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Military prepares for possible clashes with child soldiers on future missions

The Canadian Forces document was published as the Trudeau government considers a peace mission to Mali in Africa where there is widespread use of child soldiers, such as these seen in the Central African Republic in 2013.

SIA KAMBOU/AFP/Getty Images

The Canadian military has published a new doctrine to address how troops should deal with child soldiers – with a sobering message for combatants – that comes just as the Trudeau government is weighing a peacekeeping mission to Africa that could very well include clashes with underage fighters.

The "joint doctrine note" on child soldiers is the first time the Canadian military has produced a directive that specifically provides strategic direction regarding child soldiers. The use of underage combatants is endemic throughout conflicts in Africa.

It warns of major psychological trauma that could affect Canadians after firefights with child soldiers. "Encounters with child soldiers during operations can have significant psychological impacts for the personnel involved, particularly if those encounters involve engaging armed children," the Canadian Forces doctrine says.

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The document also serves as a wake-up call for the Canadian public on what to expect should the Liberal government deploy soldiers to a peacekeeping mission in locations such as Mali in Africa. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau has promised to make up to 600 troops available for United Nations peacekeeping missions.

"Child soldiers … are likely to be encountered on an increasing basis," the doctrine says. The new directive is intended to help "should the Canadian Armed Forces become increasingly involved in UN- or NATO-led conflict prevention or peace-support operations."

The directive also warns soldiers against letting children into their military base or camp and cautions that forces may have to bulk up their protection in conflict zones. "A force consisting of only lightly armed and equipped personnel may be much more vulnerable to attacks from child soldier units (such as human wave attacks); therefore consideration should be given to the provision of heavier weapons."

It also cautions that the Canadian public could easily sour on a mission where soldiers end up in conflicts against children. If an engagement with child soldiers "is not well-handled, and communicated effectively, there is strong potential for significant negative impact on the mission, locally, in Canada, and at the international level."

The doctrine also highlights how child soldiers taken prisoner should be handled differently from adult combatants, noting international guidelines place a "greater focus on rehabilitation" and stipulate "they should be rapidly separated from adult fighters and handed over to an appropriate, mandated civilian process."

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Shelly Whitman, executive director of the Roméo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative, said it's good to see the Canadian military releasing rules that mandate soldiers must be trained to handle encounters with child soldiers.

She said that, in African countries such as Mali, children are used in a variety of roles from front-line fighters to sexual slaves, to labourers or "other lethal roles such as suicide bombing." She said Mali is one of the biggest violators when it comes to using underage combatants. "It's one of the countries where you have both state and non-state armed actors using children."

Ms. Whitman recalls a few years ago in the Central African Republic that South African soldiers on the battlefield "were not at all prepared for the fact they were facing a field full of children." They lost 16 soldiers "because they were not mentally prepared for that."

Jordan Owens, a spokeswoman for Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan, said this new doctrine should not be construed as an acknowledgment that Canada will deploy troops to Mali. "The Canadian Armed Forces continually revise and update doctrinal documents in order to ensure operational effectiveness and relevance."

Defence analyst David Perry said he does not believe the Canadian public is yet prepared for the realities of 21st-century peacekeeping, where the operating environments are far more dangerous and chaotic than 20th-century missions were – and child soldiers are among the new challenges.

"I think when most people think of peacekeeping, they still reflexively go back to things such as Cyprus," said Mr. Perry, a senior fellow at the Canadian Global Affairs Institute, referring to a UN-led mission that began in 1964 where foreign soldiers are enforcing a static buffer zone and they are only lightly armed and "people want us there."

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Mali has become the deadliest place to serve for UN troops. According to the UN, more than 100 peacekeepers have been killed since the UN deployed there in April, 2013.

In Victoria on Thursday, Mr. Trudeau answered a question on whether the Liberals will send troops to Mali by saying he and Mr. Sajjan were still deliberating on peacekeeping commitments, adding his government will "take the time necessary to establish the right path forward for Canada."

With a report from Justine Hunter

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About the Author
Parliamentary reporter

Steven Chase has covered federal politics in Ottawa for The Globe since mid-2001, arriving there a few months before 9/11. He previously worked in the paper's Vancouver and Calgary bureaus. Prior to that, he reported on Alberta politics for the Calgary Herald and the Calgary Sun, and on national issues for Alberta Report. More

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