Children in war and in prison - Macleans.ca
 

Children in war and in prison

Canadians working in broken countries can offer only imperfect options


 

Anti-Taliban soldier Abdul Azam, 14, cleans his weapson in his barracks (Photo by Chris Hondros/Getty Images)

The first soldiers I met in Afghanistan were teenagers who had been fighting since they were 15 or 16 years old. There were three of them. They manned a machinegun nest on a lonely hill a kilometre or two from where the Taliban were dug in a short horse ride away. This was in October 2001. The kids belonged to the Northern Alliance militia, which had been fighting the Taliban for years and were on the verge of defeat when the Taliban’s al-Qaeda guests bombed America and changed the course of the war.

Now it is that teenagers’ allies who ostensibly run the government in Kabul. I have no doubt that their ranks continue to include minors, as do those of the Taliban. Children fight and kill and die violently in Afghanistan. The world would be a better place were this not the case, but it is. And in the course of battling the Taliban Canadian soldiers encounter and capture such minors, and must figure out what to do with them.

It’s a difficult dilemma without easy answers. Those such as the NDP’s Thomas Mulcair, who implicitly accused Canadian soldiers of handing over children to be tortured, aren’t offering any.

Despite claims to the contrary, by Ottawa law professor Amir Attaran among others, the age until which a soldier is considered a child under international law is not universally agreed to be 18. Article 77 of the Protocol 1 amendment to the Geneva Convention requires signatories to “take all feasible measures in order that children who have not attained the age of fifteen years do not take a direct part in hostilities …” Article 38 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which Canada has ratified, similarly requires that signatories “take all feasible measures to ensure that persons who have not attained the age of fifteen years do not take a direct part in hostilities.” We don’t know how old were the suspected Taliban Canadians detained, and then released or transferred to Afghan authorities. According to Foreign Affairs Minister Lawrence Cannon, the Canadian Forces treats insurgents who appear to be under the age of 18 as juveniles. In both Canada and the United States, 17 year olds may enlist in the regular armed forces.

For what it’s worth, I think there is a world of difference between an 11-year-old and a 17-year-old. I happen to know that a former member of Charles Taylor’s National Patriotic Front of Liberia, who is allegedly guilty of horrific war crimes, is living in Toronto. I spent the better part of a year compiling evidence against a second NPFL member who allegedly committed similar atrocities and exposed him in a Maclean’s article. I left the first guy alone. Why? At the time of his alleged crimes, he led a “Small Boys Unit.” He was 11 or 12; those under his command were nine or ten, high on cocaine and gunpowder. I figure he deserves some peace.

Reading the briefing note that has sparked this latest round of outrage, I don’t see what Canada should do do differently. The note explains that Canadian Forces have special provisions for captured children, housing them separately and processing them quickly. Those transferred to Afghan authorities were previously incarcerated in a special wing of the Sarpoza prison. But, the note explains, Foreign Affairs recently approved transfer to a new “Kandahar Juvenile Rehabilitation Centre,” after consultations with the United Nations Children’s Fund and the International Committee of the Red Cross. Neither of these organizations has a reputation for condoning child abuse and torture. The note says Foreign Affairs is “prepared to expand” its monitoring of transferred detainees at the Juvenile Rehabilitation Centre. The Afghan National Directorate of Security, which processes detainees transferred to Afghan authorities, has been accused of torture in the past. This risk can and should be mitigated by the careful monitoring of detainees who have passed through Canadian hands. But the treatment of prisoners is ultimately an Afghan responsibility.

One more thing, which my not seem immediately relevant, but bear with me: I spent some time in Haiti in 2008, before the quake, including at several prisons. Corrections Canada officers helped run them, and Canadian police mentored Haitian cops who brought those they arrested to them. Few prisoners had been formally charged. Fewer still had faced a trial. They lived in utterly overcrowded and inhumane conditions, worse than anything I had seen anywhere else — including refugee camps, war zones, and Afghan jails.

The Haitian prisons were also full of children. I met a 13-year-old girl who had been in prison for two years without trial. A Corrections Canada officer told me about finding a jailed eight-year-old who had been accused of murder because she had been left alone with an infant who died in an accident.

None of this is to say the Canadians mentoring the Haitian government, police, and prisons staff were guilty of abuse. I have no reason to doubt claims that they had in fact improved conditions in the prisons. One inmate told me as much. The prisoners might have been living like pigs in a feedlot, but at least they no longer had to defecate in tiny plastic bags, which they would then toss out their cell windows in order to keep excrement off the floor where people slept.

I have two points. My first is that Canadians working in broken countries must deal with situations that are often ugly and complicated and offer only imperfect options. This doesn’t excuse malice, cruelty, or neglect. But it does suggest the need to more readily acknowledge that reality.

Here’s my second point. I’m willing to bet inmates at Haiti’s national penitentiary, a prison at which Canadians exercised significant control, suffered conditions worse than anything a Afghan child might face in Canadian custody at the Kandahar Airfield. But because there isn’t political gain to be had by probing the issue, nobody in Ottawa really cares.


 

Children in war and in prison

  1. Most child soldiers are 8,9,10 etc and are used because they can carry the lighter weapons of today, and are easily brutlized if they don't obey.

    Plus as the article says, they are given drugs.

    They have been used for centuries, are still a commonplace around the world, and should have received attention years ago as a special situation.

  2. "The world would be a better place were this not the case, but it is. And in the course of battling the Taliban Canadian soldiers encounter and capture such minors, and must figure out what to do with them. It's a difficult dilemma without easy answers."

    Some could argue that we shouldn't have entered into that conflict without an answer to that questions. We should have had a plan with the adult POWs since it is common knowledge that Afghans torture their prisoners.

    • Absolutely. Sure we can acknowledge difficult situations (I dislike the way the author hints at "imperfect options", as if to suggest that meeting international obligations shouldn't be viewed as realistic), but we must also realize these situations were absolutely foreseeable.

  3. "This risk can and should be mitigated by the careful monitoring of detainees who have passed through Canadian hands. But the treatment of prisoners is ultimately an Afghan responsibility."

    I disagree. Canadians aren't absolved on this one. If we knowingly transfer prisoners to a place where we know they could be tortured, we commit a crime, so says the Geneva Convention.

  4. "It's a difficult dilemma without easy answers. Those, such as the NDP's Thomas Mulcair, who implicitly accused Canadian soldiers of handing over children to be tortured, aren't offering any."

    This is a common complaint of the war apologists who refuse to listen to anyone in the first place, then paint us into a corner with poorly conceived military adventures, then whine that we don't know how to get out without getting paint all over us.

    It is for the defenders of the Afghanistan mission(s) to answer the hard questions now because they have foreclosed all other options.

    • Couldn't have said it better…

  5. Often, the difference between an 11 year old child soldier and a 17 year old child soldier is that the 17 year old managed to survive for six years.

  6. MP
    I agree with you [ most reasonable people would] that in an imperfect world we are doing the best we can to improve the lives of Haitians and Afghans. But your analogy doesn't hold up. In Haiti we are not tranfering people to known torturers ; in Afhanistan we have an obligation under international law not to do this knowingly. [ this may well prove a baseless accusation] In other words we do have more control/ influence/personal responsibility over the Afghan govt I do agree it's unrealistic to expect perfection but the real question here is have we in fact done all that is realistically possible?. Why is it only now there's talk of a separate detention facility?

    • Thanks for your thoughts, kcm.
      My analogy isn't perfect, but I do think it's relevant. Canadians had influence and some control over Haitian prisons. Canadian police and soldiers that were part of the UN mission in Haiti also took part in snatch and grab raids in some of Port-au-Prince's gang-run slums. Some of those they grabbed ended up in these prisons — much as insurgents nabbed by Canadian Forces in Afghanistan are housed at Sarpoza. I'm not aware of accusations that inmates were tortured at Haiti's National Penitentiary, but I can't stress enough just how horrendous were the conditions there. I tried to describe them in my 2008 article, linked to above, but I'm not sure it's possible.

      • Thanks for the update, and thankyou for your work on Haiti. I'll give it some thought. As you say, in an often ugly and complicated world we should have a realistic outlook as to what can be achieved.

  7. It's a difficult dilemma without easy answers. Those, such as the NDP's Thomas Mulcair, who implicitly accused Canadian soldiers of handing over children to be tortured, aren't offering any.

    It's the NDP. No one was expecting any, anyways.

  8. Thank-you for such a balanced perspective. As you mention in your closing paragraph, this issue has been of particular interest in our country lately because it is so easy to politicize… which is so very sad.

  9. Thanks for providing your perspective on this Michael. Your article made a lot of sense, no doubt as it is based on personal observations that you have experienced. The fact is – no one likes the idea of children being exploited in such a fashion, but many of us make these judgments via the comforts of the society that we live in. It's so easy for many to lob these perfect solutions to all these problems, which are very much separated from the harsh realities that are actually faced. Thanks for sharing your thoughts on this valid comparison with Haiti.

  10. The soldiers have enough on their hands to worry about this too.

    Until now I could never forget when I was in high school, a reformed drug addict went all over many schools to talk about his life and experiences, on how it altered his life in a tragic way, made an indelible impression on me, my siblings, school mates, and my friends to stay away from drugs. If NATO and UN would establish a civilian run rehabiliation centre and employ those reformed to speak to these child soldiers, it might help some of these children think. I can't remember the author's name who was a child soldier himself and wrote a book about his life, experiences, and his reformation. If they could hire him and others of similar experiences, it might be a start in the right direction. While in rehabilitation, they should start educating them(in democratic ideals), in the hope that someday they may become prospective good and productive leaders and citizens in their respective communities or country (an improvement to what they are having now). One small step at a time…

  11. If I though our soldiers were any better at identifying Taliban than any other NATO forces I might be inclined to agree with this piece. But that is far from being the case. Not speaking Dari of Pashtun our guys are just as apt to 'not like the look' of an Afghan as anybody else wearing a uniform when faced with 'civilians-cum-fighters' . It virtually certain they have no idea what Afghans are saying to their questions and have o depend on Afghan translators who can have their own agendas. If there is one aspect of the new Aghanistan that is growning – aside from the expenditures of NATO ordinance, it's the prison population – most of whom are internees and the prisons to hold them. To with that are families – women and children, left without the working hands needed for their secutiry if not survival. If looking after such Afghan families was part of the 'mission' our boys would be too busy to take prisoners let along fight that evil insurgency. Tjhank goodness all we have to do is cuff 'em, write their names down and give them to our Afghan allies. If they're not back in the 'hood' for a while, well that's two or three rotos who wn't have to deal wth them.

    So who cares, eh? And that's not even thinking about what goes on in an Afghan jail.

    And to the mentally constipated still 'waiting for some solutions' – teach our boys to live in Afghanistan – to speak the lingo so they can, at least, communicate their good intentions directly. Or bring them to hell home. It ain't rocket science. Any nine-year 'failure to win' should tell you that.