Roméo Dallaire pleads for support to end child soldiers at Halifax event

Roméo Dallaire discusses his “ultimate mission” to end the use of child soldiers as weapons of war, at Citadel High on Tuesday evening.

About 400 students, teachers, community members and local figures turned out to see Roméo Dallaire speak at Citadel High’s Spatz Theatre on Tuesday. Dallaire’s talk focused on what he calls his “ultimate mission” to end the use of child soldiers as weapons of war.

Dallaire, a retired lieutenant-general, founded the Roméo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative, an advocacy group based in Halifax at Dalhousie University. The Dallaire Initiative works to promote increased understanding of child soldiering.

“The numbers are not decreasing, but increasing. And so there is a way of reducing it, by preventing them from being recruited and by training the security forces to consider them as a threat and to know better how to handle them,” said Dallaire.

Dallaire’s experience working with the United Nations during the Rwandan Genocide prompted him to develop the Dallaire Initiative. It has been a year and a half since Dallaire left his job as a Senator to pursue humanitarian work.

Dallaire spoke for over half an hour regarding the use of child soldiers as weapons of war, and how Canadians can help. There are two main principles Dallaire encourages: “The first is be aware of how these conflicts are using children. Secondly, donate. We absolutely need resources to be able to train these forces over there,” he said.

Making progress in Sierra Leone

Josh Boyter is the communications officer for the Dallaire Initiative. He stressed how vital it is that Canadians be aware of the role of child soldiers. “Children are one of the most sophisticated, low-tech tools that many armed groups have to fight their wars. And until we can effectively combat that, they’re going to continue using children as weapons of war.”

The Dallaire Initiative, which began at Dalhousie in 2010, is making progress in Sierra Leone, where more than 10,000 children were used during the civil war from 1991-2002. “(Sierra Leone) is now one of the main peacekeeping countries in Africa. Now it is a thought leader on this issue,” said Boyter.

Boyter said that it is not more troops that are needed, but better trained troops in dealing with the complex issue of child soldiers. The issue of child soldiers is incredibly complex, using both boys and girls of 7, 8 or 9 years old. These children are used in many ways, including acting as spies, carrying weapons, and forced sexual servitude. “Girls, due to certain cultural nuances and things like that, may see a lot more reluctance for them to come back into society,” said Boyter.

An issue close to home

Dallaire said that Canadians are aware of the issue, but don’t know how serious it is. “Not realizing that it’s far more sophisticated, they use (child soldiers) in all the positions, from support to sex slaves, that there are large numbers of girls, and that by using kids is to sustain conflict for a long time. That innocence on our part is going to bite us, because we now see this happening in Canada too,” Dallaire said.

The Dallaire Digital Ambassadors Project is focusing on social media to draw attention to child soldiers. “It’s critically important to recognize that the individual you see on the screen is not somebody else’s problem, it’s not someone else’s issue, but rather that we’re all connected as a global citizenry,” Boyter said.

Proceeds from Tuesday’s event will go towards the Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative at Dalhousie and to Sending Orphans of AIDS Relief (SOAR) Halifax. These proceeds will aid the initiative’s main project in Sierra Leone, which is currently on hold until November due to the Ebola crisis.

Dallaire took time after his speech to answer several questions from Citadel High and Horton High school students. Afterwards, Dallaire sat to greet a long line of attendees and sign copies of his two books.

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