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Politics New child-soldier plan expected at major peacekeeping summit in Vancouver

Romeo Dallaire speaks at a news conference on Parliament Hill in Ottawa, on May 31, 2016.

Adrian Wyld/THE CANADIAN PRESS

Canada has been quietly championing an initiative aimed at preventing the recruitment and use of child soldiers, which is expected to be unveiled at a major peacekeeping summit in Vancouver next month.

Australia's ambassador to the United Nations, Gillian Bird, revealed the initiative in New York on Wednesday while addressing a UN special committee on behalf of Canada, Australia and New Zealand.

"We welcome the forthcoming launch of the Vancouver Principles on peacekeeping and the prevention of the recruitment and use of child soldiers," Bird told the UN's special political and decolonization committee "These principles will provide concrete steps on how to prioritize and further operationalize child protection within UN peacekeeping."

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The Liberal government refused Thursday to discuss the initiative, although the title suggests it will be rolled out when Defence Minister Harjit Sajjan hosts a peacekeeping summit in Vancouver on Nov. 14-15.

But a senior government official said Canada has been championing the measure, which comes after the Canadian military in February issued the first-ever guidelines for dealing with child soldiers.

Those guidelines were developed in concert with the Romeo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative and were intended to ensure Canadian troops are properly trained and emotionally prepared for dealing with child soldiers.

The presence of child soldiers on the battlefield is a potential minefield for militaries like Canada, as the French learned the hard way in January when they were criticized for killing a 10-year-old boy in Mali.

While the French military said the boy was acting as a lookout for an armed group suspected of planting improvised-explosive devices, the killing marred its counter-terrorism mission in the African country.

The UN released a report earlier this month that found more than 8,000 children were killed or injured in conflicts around the world in 2016 and thousands of children had been recruited or used by warring factions.

The number of children in Syria who were recruited or used in conflict more than doubled to 851 verified cases, according to the report, while more than 1,900 were recruited or used in Somalia.

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There were also more than 1,000 verified cases of children being recruited or used in South Sudan and 442 reported cases in Mali. Both those countries are considered to be strong candidates for a future Canadian peacekeeping mission.

The UN said it has been trying to talk to rebel groups and other non-government factions in Mali, Sudan, the Central African Republic and other places to try to reduce the use of child soldiers.

The unveiling of a new initiative aimed at eliminating the use of underage soldiers could help take some pressure off Canada and the Liberal government at the Vancouver summit.

The high-level meeting is only supposed to be open to officials from countries that have made concrete pledges to peacekeeping missions.

The Trudeau government promised last summer to make up to 600 soldiers and 150 police officers available to the UN for future peacekeeping missions, but have yet to make any concrete commitments.

Instead, the number of Canadian peacekeepers deployed around the world has actually shrunk to its smallest point in recent memory – lower even than under the previous Conservative government.

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