Their stories are all too shocking, yet all too familiar.
In Sierra Leone, boys as young as 10 were turned into bloodthirsty soldiers through an injection called "brown brown," a mixture of cocaine and gunpowder used to induce fits of rage and violence. In Sri Lanka, rebels strapped suicide bomb belts to children on the assumption that police would never suspect an innocent child.
Globally, child soldiers like these have been forced into combat. From Congo to Colombia, some 300,000 kids are at war, often against their will. Their exploitation is among the most severe because physical, emotional and sexual abuse forces young boys and girls to do unimaginable things.
The world acknowledges their plight and recognizes that a child's mind is far too impressionable to withstand the forces of hatred and manipulation. That's why multiple international treaties call for child soldiers to be rehabilitated, not imprisoned. It's a standard upheld even in the deadliest war zones.
Then there's Omar Khadr.
Spending part of his childhood in Afghanistan and Pakistan, he was no stranger to violent ideology. Khadr's larger-than-life father was a friend of Osama bin Laden who glorified violence and martyrdom, instructing his six children that such death and destruction were the only worthy pursuits in life.
His father once tried to convince an elder son to become a suicide bomber and even threatened to kill all his kids if they ever betrayed his fundamentalist version of Islam. By 10, Khadr had received his first weapons training.
It's no wonder the boy became fanatical like his father.
Unlike other children forced into war, post-conflict Khadr has been thrown in jail, left to languish and even abused, as a Canadian government report revealed this month. He was 15 when arrested by U.S. forces in eastern Afghanistan but Khadr is charged with war crimes and is to be tried in October.
Why is he treated so differently from other child soldiers? The answer is clearly political.
Imagine if he had been caught fighting anywhere else, or by anyone else. The brainwashing he suffered at the hands of the man he trusted most would elicit unwavering sympathy. He would be cared for, as the UN, the International Labour Organization and other agencies require, and certainly not jailed with a bunch of adults.
In Sierra Leone, for example, former child soldiers participate in elaborate forgiveness rituals aimed at reintroducing them into their villages. In Rwanda, they are demilitarized and given job training.
It's an incredible injustice that a Canadian-born child in U.S. custody is not afforded the same rights. Remove the politics and look at Khadr's case on moral grounds and it's obvious his special treatment is inexcusable.
Canada's hands are far from clean. Britain and Australia negotiated to have their citizens repatriated from the U.S. prison at Guantanamo Bay in Cuba, but Canada's government refuses to intervene. Khadr is the only Westerner still jailed there. He's also the youngest.
Canada and the U.S. need to treat Khadr the same as other child soldiers, starting by returning him to Canada. If he is tried and convicted, it will set a terrible international precedent that threatens hundreds of thousands of other children manipulated into war. Jailing a child is not justice. Rehabilitating him from the shackles of his exploitation is.
Craig and Marc Kielburger are children's rights activists. They discuss global issues every Monday in the World & Comment section.
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