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The one sure announcement to emerge from the annual United Nations peacekeeping defense ministerial conference this week will be the adoption of the Vancouver Principles, a set of rules aimed primarily at preventing the recruitment and use of child soldiers.
The conference, being held Nov. 14-15 in Vancouver, British Columbia, will feature more than 500 delegates from 70 countries and international organizations discussing how to improve peacekeeping operations, which are falling more and more under the global spotlight but not always for good reasons. Last year, the conference took place in London.
Another announcement — whether Canada will declare a long-anticipated troop commitment to peacekeeping after years of hedging under Prime Minister Justin Trudeau — could steal the show.
The Vancouver Principles are meant to rally national defense ministers behind a formal guide on how UN peacekeeping troops and civilian staff members can learn how to not only prevent the use of child soldiers but also how to deal with them in constructive ways, including in conflict and post-war settings. The principles also provide guidance on how peacekeepers can manage their personal reactions to encounters with child soldiers, an experience that can induce trauma.
The principles speak “to the military” — defense and police — “who must interact with children and ensures they are adequately trained in doing this,” said Virginia Gamba, the UN envoy for the Children and Armed Conflict office, based in New York.
“The ethos is to generate a common standard among national security sector agencies and imbue them with doctrines that promote the protection of children and elsewhere,” Gamba added, in an interview.
Gamba and her office produce the UN’s annual report on Children and Armed Conflict, which was released in October. It attracts the most attention for its naming and shaming annex of countries, like Saudi Arabia, and of nonstate militias who kill or injure children in their warfare.
In 2016, the year the newest report covers, more than 8,000 children were killed or hurt in conflicts globally. But what often gets overlooked in media reports on the UN document is the information related to the use of child soldiers by armed groups for fighting or for other purposes, like cooks, porters, messengers, spies or sex.
Children involved in a conflict are often exposed to horrific violence, with severe physical, emotional and developmental effects. These repercussions can reverberate for years if not a lifetime on the affected children, their families and society, resulting in long-term hindrances to peace and security in a country or region.
The recruitment and use of children in Somalia and in Syria, for example, more than doubled in 2016, with at least 1,900 verified cases in Somalia and 851 in Syria, according to the UN report. In the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the UN verified the new recruitment and use of 492 children by armed groups in 2016, with the number of child casualties in the Congo the highest recorded since 2012. Militias often recruit children when they can no longer attract adults to their cause.
To address the deteriorating situation for children who get caught up in armed conflict, the Vancouver Principles’ voluntary, nonbinding rules emphasize training and other practical ways to contain the continuing use of child soldiers.
“Sadly, the fact that children are still caught up today as targets in conflicts is an indication that we have barely begun to fulfill our obligation to protect them from the impact of the evolving nature of conflicts,” said Cristian Barros, Chile’s ambassador to the UN, at an October event unveiling the Vancouver Principles.
The principles include prevention, such as identifying early warning signs of recruitment, like growing rates of abductions, and liaising with schools and orphanages to help protect children.
By monitoring the recruitment of child soldiers, the UN can also prevent further escalation of the conflict. As stated in the principle on early warning, the recruitment and use of child soldiers “can amount to war crimes and can be a precursor of other war crimes, including attacks on civilians and civilian objects, crimes against humanity, and genocide.”
While the primary focus is on prevention, the principles address the issue of child soldiers at later stages of conflict by promoting child protection in disarmament, demobilization and reintegration processes as well as peace negotiations.
The use of child soldiers can also pose severe risks for peacekeepers, who must navigate the strategic threats and moral quandaries posed by the presence of children in an array of situations, like children acting as armed checkpoint guards. Many peacekeepers suffer from trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder as a result of encounters with child soldiers.
The use of child soldiers in Rwanda, where Lieut. Gen. Roméo Dallaire, a Canadian, served as the force commander of the UN assistance mission during the 1994 genocide, prompted him to found the Roméo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative in 2007, to stop more children from falling into the hands of combatants.
The Vancouver Principles were developed with the Dallaire initiative and reinforce the need to not only train peacekeepers on how to interact with child soldiers, but also how to help peacekeepers emotionally prepare for such encounters. Another innovation of the principles is to promote the mental health of peacekeepers through pre-deployment readiness as well as during and after deployment.
“The fact is that peacekeepers that go back to their own countries have seen awful things,” said a diplomat who was involved in presenting the initiative in New York but was not authorized to speak publicly. “Some have even involuntarily killed children. And these are countries that haven’t gone to war in ages. That has excruciating negative effects on these individuals and on the troops.”
The Vancouver Principles are written to complement the Paris Principles, another voluntary promise by countries to stop child recruitment, support the release of children from armed groups and help reintegrate children into society. The Paris Principles are 10 years old this year.
The success of the Vancouver Principles will hinge, the diplomat added, “not only on the adherence to the principles by troop contributing countries in their actions within peacekeeping missions, but also on being upheld by members of the Security Council in the drafting, updating and review of mission mandates.”