In 1994, I was tasked with stopping a genocide waged, in part, by children and youth.
At the time, I was the United Nations Force Commander for the UN Assistance Mission to Rwanda. My opponents, the Interahamwe, were highly organized in their recruitment and training of youth, well before the killing began. I saw firsthand the way they used children, some as young as 13, to commit horrific acts. The experience of facing a child soldier from the barrel of a gun left me questioning the world’s very moral fabric.
Despite my efforts, 800,000 people were killed in just 100 days. Preventing this genocide was possible; it was our moral obligation. And it’s a failure that has haunted me every day for the last 20 years.
Now, the early warning signs of genocide are sounding once again, in Iraq. Yet again, children are being used as fighters and weapons of war. And still, the world does little to stop it.
In Iraq, children have participated in repeated and wide-scale mobilization and military training carried out by Iraqi forces since 1991. Today, the Islamic State flaunts the presence of children in their ranks and cultivates child jihadists as part of their propaganda.
The use of children by these armed groups must be recognized as an early warning indicator of mass atrocities. The Islamic State are indiscriminately attacking and targeting markets, restaurants, shops, cafes, playgrounds, schools and places of worship, anywhere in which the public gather in large numbers. Children are targets for these attacks, and also employed for a myriad of uses within the conflict; as informants, for manning checkpoints; and as suicide bombers.
We ignore these crimes at our peril. War and genocide impacts children and their children, reverberating down through generations. Futures are destroyed, not only through loss of life but from lost development, missed education, the infliction of moral, physical, psychological wounds on individuals and communities. And when we fail to intervene, especially when children are being indoctrinated into the war, we must be prepared for prolonged conflicts and cycles of violence that become more difficult to address for generations to come.
We continue to debate the political and economic costs of interventions in conflict, we have failed to understand that it is our collective omissions in preventing conflicts that leads to unthinkable scenarios of extreme human suffering in which our ability to react will never be sufficient.
The American public is “war-weary.” So, though, are the children of Iraq. Whether we are in Iraq or Rwanda, we have a responsibility to prevent human suffering; placing children at the top of that agenda should be key to this rationale. Shirking our responsibility now will lead to many more generations of intense oppression that we will not be able to ignore in the future.
As Gareth Evans of the Global Centre for R2P states, “There can be no better demonstration of good international citizenship than a country’s willingness to act when it has the capacity to prevent or avert a mass atrocity crime.” I couldn’t agree more.