Skip to main content

The civilized world condemns the recruitment of child soldiers. Yet Canada sits quietly by as one of its citizens, Omar Khadr, is prosecuted by the United States for war crimes he allegedly committed at age 15 as a member of al-Qaeda.

It is impossible to square. Al-Qaeda's recruitment of child soldiers is immoral and abusive; consequently, it is immoral and abusive to prosecute as a war criminal a child recruited by al-Qaeda, and punish him accordingly. We can't have it both ways.

Lately, it has dawned on Canadians that the United States may well have lied about its evidence against Mr. Khadr. Far from having proof that only he could have thrown the grenade that killed their soldier, the U.S. appears to have hidden the truth: that the teenage Canadian was in the company of an adult al-Qaeda fighter and was himself unarmed, on his knees and facing away from battle when a U.S. soldier shot him twice - in the back.

Story continues below advertisement

But the falsehoods are only part of the reasons why Canadians let the 15-year-old disappear six years ago into the legal black hole of Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, in which he had no access to a lawyer for the first 27 months and no way to contest his detention. Canadians accepted that Mr. Khadr be held fully responsible for his actions. As if he were an adult.

The irony has never really penetrated Canadians' consciousness. Canada, the country of the liberal Youth Criminal Justice Act, is the only Western nation to give the United States carte blanche with one of its nationals at Guantanamo. Britain, Australia, Sweden and Germany fought to repatriate their nationals - adults, all of them. And Canada let a juvenile languish.

The reply from our government is but a single, vapid refrain: "Let the process work." But this is a process that, even apart from its other flaws, aims at punishing Omar Khadr for the accident of his birth in an al-Qaeda family.

A VICTIM OF HIS OWN HOME

When a young person raised in a terrorist family becomes a terrorist at 15, does he join voluntarily? Can he give free and informed consent? To say yes is to let al-Qaeda and Toronto's Khadr family off the hook for grooming children for terrorism. It puts the onus on the children to resist.

Most Canadian children grow up in circles within circles of benign, positive influences - family, school, neighbourhood, the larger culture. Omar's circles of influence were pro-terror. His late father, Ahmed Said Khadr, was a senior financier with al-Qaeda who prodded Abdurahman, Omar's elder brother, to become a suicide bomber. Even his mother and sister boasted on national television of the glories of terrorism.

From age 11, Omar was inculcated in terror, according to the U.S. charge sheets. "From 1996 to 2001, the Khadr family travelled throughout Afghanistan and Pakistan, including yearly trips to Usama bin Laden's compound in Jalalabad for the Eid celebration at the end of Ramadan. While travelling with his father, Omar Khadr saw or personally met senior al-Qaeda leaders, including Usama bin Laden, Doctor Ayman Al-Zawahiri, Muhammad Atef (aka Abu Hafs al Masri), and Saif al Adel. Khadr also visited various al Qaeda training camps and guest houses."

Story continues below advertisement

Only an extraordinary 15-year-old could have withstood that grooming process. The Khadr son who did resist, Abdurahman, did not do so until he was in his 20s. A younger brother, Abdul Karim, was paralyzed in battle in Pakistan in 2004 at 14. (His father was killed in the same battle.) The oldest brother, Abdullah, faces extradition from Toronto to the United States on terrorism charges from Afghanistan.

Yet many Canadians insist he acted of his free will. "Real child soldiers are forcibly taken from their parents (who are often killed)," one Globe reader wrote in an unpublished letter to the editor. "These children are drugged, brainwashed, and abused so they become killers. Khadr became a soldier/terrorist because his family encouraged it. He was a willing participant. Where was the coercion?"

This is a narrow view of coercion. Could there be a worse form of coercion than that in a father's wish that his son become a suicide bomber? "Blow yourself up or lose your father's esteem." Omar's family culture promoted dying for the cause. That was what it meant to be a good boy in that family.

CHILD SOLDIERS ELSEWHERE

The world is rife with child soldiers. Peter Singer of the Brookings Institution in Washington, D.C., estimates that as many as 300,000 child soldiers are in combat around the world. Yet none of today's international war-crimes tribunals prosecute child soldiers or terrorists.

No one under 18 has been charged before the tribunals for Rwanda or the former Yugoslavia. No one has been charged in East Timor, in Cambodia, in Bosnia and Herzegovina. "To date, there is no precedent in history for the prosecution of a child soldier before an international criminal tribunal, and similarly there is no precedent in the Western world for prosecution of a child soldier before any state tribunal," says Sarah Paoletti, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania School of Law, in a friend-of-the-court brief to the military commission that is to try Mr. Khadr. (Among those whose names are on that brief are former Canadian justice ministers Irwin Cotler and Allan Rock.) The U.S. says there are in fact precedents, but its examples predate the Nuremberg Tribunals. For instance, a British Military Court in northwestern Germany convicted and jailed a 15-year-old Hitler Youth member for his role in killing a British serviceman.

Story continues below advertisement

More recently, at the Special Court for Sierra Leone in 2004, the U.S. prosecutor, David Crane, was given the option of putting on trial, in a court without punishment, those age 15 to 17 who committed war crimes. Memorably, Mr. Crane rejected that idea. "The children of Sierra Leone have suffered enough both as victims and perpetrators. I want to prosecute the people who forced thousands of children to commit unspeakable crimes."

If international practice is clear, the law as written is less so.

The relevant text is the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict. Both Canada and the U.S. are among the 150 signatories. "The Protocol prohibits the United States from using child soldiers, not from prosecuting them," says the U.S. brief to the military commission.

It's right. The protocol is silent on its face. Emboldened by that silence, the U.S. stretches the point: "If anything, the Protocol obligates the United States to prosecute Khadr" because not punishing Mr. Khadr would "further incentivize" al-Qaeda in recruiting young people.

If the U.S. is right, where is the outcry that all the world's child soldiers are going unpunished at all the world's tribunals except this one?

Omar Khadr was a war crime waiting to happen. Anyone in al-Qaeda or the Taliban is an unlawful enemy combatant under U.S. law. Anything such a combatant does to fight, even in battle, is a war crime.

"In a normal war," explained John Bellinger, a legal adviser to the U.S. state department, "where both sides have a right to engage in combat with one another, if a soldier kills a soldier on the other side, it's not murder unless it is done somehow contrary to the laws of war perfidiously, or killing someone when they have already surrendered.

"In this case, though, the members of al-Qaeda and the Taliban, while they may have thought they were defending themselves, they had no legal right under the laws of war to be engaging in combat." There's a legitimate expectation that young people know and abide by the criminal law of their countries; the minimum age of criminal responsibility is usually 12 (as it is in Canada). But how could a 15-year-old of Mr. Khadr's experience and background have been aware of the laws of war, especially laws that hadn't been invented yet?

And speaking of inventions: "According to the reports of the action we have available, the last surviving enemy in that compound ... as his last act at the firefight rose up with a pistol and hand grenade, and engaged the coalition forces, threw the grenade," Col. Roger King, a U.S. spokesman based in Afghanistan, told the Associated Press in September, 2002. We now know that the U.S. had an eyewitness report that painted a very different picture.

A CASE FOR CANADIAN PROCESSES

And what has Canada done to help Mr. Khadr? It sent intelligence officers to interrogate him without counsel, and passed summaries of the interrogations to the Americans. Some help. (The Supreme Court of Canada is hearing Mr. Khadr's request next week for access to Canada's files from those visits.)

"The recruitment and use of child soldiers is one of the most flagrant violations of international norms," says Mr. Singer. Why? Because children are not to be made a mere instrument of the state or terror group. Because children are manipulable. Because children cannot assess risk as adults can. To prosecute children as if they were fully responsible for war crimes is to legitimize their recruitment.

As other Western countries have repatriated adult suspected terrorists - several, in Britain's case - it seems strange that Canada would not bring a lone 21-year-old home to face fair processes that would take into account his age and background, and his long incarceration at Guantanamo. Omar Khadr, child soldier, has been dehumanized enough. Bring him home.

Report an error Licensing Options
About the Author
Justice writer

  More

Comments

The Globe invites you to share your views. Please stay on topic and be respectful to everyone. For more information on our commenting policies and how our community-based moderation works, please read our Community Guidelines and our Terms and Conditions.

We’ve made some technical updates to our commenting software. If you are experiencing any issues posting comments, simply log out and log back in.

Discussion loading… ✨