If Canada cares about child soldiers

A few weeks ago Omar Khadr, the last remaining Western citizen being held by the Americans at Guantanamo Bay, pleaded guilty to all charges against him. Regardless of whether you think Khadr is innocent or guilty, or your opinion on how his confession was obtained, one thing is undeniable: Khadr, who was 15 at the time of his capture, was a child soldier.

According to the United Nations International Children’s Emergency Fund (UNICEF), a child soldier can be defined as:

“[ . . . ] Any person below 18 years of age who is, or who has been, recruited or used by an armed force or armed group in any capacity, including but not limited to children, boys and girls, used as fighters, cooks, porters, spies or for sexual purposes [ . . . ].”

This is a definition that Khadr squarely falls under, regardless of what he has pleaded guilty to doing.

As one of the 193 nations who ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child (UNCRC), which specifically deals with children in military conflict in its first optional protocol, Canada is bound by international law to treat child soldiers differently from adults who take up arms. If captured, they are to be segregated from adults and every effort must be made to help them reintegrate into society.

In Khadr’s case this convention meant that the Canadian government had a responsibility to protest his imprisonment and trial, yet despite a court decision ordering the government to intervene, Canada did nothing. In fact it did worse than nothing, it took the decision to the Supreme Court, who, paradoxically, said that despite the fact that Khadr’s basic human rights were being violated, the Canadian government was under no obligation to intervene.

As justification for our inaction, it has been argued that the crimes Khadr’s plead guilty to — throwing a grenade that killed an American soldier and aiding in the placement roadside bombs — were so serious that he should be tried as an adult. In peacetime, and with a child who grew up in a peaceful environment, I could be persuaded to say that these people may have a point, however, I would argue that Khadr never had a chance at either of these things.

At the age of two Khadr moved with his family from Canada to Pakistan and Afghanistan, where they live with radical Islamists. He was taught from a young age to use weapons and build bombs; it is even reported that Khadr lived in the same compound as Osama Bin Laden. This was a child who was never given a chance to live a normal life, and his is undeniably a case that justifies the existence of the UNCRC.

Bearing this in mind, what did Canada hope to accomplish by ignoring its international obligations? Are we sending a message to child soldiers that they will be treated no differently than their adult counterparts?

This makes two very dangerous assumptions. First, that child soldiers are complicit in their involvement, and second, that a child, especially one raised in an environment of fear and violence, is capable of making this kind of choice.

Two Canadian governments, Liberal and Conservative, have specifically failed Khadr and generally not lived up to their obligations to the thousands of child soldiers currently fighting the wars of adults.

Why did Canada ratify the UNCRC if we have so little will to uphold it? If we aren’t willing to try and fight for the rights of a Canadian citizen, drawn into an armed conflict as a child, would we really try and help an African, Asian or South American child?

Leif Larsen is impatiently waiting for Canada to start doing the right thing.