By Linda Bordoni
February 12th is the International Day Against the Use of Child Soldiers.
On various occasions Pope Francis has expressed his concern for the global phenomenon and called for an end to the practice which he has called a “form of slavery.”
Responding to a call from an organization that aims to end the recruitment and use of child soldiers, he recently received in audience retired Lieutenant General Roméo Dallaire, and Dr Shelly Whitman.
They are respectively the founder and the Executive Director of the Roméo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative, a global partnership that brings the perspective of the security sector to the issue of child soldiery, equipping leaders with the training and tools to prevent the recruitment and use of child soldiers worldwide.
As General Dallaire and Dr Whitman told Vatican News immediately after the papal audience that took place on January 17th, the meeting with Pope Francis came about in a harmonious and constructive atmosphere of “significant mutual interest”:
'Shaking Hands with the Devil'
Retired Canadian Lieutenant-General Roméo Dallaire’s passionate mission to protect all children from becoming weapons of war stems from his own powerful experience and first-hand witness of the horrific 1994 Rwanda genocide.
He was the Force Commander of the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda prior to and during the genocide. Notwithstanding the information he provided about the planned massacre and his reiterated requests to take action, he was denied permission to intervene and the UN withdrew its peacekeeping forces creating a vacuum in which over 800,000 people were killed in less than 100 days.
They were days of absolute horror, as narrated in Dallaire’s prize-winning book “Shake Hands with the Devil: the failure of Humanity in Rwanda”, a country from which he returned with a deep commitment to give meaning to the tragedy and do his part in preventing such horror from happening again.
But as the General told me the day after meeting with the Pope, he did not travel to the Vatican all the way from Canada to talk about the past, but to engage with Pope Francis and find channels of collaboration and support with the Holy See.
"The Pope has been writing and speaking about the scourge of modern slavery since 2013", the General said, and was interested in knowing what we are doing. “We, he added, were very keen in gaining his support for our work, and bringing the Holy See into the exercise of influencing world leaders to be engaged, particularly in using children as instruments of war.”
Seeking the Pope's assistance
Dr Shelley Whitman explained that the aim of the meeting was to ask the Pope’s assistance on three levels:
- On South Sudan (where the Initiative has a project), because we know that that is a situation where Pope Francis can have significant influence on the religious and political leaders and the peace process; and because we believe that it is of primary importance that people understand that it is primary value if you’re going to achieve peace and security in South Sudan, and break the cycle of violence, it is necessary to end the recruitment and use of child soldiers.
- On being a global advocate for this issue: we called upon him to make it a point amongst members of the Catholic Church across the world so that Church leaders can have a significant influence especially in some parts of the world where children are being allowed to join armed groups, and where community members, parents etc. have an important role to play.
- We requested that the Catholic Church endorse the Vancouver Principles on peacekeeping, at least in the moral perspective that it can bring to this set of non-binding pledges that seek to equip security sector actors with the skills and knowledge to prevent violations being committed against children.
Whitman said she and the General came away from the papal audience “feeling listened to and understood: he spoke very passionately about how issues related to children and their abuse in a multitude of forms around the world is something that intimately touches his heart and keeps him awake”.
Francis, she said, “took notes and we left materials with him to follow-up afterwards, and he asked how the Holy See could become an endorser and what the process is”.
A new era of peacekeeping
Regarding the harsh lessons of the past, General Dallaire said he believes “lessons are being learnt, whether or not there is a political will to apply them both from the international community and within the single countries is another matter”.
“I think the international constructs of legal constraints have been established and we know we have the responsibility to protect” he said.
He also spoke positively about the fact that many nations today want professionalized security forces and want to be recognized as forces that are responding to human rights: “they want to do peacekeeping but they need new skills, new knowledge and competencies”.
That, he said, is one of the focuses that the Dallaire Initiative has: “bringing a new era of peacekeeping regarding children to the fore versus simply treating it as an afterthought”.
Both the General and Dr Whitman speak of the role of the media, both in countries where there is conflict - where radio for example can be used to reach communities and inform – and more generally where there is a need for correct information and for journalists to be informed in a more specialized way.
South Sudan project
Whitman talks about the 3-year project in S. Sudan which is funded by the Canadian government, explaining that the Initiative has just opened an office in Juba where she says it is working on different levels trying to impact a situation that is going through a peace process: “trying to get the parties to that conflict to stop the recruitment and use of children, and working at how it is a really important piece to that peace process”.
She says the lessons learnt in Rwanda are of enormous help: “it does help immensely to have that history and knowledge on the continent on who General Dallaire is with many of the people we are dealing with – the government and the SPLA (the liberation army) – they know of his name and they know of the Rwanda genocide. The approach that we are taking is one they want to be engaged with, as they want to be empowered instead of us just coming in and castigating them for their behavior”.
Whitman points out that having come out of the genocide, Rwanda today is the third-largest peacekeeping contributor to UN peacekeeping missions and has about 800 troops in South Sudan.
She explains that in Rwanda, the Initiative has been working with Rwandans to create a center of excellence training and learning, a hub for troops from the entire region: “what is interesting we have been training the troops that have been going into South Sudan, and now they are a force multiplier for us on the ground to help with ending and advocating for the end of the use of child soldiers”.
Whitman and Dallaire both express hope, with the General pointing out that it is not a “Pollyanna optimism”, and that they firmly believe, being the only organization that has looked at the problem from a security sector point of view, “that they can certainly reduce the flow and ultimately maybe stop the flow into conflict of child soldiers, versus trying to pick up the pieces at the end”.
Whitman explains that the recruitment of children as weapons of war is sadly a phenomenon that is endemic throughout the world: in the Middle East - Syria, Iraq, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, Lebanon; Europe: Ukraine; Asia: Sri Lanka, Myanmar; Latin America: Colombia, Guatemala, the drug wars and the use of children in criminal networks.
She points out that the migrant crisis has an influence and an impact on how this is no long an “us-versus-them” issue, but touches each and every one of us.
“When we fail to address conflicts that happen in other parts of the world, because of our inter-connectedness, there is no way we can avoid their impact on us: if we fail to address the recruitment of child soldiers in country X, it will come knocking on our door and we will have to address the influx of refugees and migrants because of those conflicts”.
General Dallaire concludes with a bitter memory: “They refused to come and give me any support in Rwanda because it wasn’t in anybody’s self-interest.”
But that, he says, has changed radically in the last 25 years, “because every conflict out there, and conflicts that are using child-soldiers has an impact on us back home… there is no more disconnect: whatever happens over there has ramifications on us”.
“So the aim”, he reiterates, “Is to go there and to attenuate the rage, prevent things from happening versus trying to ‘pick up the pieces’, seeing the impact on us, and trying to survive by building walls and whatever else…”.