo Dallaire and Graça Michal, among many others, inroads into managing this global atrocity are being made. According to a June 2023 annual report by the UN Secretary-General for Children and Armed Conflict:

“My Special Representative and the United Nations made progress in engaging with parties to protect children in Burkina Faso, the Central African Republic, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iraq, Israel and the State of Palestine, Nigeria, the Syrian Arab Republic and Yemen. Engagement with parties to conflict resulted in positive changes for children. More than 12,460 children formerly associated with armed forces or groups received protection or reintegration support during 2022.”

Some of those rescued children will become activists and ambassadors in turn, following in the astonishing footsteps of Mariatu Kamara, Emmanuel Jal, and the other resilient victims of conflict who turned lost childhoods into pleas for a brighter tomorrow.

Additional Resources

4 out of 10 Child Soldiers Are Girls,” United Nations.  

Children Recruited by Armed Forces or Armed Groups,” UNICEF.

Emmanuel Jal: The Music of a War Child,” TED Talk (August 7, 2009).

History,” International Bureau for Children’s Rights.

Munsi, Pallabi. “‘Enlist or Die’: Fear, Looming Famine and a Deadly Ultimatum Swell the Ranks of Sudan’s Paramilitary Forces,” CNN (March 21, 2024).

Mariatu Kamara,” UNICEF Canada.

The Children and Armed Conflict Primer,” (free online course), United Nations System Staff College.

Nkurunziza, Michael. “Vancouver Principles: Rwanda Sets Precendence.” The New Times (December 3, 2022).

Training for Soldiers Who Face Children in Conflicts” (interview with Roméo Dallaire), CPAC (November 12, 2017).

Vancouver Principles,” Government of Canada.

Women Workshop on Implementation of Vancouver Principles Held in Kigali,” Rwanda National Police (June 29, 2023).