NOTES FOR REMARKS IN THE SENATE ON THE MOTION TO URGE THE GOVERNMENT TO PROMULGATE ITS ENDORSEMENT OF THE PARIS COMMITMENT ON CHILD SOLDIERS
Honourable senators, first, I thank Senator Zimmer for his intervention. It is a very positive intervention on behalf of Senator Dallaire and others who have spoken on this issue.
I know it is late in the day. I will not be that long, but I would like to speak, honourable senators, to follow up on the motion of our colleague, Senator Dallaire, regarding the need for the Government of Canada to show leadership in global efforts to end the detestable practice of using children in combat situations.
Senator Dallaire spoke to us about his own firsthand experience with child soldiers. I have a small story to tell. I worked as a journalist in Cambodia during the war there in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Like many journalists looking for a story in a war zone, I wanted to go where the action was. To do that, we were assigned guides. The two guides were experienced in a war zone and they were armed. Both had been wounded. One had lost an arm; the other had a wooden leg. These guides in many ways were no different from other guides that had taken me into war zones around the world. The difference, though, was that these guides were children about 12 or 13 years of age.
I was just thinking, when I was in Northern Ireland once with one of the minders when I was working with CTV, that we were in a different area. These are not children of war, but teenagers brought into war. These young kids, who did not know they were young kids, had balaclavas on. We were rounding a corner and I remember this gentleman who was with us, whose name was Bobby May. He said that he would take care of foreign correspondents. We were terrified of these two men who came around the corner with machine guns. He went over to them, looked at them, and he said, “Go home to your mother, boys.” He took off their balaclavas and there they were 15 and 16. They looked like men and terrified us, but they were out in the night doing what they thought was right thing, defending the issues in Northern Ireland. These memories came back to me when I heard both Senator Zimmer and Senator Dallaire speak.
Vis-à-vis Cambodia, I wonder where those boys are today. They would be in maybe their late 30s now. I wonder, are they still alive? I think it is quite likely that they were killed.
As we know, child soldiers are often put on the front line of conflicts, sometimes even unarmed — true cannon fodder. They are used to place or to unearth land mines. Cambodia was infected with land mines. I think it is entirely likely that my young guides, given their missing limbs, were already the victims of land mines when I met them. However, trying to stay positive and say that these young children, these young child soldiers are still alive, what kind of citizens are they likely to be?
We know that child soldiers are often left, as these boys were, physically disabled and psychologically traumatized. Child soldiers are denied education and skills training and are often rejected by their former communities. The struggle to adapt to a peaceful society is difficult for them. Many are drawn to violence and crime and continue the tragic circle of conflict that we see all over the world.
Senator Dallaire urges our government to take action. Let us start with active support of the Paris commitment on child soldiers. The Paris principles, based on international law, underline the importance of preventing the recruitment of children, the need to protect them, to release them from Armed Forces or groups, and to ensure their integration into civilian life.
This will not be easy to do, remember what Senator Dallaire said: There are currently between 250,000 and 300,000 children in armed conflicts in 53 countries around the world.
Honourable senators, as Canadians, we have our work cut out for us.
Obviously this situation requires a global response.
We need an approach that focuses on children and brings civil society together with humanitarian, emergency intervention, peacekeeping and development efforts.
That is where Canada could play a role. We are a middle power that is known for its peacekeeping contributions. We are involved in several countries where child soldiers are used, including Afghanistan, where an estimated 8,000 children figured among the insurgent forces in 2005.
Honourable senators, if wars were not bad enough, it seems that modern wars now involve children to a much greater extent than they did before. We should remember that it is not just so-called rebel forces that use child soldiers. Information from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees points to evidence that an increasing number of governments are recruiting children as soldiers. Some argue that the growing number of children in combat is due to high poverty levels, rising orphan rates, and smaller and lighter arms, weapons that are light and small enough for children to use.
Others argue that refugee camps, especially in Africa, with their large concentrations of children, many orphaned, are a pool of potential fighters that rebel groups and government forces alike infiltrate.
Honourable senators, the United Nations says that roughly two million children died in armed conflict in the past decade. Three times as many children sustained injuries or physical disabilities, often because of a land mine. It is clear that we must take action if we hope to live in peace in the future.
In closing, honourable senators, it saddens me to think of these child soldiers who guided me through the Cambodian jungle almost 20 years ago, and to consider what their lives might be like today if, indeed, they are alive. It saddens me even more to think that this problem is getting worse and that, even if these children have grown up to become men, tens of thousands of other children around the world have been born since then to take their place. That is something for all honourable senators to think about.