News broke this week that Ottawa is set to apologize to former Guantanamo Bay prisoner, Omar Khadr, and pay him a settlement of $10.5 million. Mr. Khadr, a Canadian, was captured by U.S. forces following a 2002 firefight in Afghanistan which resulted in the death of a U.S. soldier. At the time of his capture it was reported that the 15-year-old Khadr was unconscious and had suffered serious injuries during the fighting. While in custody, he confessed to killing the U.S. soldier, however, there have been strong allegations that the confession was secured under extreme duress.
Like most Canadians, I don’t know Mr. Khadr personally, nor did I know him as a boy or his family in 2001/2002 when they went to Afghanistan. I mourn the loss of anyone in war, soldiers, other combatants or civilians and feel deeply for their families. Perhaps because I am a veteran who served for nearly 21 years in the Canadian Forces, this type of loss is especially close to my heart. And perhaps this is the reason that I do not understand some of the outrage and anger that has been expressed around this announcement. The situation was, as described in recent news articles, something that happened in war. Each side fighting for deeply held belief systems and values. I will not debate the validity of either side in what has became known as the “War on Terror” as that is not the issue that surrounds the compensation.
As defined by the laws that I and others have so proudly defended, Mr. Khadr was a child at the time of the firefight. If Canada was complicit in the subsequent ill treatment and torture of a 15-year-old child then we need to own up to our actions or inactions. Is the compensation appropriate? I am sure there has been significant thought given to this based on Canadian legislation and case law. Frankly, I am glad that I did not have to make the decision regarding the appropriate dollar amount attached to the torture of a child.
There are reasons why there are international treaties and conventions regarding child soldiers, not the least of which is the ability of others to pressure and sway children who are not yet legally able make decisions regarding even their own lives. If you have known or know any 15 year-olds, give it some thought.
Under the Geneva Convention of 1949, child soldiers were defined as someone under the age of 15. Since then there have been a number of international treaties, including the Convention on the Rights of the Child, where the definition of a child has been changed to any human being under the age of 18. Canada and Afghanistan both became signatories in 1990 and the U.S. in 1995.
A commonly held definition of child soldier is any child under the age of 18 who is recruited by a state or non-state armed group and used as a fighter, cook, suicide bomber, human shield, messenger, spy, or for sexual purposes. Clearly the 15-year-old Omar Khadr fits this definition.
The UN secretary-general’s special representative for children and armed conflict wrote in 2010 that Khadr represents the “classic child soldier narrative: recruited by unscrupulous groups to undertake actions at the bidding of adults to fight battles they barely understand”, and suggested that Khadr be released into a rehabilitation program. Omar Khadr remained in Guantanamo Bay and the Canadian government continued to face international criticism for their stonewalling of his repatriation.
As for some of the comments I have read about Mr. Khadr’s alleged behavior over the many years of incarceration in Guantanamo Bay, I would suggest that these comments cannot be allowed to cloud our vision and forget our obligations under the Convention on the Rights of the Child. As well, the reported compensation has been linked by some to other issues that face our government regarding compensation of our soldiers. I have a significant, and some might say vested, interest in the welfare of those who have and are serving, however, righting one wrong will in no way diminish the need to right others as well.
I strongly support the work of the UN and people like retired General Romeo Dallaire in their efforts to end the use of child soldiers. In my more recent work with UN humanitarian organizations, I, like General Dallaire, have looked down the barrel of an AK-47 in the hands of a frightened child and weighed that child’s ability to comprehend the consequences of his actions. I do not believe we should ever make convenient exceptions when it comes to the definition of a child soldier, or the treatment of children in armed conflicts.
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Nancy Osborne has seen some terrible things throughout her military career and during her time with the United Nations as a security specialist. Serving in the Security Branch of the Canadian military, Osborne enlisted as a Private and retired as a Major 21 years later. She was honoured with a CD (the post-nominal letters for the Canadian Forces Decoration) and is recipient of the Commemorative Medal for the 125th Anniversary of Canadian Confederation in recognition of a significant contribution to Canada as well as a Commander’s Commendation. Following retirement, Nancy was recruited in 2002 by the United Nations as one of the first women ever deployed as a security risk adviser in the support of UN humanitarian operations in high threat environments. In 2010, Nancy was appointed as a security manager at UNICEF Headquarters in New York. From there she managed global emergencies affecting UNICEF staff and provided extended surge support in places like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Haiti and South Sudan. When Nancy retired she thought that it would be a shame not to use all of that training so she launched a not-for-profit called I Got This as a platform for workshops called Unlocking Your Instincts for women.