ICTJ Forum: Lt. General Roméo Dallaire



In this edition of the ICTJ Forum, Virginie Ladisch, head of ICTJ’s Children and Youth program, interviews Lieutenant General Roméo Dallaire about his work with the Child Soldier Initiative and the complex dimensions of former child combatants in post-conflict societies.


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Lieutenant General Roméo Dallaire is a renowned Canadian humanitarian, author, and retired senator and general. In 1993, he was appointed Force Commander for the United Nations Assistance Mission for Rwanda (UNAMIR) where he witnessed the country descend into genocide, leading to the deaths of more than 800,000 Rwandans. Since his retirement, he has become an outspoken advocate for human rights, genocide prevention, mental health and war-affected children. He founded The Roméo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative, an organization committed to ending the use of child soldiers worldwide.

In discussion with Virginie Ladisch, Dallaire reflects that his personal connection to the issue of young combatants grew out of his experiences in Rwanda, where many children took part in the violence.

The mission of the Roméo Dallaire Child Soldier Initiative is to eradicate and prevent the use and recruitment of child soldiers worldwide. Prevention of recruitment—and re-recruitment—is an area Dallaire sees as critical, but too often ignored.

“Efforts we have seen to try to curtail it although very legal and so on […] we didn’t see the numbers reduced, because everyone was concentrating on rehabilitation and reintegration, and not on actually stopping them from being recruited,” he says. “I discovered [...] that nobody else was looking at this from that angle—prevention.”

Dallaire asserts that the use of child soldiers in conflict should be understood as an early warning system, and that rise in recruitment can be a clear signal that a conflict is escalating. He says that child recruitment is “an asset that has no limits to what it can do,” and points out that youth can be uniquely indoctrinated, and, with the influence of abuse or narcotics, can be pushed to horrible extremes.

“[Child soldiers] are, in our opinion, a dominant element of the security dimension that has to be resolved,” he says.

Ladisch and Dallaire also discuss the repercussions of various stereotypes of child soldiers, where they tend to be understood in extremes: either as passive victims (a view typically held in the international community), or as perpetrators (more often in local areas affected by conflict). Dallaire also reflects on how recognition of the agency of young people can inform a more sustainable reintegration strategy, and cites the education sector as a critical area for potential acknowledgement, learning, and even prevention.

Despite the fact that many child combatants have undergone horrific abuse and may have committed serious crimes themselves, Dallaire advocates for a more dynamic approach to understanding former child soldiers place in society, and suggests that reintegration programs are yet to fully realize the potential assets these former combatants can offer to their communities. Their experience, Dallaire says, has given them depth. “The resiliency they have, you can build on that.”

Photo: Roméo Dallaire with the United Nation, April 2012. Via (Flickr)