Could third-world warmongers inadvertantly be creating the next generation of peacekeepers?
In opposition to the International Day of the Unborn Child, various opponents of the pro-fetal rights movement have declared today to be the International Day of the Already-Born Child. While the clear desire to politicize various issues facing children in the world today should be condemned, it is an opportunity to shed some light on a few different issues -- such as the scourge of child soldiers.
Depending up whose estimate you believe, anywhere between 200,000 to 300,000 child soldiers may be active in the world today.
According to the United Nations parlance, a child soldier is anyone under the age of 18 who has been recruited into a military conflict. some are as young as eight years old.
For those who are unscrupulous enough to make use of them, child soldiers offer various advantages.
"There's all kinds of children. You just go and swipe them from their school and so on," says Lt-Gen (ret) Romeo Dallaire, "And you take them and you drill them and you incorporate them and they eat less and they're less problem if you have to get rid of them, there's lots of them."
Demobilizing child soldiers has been a top priority of UNICEF for years. However, there are various challenges associated with demobilizing child soldiers that are often overlooked.
"There's the mechanics of demobilization," says Neil Boothby of the United Nations Refugee Agency. "The sorting out of the kids, putting the guns down, transporting them back to the communities. But what we don't know very much about is once the kid goes home, what should we do? What kinds of education is most, most important? What kinds of vocational skills or training? What kinds of, you know, livelihood skills are needed? And I think that's the area which we, we have a, a lot further to go on. What do, what do we do once they put down their guns to ensure they don't pick it up again?"
Clearly, the challenges associated with demobilizing child soldiers are numerous: educational, psychological and emotional.
These children need to find a way to cope with the things they were put through. Sometimes, they have been so thoroughly conditioned that they don't even realize that the things did to them were wrong. Even if they do realize this, they have to learn to cope with having taken human lives -- more often than not, the lives of children no older than themselves -- and find a purpose in life.
Perhaps one of the most disturbing things about what has been done to them is that they've been exposed to combat, and all the hazards and the lifestyle of soldiering without any of the discipline taught in the modern armed forces.
Moreover, they've been used to sustain the conflicts that our western governments have purported themselves as being committed to putting a stop to, yet all too often have declined (Dallaire's experiences in Rwanda are a clear example).
All too often, the leaders of such countries argue that they don't have the troops to send, or that the risks are too great.
But what if the various warlords and despots around the world who are recruiting child soldiers and sending them out to do their dirty work were, in the most perverse way possible, providing us with an incredible opportunity to ensure that a shortage of peacekeeping troops would never again prevent intervention in the midst of an atrocity?
At its basest level, it almost seems unthinkable: recruiting demobilized child soldiers into a United Nations program that would transform them into our next generation of peacekeepers.
But then one must consider what such a program would require: one would have to provide them with psychological care (to heal the psychological and emotional wounds they've already sustained in combat), education (to give them the skills necessary to assist in the rebuilding efforts that, by necessity, must accompany peacekeeping operations), and military training (focusing largely on the discipline necessary for professional soldiering). It isn't simply a matter of taking child soldiers and pumping them back into combat under the guise of peacekeeping. It's a matter of providing them with a rehabilitation program tailor-made to the experiences they've already endured.
More importantly, these demobilized child soldiers would already have the combat experience necessary for modern peacekeeping operations (which are, whether idealists care to admit it or not, combat missions).
But most importantly, the generation of professional peacekeeping soldiers produced by such a program would know first-hand what the stakes of their missions are. If we could instill in them the motivation to stop what was done to them from happening to anyone else, the United Nations would finally have a dependable, professional corps of peacekeepers to dispatch where western countries shamefully cannot muster the political will to go.
And while the idea, at its basest level, may seem unthinkable -- and rightfully so -- one has to remember that the principal difference between these demobilized child soldiers and those enrolled in cadet programs in western countries is that these children would already have combat experience.
On a deeper, more philosophical level, training demobilized child soldiers for future peacekeeping duties (and naturally not to be used until they've reached the age of 18) may provide their experiences with the meaning that is often so necessary to foster the healing process.
Not that such a grand experiment would be without risks. And when one considers that an experiment such as this would be played out with such fragile human lives, one also has to realize that, the potential benefit aside, it simply may not be worth the risk.
For the most part, it's a question of whether or not world leaders are willing to think far enough outside the box, and whether or not they're willing to foot the price tag (likely in the billions) for such an initiative.
But it's an idea that's crazy enough that it just might work. And it could, in due time, provide some hope for some of the most hopeless places in the world, as well as hope for some of the most hopeless children.