Liberal Senator Romeo Dallaire's clumsily expressed comments before the parliamentary subcommittee on human rights were regrettable, but not for the reason many people have suggested.
Testifying about the trial of Canadian Omar Khadr before a military tribunal in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, Dallaire suggested that Canada and the U.S. were no better than terrorists in allowing the trial to continue.
Egged on by Conservative MP Jason Kenney, who asked Dallaire if Canada's failure to advocate on behalf of Khadr was the moral equivalent of strapping bombs to mentally disabled children, Dallaire responded that it was, because "you're either with the law or not with the law."
Kenney remarked afterwards that he was "shocked and disturbed" by Dallaire's comments, and Liberal leader Stephane Dion said he disagreed with Dallaire's choice of words and suggested that he might be disciplined.
Dallaire's remarks were unfortunate -- as was Kenney's attempt to score cheap political points -- because both serve to obscure what is a most serious issue: The trial of a child soldier in violation of international norms that Canada and the U.S. have pioneered and supported.
Dallaire, who was sensitized to the issue of child soldiers during his time in Rwanda, did make many more defensible comments at the hearing, as he noted that the trial of Khadr amounts to "playing with" human rights and international conventions.
Those remarks were echoed by David Crane, a former U.S. prosecutor for the Special Court for Sierra Leone, which refused to try children under the age of 18. Indeed, virtually all international tribunals, including the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia and the International Criminal Tribunal for Rwanda, have chosen not to prosecute juveniles.
And there is good reason for their decisions. The "Paris Principles," which Canada and the U.S. support, state that child soldiers "should be considered primarily as victims of offences against international law," and calls on states to emphasize restorative justice and social rehabilitation when dealing with underage combatants.
Similarly, the Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child, the design of which was led by Canada and the U.S., requires parties to provide assistance for the physical and psychological recovery of child soldiers and to facilitate their social reintegration.
As evidence of their commitment to these principles, Canada and the U.S. have earmarked millions of dollars to aid in the rehabilitation and reintegration of child soldiers worldwide, including those in Afghanistan. And the U.S. released three underage Guantanamo detainees to the care of their families in Afghanistan.
That means Khadr, who was 10 when he was first introduced to al-Qaida by his father and 15 when he was captured, is the only child soldier left in Guantanamo, and the only one facing trial. This process has sullied the reputation of the U.S., which had long been seen as a staunch defender of human rights, especially during wartime.
Similarly, Canada's failure to do anything about the violation of international norms, and to speak up on behalf of our own child soldier, is a national shame.
And if we let the Dallaire/Kenney sideshow further obscure this serious matter, it will say much about our true commitment to the rights of children of war.
© The Vancouver Sun 2008