The first U.S trial of a child soldier in over a half century began last week at Guantánamo Bay, sparking debate on this so-called “justice” system that are military commissions. But it also raises questions about potential prosecution of hundreds of thousands of child soldiers around the world, Roméo A. Dallaire and Ishmael Beah argue in an op-ed today in the Toronto Star.
Omar Khadr was captured in 2002 during a firefight in Afghanistan and has been charged with throwing a grenade that killed an American soldier. He was fifteen years old. During his eight-year tenure at Guantánamo, Khadr has been repeatedly subjected to inhumane treatment including the use of physical threats to obtain confessions and three years of solitary confinement.
The current U.S. Administration is the first western country to try a “child soldier” since World War II. Daphne Eviatar monitored the trial direct from Gitmo, before it was unexpectedly postponed after Khadr’s defense attorney collaped in the courtroom. Just a few days of proceedings were enough to raise the question: who are the real war criminals here?
Dallaire and Beah raise the additional issue of how trying a child soldier could open the legal flood gates and embolden other countries to detain children who participated in wars–a tendency that is already on the rise:
A poignant reality of contemporary conflicts is that increasingly children are being used as cheap and readily available weapons of war. From Colombia to Sri Lanka, from Sierra Leone to Uganda, thousands of children have been used in armed conflict situations. In Afghanistan, our forces are seeing the increasing use of children in combat operations, including as suicide bombers.
Both Canada and the U.S. have been leaders in eradicating the use of children in armed conflicts. Yet, by putting a child soldier on trial, we undermine our ability to ask other countries to follow international standards for the treatment of children affected by war.
This trial, with all its underlying questions, underscores what we know from our years of observing military commissions at Guantánamo: setting up a trial system that depends on coerced confessions, redefining the laws of war, and violating fundamental human rights standards is not only wrong, it’s counter-productive. Military commissions are unfair and don’t work: they have convicted 4 people, whereas federal courts have convicted 400 terrorists since 9/11. Listen to our podcast from last week about the Khadr trial and the broader question of military commissions.
As the election season gets underway, Human Rights First is sharing the facts about military commissions with congressional candidates. We are currently in Illinois with retired military leaders speaking with candidates from across the political spectrum. Watch our video of them making their case to close Guantánamo and use federal courts–and join them by signing our petition that we will hand-deliver to candidates we meet.