Stimson Center conference on child soldiers: Caught in Conflict

Today on 8JAN17 I attended yet another conference on the topic of child soldiers, this time at the Stimson Center. The event was broadcast to the public and a recording can be found at this link.

Right off the bat, I’d like to point out that Ukraine was left unmentioned in the discussion, as they usually are, despite there being a bevy of evidence supporting that both sides in the civil war have recruited children into a variety of roles.

The focus of the conference was largely the March 2017 decision for CANFOR to adopt specific doctrine regarding encountering child soldiers in a tactical environment. This is easily the most significant and most recent form of progress for the rights of children in war.

The speakers were primarily policy writers and academics, mirroring the audience in attendance. General Romeo Dallaire and myself were more than likely the only two people in the room with relevant combat experience (against child combatants). Outside of PhD students, NGO members and academia, as is wont in Washington DC, there were some government and intelligence community members present as well.

One of the most interesting numbers put out during the conference was that statistics show that 40% of child soldiers are female. A number you could easily come to with logical reasoning but when you think of the unique risks and vulnerabilities young girls face who are abducted or trafficked, you begin to appreciate the severity of such a large percentage.

Dallaire commented that militaries are largely not equipped to handle encountering child soldiers. Such an off hand comment can seem off putting to other practitioners of warfare. He is, however, not just talking about engaging children in a firefight but having established SOPs to deal with the encounter, capture and processing of an enemy combatant who is also a victim/perpetrator, i.e. child soldier.

I enjoy and tend to agree with Dallaire’s ideas due to his emphasis on de-incentivizing child soldiering, in lieu of simply disarming and demobing once the damage has already been done and the children have already been trafficked, raped, forced to murder and brutalized in a violent war.

Dallaire mentioned a youth movement in Rwanda called “Interahamwe”, a group supporting the ruling party of Rwanda at the time of the genocide. I think this has a lot of fascinating potential for exploitation and examination. While we look at a lot of variables for predicting or analyzing precursors and reasons for child soldiering and terrorist recruitment I am unsure of how often we look at the susceptibility and potential for militarization of youth groups.

The USA has numerous youth groups that either are dominantly martial in nature or combine outdoorsmanship with other like skills to incidentally or purposefully create a very fertile petry dish for indoctrination into the military.

While the USA may call them Young Marines, Boy Scouts or Civil Air Patrol, Slavic countries tend to call them patriotic clubs. No matter what country you are from, there are most likely numerous groups that are potentially recruiting grounds for both government and non-governmental groups, highly dependent upon the current strength of rule of law and proximity to active conflicts. If there’s something that the conflict in Kurdistan has shown, it is that the proximity to a conflict is largely relative nowadays due to the miracle of commercialized air travel and that foreign fighter networks are not exclusive to Islamic Jihad.

Dr. Whitman made a profound statement that ending child soldier recruitment is key to ending all conflicts around the world. This seemed profoundly stupid, as there will never be peace on earth and it has always been my opinion that smothering conflicts usually leads to a bevy of disappearances, murders and human rights violations.  I believe that it is more important to ensure thatnpeople wage humane wars than to prevent them outright. I say this, knowing that my job security relies on steady war.

While authoring the Vancouver Principles, Dallaire’s institute allegedly consulted heavily with operational leaders in order to ensure that the doctrine did not fail to translate into real results down range while also respecting the safety and operational needs of the soldiers with boots on ground.

Dr. Whitman goes on to insist that the USA and it’s massive reach is integral in continuing to make real lasting change in combating the recruitment and/or use of child soldiers. The speakers made polite mention of the prolific waivers for the CSPA, as I have mentioned in my previous articles.

The US ATA program could easily integrate child soldier training and policy influence that could make real lasting impact in some of the more restive regions in the world, especially for mitigating and de-emphasizing the tactical value of child soldiers.

Colonel Dwight Raymond, the author from the US Army War College, mentioned that the policy sections on child soldiers falls under protection of civilians under the umbrella of peace and stability operations. This seemed odd to me, as child soldiers, in my mind, are first and foremost a tactical variable and deals with force composition and makeup of enemy tactical formations.

Under the protection of civilians in the US Army policy there’s a great understanding of preplanning, protection during operations and actions after and on the objective. Unfortunately, there’s less specificity than some individuals in the community want. Having communicated with plenty of service members, I could definitely agree that it is vitally important for child soldiers (including tactics, techniques and procedures for encountering child soldiers) to be a mainstream issue – and it certainly isn’t.

Jo Becker spoke next, and I believe that she was the speaker I disagreed with the most, whether it was a disagreement on policy or simply not saying anything of substance. My commentary regarding her talk may not be chronological.

Jo Becker rightfully detailed the absolute necessity of the UN and points out how impactful listing countries for human rights violations (i.e the list of shame) can be.

Becker mentioned that at all times Child EPWs should be detained in accordance with Additional Protocol I, article 77 of the Geneva conventions, which states that child combatants should be isolated from their native combat units and adults in general.

I vehemently disagree with this as there is no legal ground for us to abide by this rule. We did not ratify Additional Protocol I, and until then we should continue to process child soldiers as unprivileged combatants (i.e. war criminals) and detain them as such.

When Dallaire returned to the discussion, he started off very strongly and continued to deliver some of the most strongly worded sentiments of the conference while being uncannily Canadian. He said, “if you need child soldiers, you’ve already lost”. I completely agree and have applied this logic to the Kurdish people who have been caught repeatedly conscripting children: if the creation of your state requires that you recruit and/or use child soldiers in order to achieve statehood, you don’t deserve to exist.

Dallaire went on to say that “lethal force is not the answer,” which made me nearly snap my pen in half. It is a great idea; it sounds compassionate and rolls of the tongue really nice, but at the end of the day nobody in that room was going to have to carry out a soft-handed approach to AK47 wielding children. 7.62 kills no matter who fired it.

Fortunately I was able to pull Dallaire aside afterward and discuss this one on one. He clarified that their intent was not to necessarily change the OEF/ROE continuum for the sake of encountering child soldiers. He in fact explicitly agreed that the kinetic phase of operations is not something they believe should be altered, but the phases that take place before and after – something I’ve believed for a long time now.

We moved on to audience questions at this point, and of course one person inevitably asked about the USG’s position regarding the Vancouver principles. The answer given was pretty succinct, and while not particularly moral, I couldn’t really disagree with it. An unnamed USG official had said, “we didn’t ratify the optional protocol or rights of the child, why would we sign this?” It was a completely frank answer and a good indication that signing and not ratifying yet another international agreement is not necessarily the best answer. I personally have had enough hollow promises on human rights from the USG.

Another audience member asked some nonsense question about mandating minimum presence of females among security forces because women somehow make things better. To this question Whitman regaled us with a pretty sexist story, much to the amusement of the audience. I found it ironic that if the genders were reversed the story would have deeply offended people. Overall it was the most dis-pleasurable experience of the conference.

The next question asked was whether or not quality of life dictates susceptibility of child soldier recruitment and whether or not more foreign aid would mitigate that. For decades now our answer to a myriad of problems has been to dump more foreign aid into a country and continue to cultivate entire populations dependent on welfare. It hasn’t been the answer for years and it’s not the answer to this problem either.

As an aside, we couldn’t make it the entire conference without the Lord’s Resistance Army being mentioned. Kony2018!!!!!

Jo Becker continued to wax poetic with discourse on the level of a Fox News pundit by referencing the time honored paradox of terrorist and counter-terrorist. She claimed that detention, killing and raids by counter terrorists spur recruitment of child soldiers which in turn spur more raids… and the war continues ad nauseum.

As usually occurs when discussing the issue of child soldiers, throughout the conference there was some significant waffling on whether or not child soldiers were combatants, civilians or unpriv combatants.

Additionally, I wanted to emphasize Dallaire’s mention of the post operational reflection spurred by leadership and soldiers being trained by Dallaire’s institute. Anything that causes a unit to collectively reflect on past operations without a lessons-learned center methodically picking their brains for them is a good thing in my book. We have thoughtful independent thinkers in our militaries.

Overall, Caught in Conflict was one of the more positive experiences I’ve had at a human rights conference. All too often people come with their own agendas and look for sound bytes from whatever experts are in attendance in order to obtain some sort of casus belli for whatever fucked up plans they’ve hatched in their think tank or back room at L4ngley.

In closing, and to be completely honest, I felt like everyone was speaking from a genuine desire to help people and mitigate one of the most egregious abuses of human rights to be invented. While nothing ground breaking was discussed, the most recent SIGACTs within human rights, specifically child soldiers were discussed and we successfully gathered some big names under one roof for an afternoon. I don’t regret attending and it was an honor and a pleasure to meet and converse with General Dallaire.




CANFOR adopts child soldier doctrine

Event page

Youth groups in USA

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