Child Soldiers and Security Sector Reform: A Sierra Leonean Case Study By: Carl Conradi and Shelly Whitman | Sierra Leone | Jun 25, 2014

While new wars bear a frightening multitude of distinct characteristics, there is perhaps no more grotesque hallmark of 21st century conflict than the growing involvement of children in political violence. Indeed, not only do youths suffer disproportionate victimisation at the hands of unscrupulous belligerents – they are also subject to unprecedented levels of forced or coerced recruitment. If in the past, children were made to fight in spite of their youth, they are now being made to fight because of their youth.

However, while it is undoubtedly unacceptable, the choice to incorporate children into fighting forces is not altogether irrational. On account of their agility, impressionability, and underdeveloped sense of morality, children bestow numerous strategic and tactical advantages to those commanders willing to use them.

In particular, when deployed against a professional armed force, children present a vexing moral dilemma – one that may result in fatal hesitation and/or subsequent post-traumatic stress. For instance, if a security sector actor were reluctant to return fire against a child – and said reluctance resulted in a colleague’s death – he or she might be blamed for the casualty. On the other hand, if he or she were to return fire, thereby eliminating a child soldier, they may return to base only to be stigmatised as a child killer.

In light of this quandary, if state armies are not afforded adequate doctrinal guidance and clear preparatory training on the subject of child soldiers, they may well become increasingly loathe to participate in new operations involving children, thereby effectively ceding the strategic advantage to persons who use boys and girls for political purposes.

Fortunately, the international community appears to be gradually taking note of the role that children should play in security sector reform (SSR). Indeed, as recently as March 7, 2014, the UN Security Council adopted Resolution 2143 on children and armed conflict, in which states expressed their clear conviction that “the protection of children in armed conflict should be an important aspect of any comprehensive strategy to resolve conflict and build peace.” More specifically, the Security Council stipulated the critical importance of “providing military, police and civilian peacekeepers with adequate pre-deployment and in-mission training on mission-specific child protection issues.”

On April 28, 2014, the Dallaire Initiative proposed new language related to UN Security Council Resolution 2151 on SSR to the Council President, then held by the Permanent Representative of Nigeria. The proposed language states that nations rebuilding after conflict must take appropriate measures to protect children and ensure security sector actors are well equipped to do so. If states fail in this task, the situation could precipitate into renewed conflict and give rise to the recruitment and use of child soldiers.

The Roméo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative – a global partnership whose mission is to eradicate the recruitment and use of child soldiers worldwide – was one of several agencies that contributed language to the abovementioned resolution. As an ally of the security sector and keen proponent of SSR, the Dallaire Initiative is driven by five related principles in its work.  Namely:

  1. SSR should empower security sector actors to prevent conflict – not simply to respond to it;
  2. SSR should acknowledge and preempt the needs – and security problems posed by – the most vulnerable sections of society (including children);
  3. SSR should strengthen functional relationships between and within the security sector, government, and civil society;
  4. SSR should be context-specific, whilst acknowledging its regional and international ramifications;
  5. SSR should be a dynamic and responsive process.

Unhappily, SSR programmes that satisfy these five vital criteria are few and far between. Yet the Dallaire Initiative’s recent intervention in Sierra Leone may provide some insight as to how such reforms can be institutionalised in practice.

During its brutal 11-year civil war, Sierra Leone was home to some 10,000 child soldiers. Although the country subsequently enacted strict legislation prohibiting the army from recruiting or using child soldiers, there is still a significant risk of returning to such practices should violence ever resurface.

Indeed, according to the UN Development Programme’s 2011 Human Development Index, Sierra Leone ranks 180th out of 187 surveyed countries. 67 percent of Sierra Leoneans live beneath the poverty, 30 percent of primary school-aged children are not receiving an education, and 70 percent of youths are either unemployed or underemployed. This combination of poor social indicators – and the fact that Sierra Leone is situated in a corner of West Africa that continues to experience high rates of child recruitment – suggests that young Sierra Leoneans remain at markedly high risk of recruitment into militias and armed gangs.

Acknowledging this worrisome potential, in 2012 the Dallaire Initiative began to collaborate with the Government of Sierra Leone to develop and pilot a comprehensive training programme for all members of the Republic of Sierra Leone Armed Forces (RSLAF), the Sierra Leone Police Service (SLP), and the Sierra Leonean Prison Services (SLPS). This course would aim to provide security personnel with the requisite standard operating procedures to both respond to incidences of child soldiering and to prevent child recruitment in the first instance. As in all of the Dallaire Initiative’s trainings, the subject of child soldiers would not be presented as a humanitarian issue in isolation of the broader security challenges that children may pose during war. Rather, the Dallaire Initiative would demonstrate how children can be a security problem, in and of themselves.

When the training finally debuted, it was conducted with mixed audiences of soldiers, police and prison personnel. This was a deliberate choice, as the Dallaire Initiative firmly believes in the importance of intra-security sector collaboration and information sharing. As in the civilian world, different strata of the security sector have different capacities and responsibilities, and often employ dramatically different vocabularies to describe their given operations (e.g., civilians speak of “awareness-raising campaigns,” security sector actors talk of “PSYOPS”). Without being adequately briefed on these differences, security sector actors face the prospect of having large numbers of at-risk children fall within the interstices of their respective operational purviews.

An interesting new addition also occurred, in which the Office of National Security – the main security coordinating body in the country – requested to be a participant in the training delivered. Such an inclusion proved to be innovative but also critical. The coordination role of this body has now been enhanced while also helping to raise awareness that the “early warning indicators of the recruitment and use of children by armed groups” is key to the prevention of future conflict in Sierra Leone.

Since the training’s debut, the Dallaire Initiative has evolved the curriculum so as to render it of more explicit value to RSLAF troops deployed on peace operations abroad (particularly in Somalia, where the religious-ideological nature of children’s recruitment presents several idiosyncratic challenges not experienced in Sierra Leone). Importantly, the Dallaire Initiative is also conducting training-of-trainer activities among members of the RSLAF, SLPS, SLP, and the Office of National Security to ensure that the course is locally owned, customizable, and sustainable. In these crucial ways, the Dallaire Initiative has been able to garner the full and enthusiastic support of Sierra Leone’s government.

Ultimately, the Dallaire Initiative acknowledges that SSR is a difficult and long-term undertaking. Yet it is not its difficulty – nor the investment that it demands – that explains why SSR is so seldom effective. Until today, the international community has appeared to be more interested in addressing the symptoms of new wars, rather than diagnosing those challenges that actually qualify a war as being “new.” If we are to collectively triumph over these threats, we must empower security sector actors to address the root causes of societal violence; and as the Dallaire Initiative asserts, one such root cause has been the failure to incorporate children into the broader SSR agenda.

Carl Conradi is Programme Officer and Shelly Whitman the Executive Director at the Roméo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative.

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