According to Unicef, a child soldier is defined as any person under the age of 18 who is part of any kind of regular or irregular armed force or armed group. These child soldiers are viewed by most Governments and world institutions as victims who require varying degrees of trauma healing, rehabilitation and reintegration into their communities. According to the South African Society for the Prevention of Child Abuse and Neglect, the healing process for child soldiers involves an intensive three stage process:
1. The establishment of safety
2. A process of remembrance and mourning, and
3. Reconnection with ordinary life
According to their website, the overall focus of treatment is to "provide opportunities for restoring normal and whole-life childhood experiences, to experience loving and supportive communities and thus draw heavily on the cultural and social environment resources that have meaning to the individual child soldier."
Most sane and decent people would agree that a humane and compassionate response to child soldiers is most appropriate. And these types of rehabilitation programs have proven to be very effective when they are given adequate support and financing. One living example of this success is the story of Ishmael Beah. At 15 years of age he was rescued from the battlefields in Sierra Leone by UNICEF and rehabilitated in a facility run by a nongovernmental organization known as "Children Associated With the War." Eventually, Beah made his way to the United States, where he graduated from college and wrote his poignant memoirs, which received international acclaim. Beah is now a UNICEF advocate for children affected by war and travels the world to lobby governments to rehabilitate and reintegrate former child soldiers into society.
Now contrast this with the case of Omar Khadr, a Canadian citizen who was taken from Canada to the Middle East by his family when he was a teenager. Khadr was also removed from the battlefield when he was 15 after his father was killed and he was wounded during a firefight with U.S. troops. Instead of being returned to Canada for treatment and care, he was sent to Guantanamo Bay as an enemy combatant and held for years without charge in cruel and unusual conditions. And rather than coming to his aid, successive Canadian Governments ignored their moral and ethical responsibilities by leaving him to rot.
In fact, Canada was aware as early as 2003 that Khadr had been subject to torture. We know this because the documents ordered released by the Supreme Court of Canada to Khadr's defence team confirm it. As early as 2003, Khadr complained to Canadian interrogators that he had been tortured by American personnel in Afghanistan and that he was giving false statements and confessions out of fear that the torture would resume. The Canadian diplomat interviewing Khadr apparently had some kind of unmentioned psychic powers and dismissed his allegations out of hand and chose not to pursue the matter. The Canadian official, R.S. Heatherington, wrote in a report dated February 20, 2003:
"On the second day...he was despondent, alleging that everything he had said was lie and only said because he feared a resumption of the torture he had undergone while in American custody in Afghanistan. To a non-professional interviewer Mr. Khadr's allegations and protestations - including tears and the removal of his shirt to show the scars he said were inflicted in the course of the torture - did not ring true. Rather it looked as though he had been coached overnight to cast doubt on the things he had said the day before."
This was a colossal failure on the part of Foreign Affairs and the Canadian Government. Why did Canada send a so-called "non-professional" interviewer to assess Mr. Khadr's condition? And why was this "non-professional" permitted to simply dismiss Khadr's allegations of torture at the hands of his American captives? Why were these allegations not investigated further? Omar Khadr was a vulnerable and defenceless Canadian child being held in isolation outside of the normal course of justice and when he complained about torture, the Canadian investigator simply concluded he was lying. This response was shameful and woefully inadequate. Particularly when you compare it to the treatment that Brenda Martin received from the Canadian Government during her imprisonment in Mexico. Jason Kenney (Canada's Secretary of State for Multiculturalism) personally visited the country in order to secure her release back to Canada.
In another report by Foreign Affairs dated February 17, 2003, Khadr stated that he didn't want to fight the Americans but that "he had to". This is not difficult to envision. Surrounded by adults with guns in a foreign land would naturally make a child vulnerable to manipulation and intimidation. That is all quite logical. Khadr also stated that he was staying with "bad people" in Afghanistan who were killing Americans instead of fighting the Northern Alliance. This hardly sounds like the hateful rhetoric of a jihadist and a terrorist.
A report filed by Canadian officials on April 20, 2004 describes Khadr in a way that suggests he was emotionally and psychologically disturbed by his long captivity. The diplomats report that when he was given a picture of his family and left alone, he managed to undo his pants and urinate on the picture. After he was cleaned up and his shackles were tightened, Khadr manged to remove his pants again and urinate on the picture a second time. Later that day, he put his head down beside the picture and appeared to express affection towards the image. In a videotape of one of Mr. Khadr's interrogation by Canadian officials, it appears that Khadr is repeating to them, "Kill me, kill me". He also states that he didn't kill anyone and he pleads with the Canadian visitors to "protect him from the Americans". This doesn't sound like a child who is enjoying optimal mental health and Canadian interrogators suggested it may be an issue if he was ever returned to Canada.
These reports also confirm that Khadr was placed in the "frequent flyer" program before one visit by Canadian interrogators in order to "soften him up". The "frequent flyer" program involved weeks of isolation and extreme levels of sleep deprivation. In other words, he was tortured. Why the Canadian Government did not step up its efforts to protect Omar Khadr is a complete mystery. They simply abandoned him to several additional years of imprisonment.
And what is the position of Canadian Prime Minster Stephen Harper today? He takes the view that Canada has no option other than letting Omar Khadr face the sham of a military tribunal conducted by the Americans. No attempt to repatriate Khadr to Canada will be made and the Government is not eager to discuss the matter any further. This position flies in the face of many expert opinions that the Canadian government does have options when it comes to Omar Khadr. It is also worth nothing that all other "Western Nations" have managed to have their citizens who were imprisoned at Guantanamo brought home. Canada stands shamefully alone in this regard.
In response to Harper's comments, Kadhr's military appointed lawyer (U.S. Navy Lt.-Cmdr. Bill Kuebler) has lashed out with great force. He has made the following statements in recent days:
"I think it's deplorable that he would say that there's nothing to be done. This Canadian prime minister refuses to stand up to the Bush administration and protect the rights of a Canadian citizen."
"You (should) stand up for the rights of a Canadian citizen, you follow the law, you do the right thing, you stop taking your orders from the Bush administration. You should also stop being the last Western leader to subsidize a clearly failed policy at Guantanamo Bay."
"The prime minister, through his cabinet members, particularly Mr. (Peter) MacKay, have long said that they have been assured that Omar Khadr was being well treated, when in fact the Canadian government well knew that was not the case."
Indeed, they did know that this was not the case. The Government has known since 2003 that Kadhr was being mistreated and they chose to do nothing. The question is why. And will anyone be held accountable for this miserable failure? The life of a Canadian child lies in ruins because of their inaction. Shame on them.