A Late Reaction on Omar Khadr, the United States, and Child-Soldiers

I came across this interesting piece of information today: France pressed U.S. on Khadr as Ottawa stood silent: WikiLeaks. According to this article:

France’s foreign minister asked the United States to consider releasing Omar Khadr from Guantanamo Bay even though the Harper government adamantly refused to intervene, according to leaked U.S. diplomatic cables.

The memo, released by WikiLeaks, shows that Bernard Kouchner, who was French President Nicolas Sarkozy’s foreign minister until three weeks ago, personally asked U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to review the case in a meeting in February of 2009.

Oddly enough, France, a country which has, to my knowledge, no relation whatsoever with Mr. Omar Khadr, tried to plead his case before the American authorities even though the country of Mr. Khadr’s nationality, Canada, refused to.

Aside from the oddity of it all, that’s not really what made me jump to the ceiling. It turns out – and I do realize I’m about seven years late into this debate – that Mr. Khadr was “arrested” on the battlefield in Afghanistan, wounded, at age 15:

Khadr is the last Western prisoner at the Guantanamo Bay detention centre. He has been held at the American naval base since October 2002, accused of killing a U.S. soldier in Afghanistan.

The Pentagon said that after a July 2002 attack by U.S. forces on a suspected al-Qaeda compound, Khadr threw a grenade that killed one soldier, Sgt. Christopher Speer, and wounded another.

Khadr was 15 at the time. His defence team argued that their client was a child soldier and should be treated as a victim.

No kidding. I have heard of the Khadr case, like everyone else, for a long time, but bizarrely enough, that piece of information had escaped me until today.

International Law and Child Soldiers

A child soldier is defined, according to the 2007 UNICEF Paris Principles and guidelines on children associated with armed forces or armed groups as “A child associated with an armed force or armed group refers to 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, spies or for sexual purposes. It does not only refer to a child who is taking, or has taken, a direct part in hostilities.” (§2.1)

The use of child-soldiers is probably one of the most universally condemned war crimes in international humanitarian law. Building on such consensus, international law has considerably developed on that subject, and in the domain of protection of children in armed conflicts in general. The ICRC website gives a great overview for those who are interested.

There is also a comprehensive international treaty on the protection of children from recruitment in armed groups: the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict, signed on 25 May 2000.

The Convention on the Rights of the Child, signed in 1989, covers the protection of children in general. It has been since ratified by every State in the world, except for two: the United States (ah, the wonders and joys of American exceptionalism) and Somalia.

The Optional Protocol, as its name suggests, focuses particularly on the prohibition of the recruitment of child-soldiers. It has been ratified by 139 States, a large part of the international community.

Both the Convention and its Optional Protocol define children as human beings aged under 18 (article 1 of the CRC), up from 15 in other documents such as the Rome Statute.

This is not just about the law

I understand that, to paraphrase Aaron Ellis’ words (themselves taken from a third source), I am a “namby-pamby liberal lawyer who would let rapists live in women’s changing rooms,” but the arguments shouldn’t even have to be legal: Omar Khadr was 15 when he was detained. This is about principle, morality, ethics, and most of all, a society’s collective mental sanity. You do not ‘detain’ a 15-year-old and send him to Guantanamo Bay. Child-soldiers should not be held criminally responsible for their actions, but should be considered as victims in need of psychological support.

I have never heard of a child-soldier being prosecuted anywhere in the world before (correct me in comments if I am wrong). Tireless efforts are made by NGOs and the UN to demobilize child-soldiers, especially in Africa. Infrastructures are established to welcome these child-soldiers and provide them with support and education.

The United States could not have done the same? The United States Government could not have found an adequate facility to reintegrate Omar Khadr, in the U.S. or in Canada, where they could keep an eye on him nonetheless? Did they really have to send him to Guantanamo Bay for years, and prosecute him for the crimes he committed? Destroy his life, no less.

This illustrates the whole perversity of the ‘Global War on Terror’ rhetoric. It drives people away from any form of reason to a logic of fear and irrationality.

I am sorry that I am 7 years late into this debate. I am the same age as Khadr, which means that when all this started, well, I was just a kid.

Follow me on Twitter @xrauscher_!

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