Children in Armed Conflict: Contemporary Discourse and Canadian Responses

7 March 2017 – Toronto, CA

by Alim Jiwa

On February 21st 2017, Canada and France became the latest of 59 countries to sign the Safe Schools Declaration.  According to Zama Coursen-Neff, Executive Director of the Children’s Rights Division at Human Rights Watch, this declaration is “a political commitment by countries to support the protection of students, teachers, schools, and universities from attack during armed conflict.”  Members who have signed it “pledge to try to restore access to education when schools are destroyed and to deter attacks by investigating and prosecuting war crimes involving schools” as well as “minimizing the use of schools for military purposes so they do not become targets for attack.”  This move was praised by figures in civil society, including Lt. Gen. (ret’d) Romeo Dallaire, former commander of the UN peacekeeping mission in Rwanda in the 1990s and advocate against the use of children in armed conflict, and Cicely McWilliam, Director of Policy and Government Relations for Save the Children Canada.  McWilliam notably pointed out that schools must be protected because “making [them] a safe place reduces the possibility of easy recruitment of child soldiers.”
Child soldier in Afghanistan

Furthermore, at the request of the Chief of Defence Staff Gen. Jonathan Vance, the Canadian Forces will now become the first military in the world to issue guidelines on child soldiers. These new guidelines are the outcome of a meeting between Gen. Vance and Lt. Gen. (ret’d) Dallaire and will be designed to ensure that Canadian troops have adequate training on how to deal with child soldiers in theatres of war, especially in light of a potentially imminent deployment to the United Nations Multidimensional Integrated Stabilization Mission in Mali (MINUSMA). In Mali, the UN and other humanitarian observers have reported that local armed groups regularly recruit children to fulfill a variety of different roles.  The French army, which is active in MINUSMA, recently faced significant criticism for killing a 10-year-old boy, highlighting the challenges faced by militaries when operating in areas with a high prevalence of underage combatants.

Indeed, militaries entering the battlefields of the 21st century, including in Iraq and Syria where child soldiers are also present, face a significant dilemma.  It is not just ISIS that is using children as combatants, but even the Houthi rebels in Yemen. Soldiers must be able to do what they need to defend against threats on the battlefield, but it cannot be neglected that child soldiers are victims and targeting them without an approach that is mindful of this important legal and moral fact can lead to significant political repercussions.  Humanitarian stakeholders, as well as many voters in the home countries of nations participating in MINUSMA and other dangerous missions abroad, expect that forces from their countries will engage in a successful balancing act that is mindful of these two competing considerations.

The 21st Century Problem

The issue of children in armed conflict has been a preoccupation of those involved in both the defence and humanitarian sectors for decades.  As is well established, it is illegal under the Geneva Convention for children under 15, and discouraged for children between the ages of 15 and 18, to participate directly in armed conflict.  Furthermore, the Rome Statute of the International Criminal Court classifies the ‘conscripting and enlisting of children to participate actively in hostilities, international or intra-state’ and ‘rape, sexual slavery and forced pregnancies’ as war crimes.  That same statute also classifies ‘forcibly transferring’ children between groups as genocide.

An important flashpoint in this ongoing debate was “Kony 2012”, the YouTube video that went viral just a few years ago and took the international development and peacebuilding communities by storm.  The video, viewed by hundreds of millions around the world, was part of an online awareness campaign being spearheaded by a California-based non-profit organization called Invisible Children.  Though it did inspire sympathy from many, it also led to a divisive discussion about the appropriateness of the approach the organization took to portraying and responding to a highly complex conflict in Uganda and neighbouring countries involving Joseph Kony’s brutal Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA).

Invisible Children became the object of crippling accusations that its video campaign was perpetuating the “white saviour complex” and provided a misleading account of the real situation on the ground at the time when the video was released in 2012.  Notably, it was also severely criticized for the role it played in promoting US military intervention as a solution to the conflict from those who strongly opposed such a response.  The often vitriolic rhetoric ended up hurting the organization’s reputation in Uganda and severely undermined its ability to lead and expand its on-the-ground humanitarian projects geared towards helping the victims of the LRA.  Invisible Children is now a shadow of its former self; although it continues to run a limited number programs in Central African Republic and the DRC, its Ugandan operations are now controlled by Invisible Children Uganda, a local offshoot that has often struggled to obtain sufficient funding.

Demobilized child holding shell casings in Central African Republic

The LRA is believed to have kidnapped tens of thousands of children throughout the course of its existence, using boys as soldiers and girls as sex slaves. The bulk of the violence ceased in 2006 when the Ugandan government and the LRA entered into a truce, and northern Uganda has since experienced an economic recovery.  In December 2011, the United States deployed 100 Special Forces soldiers to assist a local African Union task force with finding Kony and bringing him to justice for his violations of international humanitarian law, and another 150 soldiers were sent as reinforcements in 2014.  Although these efforts led to a spike in defections and releases from the LRA that significantly degraded its capabilities, Kony himself remains at large and small remaining bands of his followers continue to terrorize people in the Central African Republic, DRC and South Sudan.

Survivors of the LRA’s violence, such as rape victims and former child soldiers, face stigma in their communities and continue to suffer from physical and psychological pain that hampers their ability to lead normal lives.  Thus, there is still more work to be done to mend the damage that the LRA has done to the men, women and children who suffered at their behest, including those who had their childhood stolen from them under Kony’s command.

Africa is far from the only modern-day theatre in which the exploitation of children has captured the contemporary imagination; the Middle East has seen its share of this phenomenon in recent years.  In their 2016 report entitled Children of the Islamic State, Noman Benotman and Nikita Malik paint a picture of the way minors have become an integral part of the so-called Caliphate’s political and military operations in Iraq and Syria.  According to them, “the use of children by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS)—as a prop in the state apparatus and as a propaganda tool—is unprecedented in both scale and breadth.”  Research shows that there are several categories of children involved in ISIS, including “children of foreign fighters, children of local fighters, abandoned children, children forced to enroll…and voluntary recruits”, which are collectively referred to as “Cubs of the Caliphate”.  Scholars have broken down the institutionalization of children by ISIS into six stages: “socialization, schooling, selection, subjugation, specialization and stationing.”

Notably, in the significant amount of propaganda that ISIS produces on a daily basis, children are often featured.  Western audiences have seen examples of this propaganda, often portrayed in Western media itself, of children in pictures and videos holding weapons, wearing ISIS regalia, making extremist statements targeting ‘infidels’ and engaging in direct violence.  Notably, as Benotman and Malik state, little research exists as to whether there is a specific strategic approach to the manner in which children are displayed by ISIS.  However, portrayals of children in IS propaganda generally involves their direct participation in violence or them being “exposed or normalized” to it.  It is possible that propaganda involving children is partially targeted to Western audiences, and is developed with the deliberate aim of instilling fear and shock within these viewers.  It is also important to mention that local armed groups besides ISIS, such as Jabhat al-Nusra and the Free Syrian Army, have also been known to exploit children in pursuit of their military objectives.

Heart-wrenching stories of minors being recruited into armed militias in historically conflict-ridden developing countries and being subjected to physical, sexual and emotional abuse pull at the heartstrings of the general public.  However, such stories also stimulate heated and sometimes controversial discussions among stakeholders about how to respond to the problem.  In sum, the Canadian government has taken steps in a bid to ensure that its military operations are mindful of the need to the protect children in armed conflict.  In the coming months and years, observers will see whether these measures will bear real fruit in the context of international missions in the dangerous and complicated modern theatres of war.


Feature Photo:  “Former child soldiers in Democratic Republic of Congo” – Wikimedia Commons, 2017

Inset Photo:  “Child soldier in Afghanistan” – Robin Kirk, Flickr, 2017

Inset Photo:  “Demobilized child holding shelling casings” – hdptcar, Flickr, 2017

DefenceReport’s Analysis is a multi-format blog that is based on opinions, insights and dedicated research from DefRep editorial staff and writers. The analysis expressed here are the author’s own and are separate from DefRep reports, which are based on independent and objective reporting.


By Alim Jiwa

Alim Jiwa is an international public policy professional and commentator. His specialities are international conflict and peacebuilding and Canadian foreign policy. He holds a Master of Arts in Conflict Studies jointly awarded by the University of Ottawa and Saint Paul University and an Honours Bachelor of Public Affairs and Policy Management with a Specialization in International Studies from Carleton University’s Arthur Kroeger College of Public Affairs. He is currently based in Toronto, Canada and can be reached at [email protected]