War games

The use of child soldiers in conflicts around the world is an indefensible and unspeakable violation of human rights.  Children in a number of countries are sometimes forced to watch their families killed before their eyes (incredibly, in some cases, they are coerced to do the killing themselves), pressed into military service for a ragtag army or insurgent group and often fed drugs to keep them in a stupefied state.  Some are sexually abused while others are intimidated to kill others out of fear that they themselves will be killed.

The accepted definition of a child soldier (taken from is:

  • Any person below 18 years of age who is, or who has been, recruited or used by an armed force or armed group in any capacity, including but not limited to children, boys and girls, used as fighters, cooks, porters, messengers, spies or for sexual purposes. It does not only refer to a child who is taking or has taken a direct part in hostilities.

Notice that there is no reference to coercion or threat,although later on the Web site does refer to unlawful recruitment or force.  Normal, caring people agree that the practice should be stopped everywhere.

So should the practice of manipulating the term to gain political points or sympathy.

In the trial of a young Montrealer who robbed a depanneur (I blogged on this case earlier – see Signs of the Times – 2) to get funds to go to Syria and join a terrorist group (NB these allegations have not yet been proven in court), the defence lawyer has stated that his client is not a terrorist and should on the contrary be treated as a child soldier and – wait for it – a victim (see story here).  The lawyer went on to say that the Crown failed to identify the terrorist group in question and claimed that his client is “radicalized but not a terrorist”.

I know that defence lawyers are prone to exaggeration and rhetorical flourish in their attempts to clear their clients, but these statements reflect a woeful, not to mention dangerous, ignorance of violent radicalization and the role played by those undergoing this psychological process.  People who embrace this ideology are not passive recipients but active players in their transformation.  They are certainly not “brainwashed”.  The defence lawyer’s contention that his client should be “protected” just as a child holding a Kalashnikov in the Congo would be is ludicrous and an coarse insult to real child soldiers, few of whom had a chance to make choices, unlike his client.

The young Montrealer may fit the legal definition of a child soldier but I would argue that even if the letter of the law is met the spirit is certainly not.  Terrorists are not, and cannot be considered to be, soldiers.  They are ideologically-driven people who kill for a cause.  There seems little doubt that the young man was very tied to such a cause.  Whether that cause was merely overthrowing the Assad regime with a nationalist group or seeking to join a terrorist entity remains to be seen, but the evidence that I have read points clearly towards the latter.

Others have erroneously, in my opinion, been called “child soldiers”.  For Canadians, the best example is Omar Khadr.   This aberration has to stop, for the sake of the children who fight because they have no other option.

By Phil Gurski

Phil Gurski is the President and CEO of Borealis Threat and Risk Consulting Ltd. Phil is a 32-year veteran of CSE and CSIS and the author of six books on terrorism.

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