Fight Like Dallaire |

Fight Like Dallaire

General Roméo Dallaire speaks to a crowd of blue helmets. Photo courtesy of the Roméo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative.


Imagine you’re a peacekeeper in a conflict zone. Behind you is a village full of people you’re trying to protect. In front of you is a hopped up teenager with an AK47 – pointed at the villagers. What do you do?

This is the kind of question General Roméo Dallaire spends his days tackling. As commander of the United Nations peacekeeping mission in Rwanda during the 1994 genocide, Dallaire witnessed the price of international apathy. It’s haunted him ever since.

It’s also motivated him. In 2007, the general-cum-politician-cum-advocate founded The Roméo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative at Dalhousie University. His goal is to stop the use of child soldiers – by getting to the root of the problem and reframing the way we think about it.

He’s got his work cut out for him.

According to the UN Secretary-General’s latest report on children and armed conflict, “In 2013, children were recruited and used, killed and maimed, victims of sexual violence and other grave violations in 23 conflict situations around the world.”

On June 2, we’ll be showing the documentary Fight Like Soldiers, Die Like Children. Dallaire’s at the heart of the film; we see him in conversation with former child soldiers and rebel commanders in the DRC and South Sudan.

In advance of the premiere, we spoke with Dallaire. With his trademark blend of candor and optimism, he shared his thoughts on solutions, apathy, Canadian hypocrisy – and the future of the child soldier industry. 

(The following interview has been condensed.)


Our government reports that more than 300,000 child soldiers are currently exploited in situations of armed conflict. According to the UN Secretary-General’s report, “4,000 cases were documented by the United Nations in 2013, but thousands more children are estimated to have been recruited and used.” Can you clarify the scope of the problem?

Any exercise in numbers is going to give you problems because there is no good system provided by either the UN or the NGOs in getting the numbers, as the problem is so prevalent in so many countries.

It also varies by how you look at child soldiers. Child soldiers are not only in gun-to-gun scenarios. Any child that is being used by an armed group in any capacity – from being a sex slave to simply a porter to providing food – is within the rubric of the Paris Principles 2007 policy of being identified as a child soldier.

Even though we’ve got decades of rehabilitation and reintegration, nothing of real depth has been brought forward in reducing recruitment numbers. So, that’s the area in which we’re involved… the prevention of recruitment. And secondly, how we can neutralize this weapon system, so that they become a liability to the people who want to use them?


You’re referring to the work you’re doing through the Roméo Dallaire Child Soldier Initiative at Dalhousie University, right?

Exactly – at


In the documentary you talk about how you want to get to the root of the problem and focus on why these children are being recruited in the first place. What have you learned through your research?

We’ve learned about the inability of security forces…


There’s very little preparatory training in order to deescalate scenarios and prevent [forces from] having to go to the extreme of using lethal force against kids to establish an atmosphere of security.


We’ve been building through our experience in the field and through good solid research methodologies out of Dalhousie… looking at child soldiers as a security problem vs a social-economic problem. It’s got to be treated as a threat. How do you then handle them once they’ve been deployed? And how do you prevent them from being recruited... which has brought us into the school system.

Through an NGO that works with us, we influence the curriculum, through the primary schools, mostly. We help the teachers understand and help pass on information to the children, so that they avoid falling into traps of getting recruited. This has had the ripple effect we were hoping might happen. In Sierra Leone, a country where we’re building a national capability (which we are now going to be pushing into Uganda), the kids then go home and talk about this to their parents and now the parents are able to talk to the children about child soldiers and it just enhances their prevention of being recruited.


For the preventative work that you’re doing, Sierra Leone is the first sort of testing ground?

Yeah, we’ve been there for two years. The president is very keen because it’s a country that suffered 11 years of war where child soldiers were used extensively. They don’t want to go back into that. We’ve been working at retraining their police, all their military and their prison guards. We’ve been in the school system, and we’re supported by a very high level advisory board made up of different ministers and the president’s office.

We’ve had UN resolutions supporting our training. We’ve worked with the African Union…


We give them the tools, so they know what they can do in the field.



General Dallaire rides with the UN in the documentary Fight Like Soldiers, Die Like Children.


In the documentary you talk about facing a child who’s holding an AK-47 and how you’ve seen the look in their eyes, the emotions and the capacity in that moment for them to act unpredictably. Can you talk about what sort of strategies a soldier might use to deescalate in that situation?

Professional soldiers that face children are often caught off guard and find it difficult to be able to respond. Things escalate very rapidly because they are often not prepared to respond appropriately. They either pull out and withdraw, or they overreact and don’t use proper military procedures and, as such, escalate a scenario that creates a lot of people being killed.

What we’ve been able to do is build a whole series of scenarios that we believe they will find themselves in and we walk them through it – be it a checkpoint scenario, be it an ambush, be it identifying in a community that recruitment is going on, be it the education system. [We’re] providing better tactics to the security forces, so that they handle not only the children who might be in forces that are in conflict, but also the street kids and the kids that are disenfranchised.


Because of the escalating threats of radicalization, [the RCMP has] been asking us to adapt what we’re doing in countries overseas to the scenarios back home.


Police forces have experience in how to handle gangs, but not necessarily diaspora gangs. And so the police are looking for tools and that’s what we’re adapting in our work.

We do research, too. We’ve discovered that moving more women into the field and into the front lines – where we know there are children being used extensively – deescalates and helps neutralize those kids. About 40 per cent are girls, so they respond more to women peacekeepers and women security forces than they do the men. That’s a complete shift in the doctrine of the military that we’re now introducing.


You’ve said in the past that it will take decades of hard work to put an end to the use of children in armed conflict. How far would you say we’ve come since you witnessed the genocide in Rwanda?

Well, to be very candid, we haven’t. We’ve continued to concentrate on picking up the pieces afterward – meaning rehabilitation and reintegration. Very little has gone into actual prevention and neutralizing the child soldiers. We’ve had a lot of child protection work, but it has been relegated to the social and economic… [as opposed to treating it as] a security problem, a threat which would get higher priority and assets to go after deescalating the insecurity in an area… ultimately making recruiting of children less attractive.

That’s the big crux: we’re the only ones in the world who have looked at child soldiers as a security threat, looking at how to neutralize that threat without destroying it, but by preventing it from being effective and reducing its presence on the battlefield.


The UN has set a goal of ending the recruitment and use of children by government security forces in conflict by the end of 2016. Is this an achievable goal?

We have been working with the [Special Representative of the Secretary-General]. But as much as there’s energy being expended in trying to stop that recruitment, we’ve got countries like Afghanistan that still recruit, Burma still recruits, Yemen – which is right now in the midst of a catastrophic scenario…

I think that setting a target is useful. If we don’t get it all by then, at least we can assess the situation and reference a target. It’s useful to keep some pressure on.


I read that Canada has contributed over $1.3 million since 2006 to policy development projects related to children and armed conflict. How does our country’s treatment of Omar Khadr play against the backdrop of Canada’s work to address the use of children through armed conflict?


I don’t think there is a position that is more contrary to our beliefs, to the conventions we’ve signed and to our fundamental premise of fairness and respect of human rights than the disgraceful handling of the Omar Khadr case.


… the avoidance by the government of wanting to bring the case home… having simply let him rot in Guantanamo Bay. They could have implemented the conventions that they led the world in. I mean, Canada led the world in the Optional Protocol on Child Rights.

The fact that we didn’t [implement the conventions] means that when I’m going to countries like the Congo and negotiating on child soldiers the Congolese rebel commander tells me, “Why are you coming to tell me this is wrong when your own country won’t even recognize Omar Khadr?” They know of Omar Khadr in Africa. It undermines our credibility in the field.



General Dallaire as pictured in the documentary Fight Like Soldiers Die Like Children.


What can or should the average Canadian do about this issue? 

We’re disconnected with it because we haven’t seen the casualities in our own troops, let alone casualties in the field.


We tend to think the children in those countries are not real children like ours. We have a level of hypocrisy that we have to get over.


And if you believe in children, well, it’s not only trying to reduce child mortality, it’s also trying to reduce children being used as weapons of war. We’ve not demonstrated that level of fundamental maturity in regard to the continuum of what a child is. (A child isn’t just between the ages of 0 and 5: a child is right up to age of 18.) And that’s not surprising… when you look at how we’re handling our own Aboriginal kids here, we’ve got disconnect in our own programs.

However, what might be changing a bit… is that the ISIS scenario, the Boko Haram, the Al-Shabaab... is bringing the problem home. They’re recruiting here. In the most horrific way, this might awaken people to what actually can happen when adults want to use children to do evil things.


Do you believe 50 years from now we could be living in world without child soldiers?

Yeah, I think that’s reasonable.


I have enormous optimism that we’re going to crack this one – just like we’ve done other things, like slavery.


Although last year was the year when there was the most use of child soldiers in history, we still see that there are means by which we can go at them if we put the political will and assets to it. It’s just a matter of getting at the right people at the right time.

See General Roméo Dallaire in the documentary Fight Like Soldiers, Die Like Children  – premiering June 2 at 9:05pm.