Is Omar Khadr a child soldier? Explaining the murky debate

A photo of Omar Khadr, taken before he was imprisioned at Guantanamo Bay in 2002. Handout/The Canadian Press

The Canadian government says it’s against the use of child soldiers in armed conflict, but has not applied the definition to Omar Khadr.

Although Khadr was just 15 years old in 2002 when, on the battlefields of Afghanistan, he lobbed a grenade and killed U.S. Sgt. Christopher Speer, the Canadian government has sought and failed to have him declared an adult offender. It’s the third time Khadr’s case has come before the Supreme Court of Canada.

READ MORE: Omar Khadr not adult offender: court

Khadr was freed on bail last week, as he appeals his 2010 war crimes convictions, despite the federal government’s efforts to keep him behind bars. Khadr was transferred to Canadian custody from the U.S. detention centre in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba in 2012.

Now 28, Khadr and his family were brought to Afghanistan by his al Qaeda financier and operative father, Ahmed Khadr, in 1996. He and his brother were indoctrinated and given weapons training in the years that followed.

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According to the Paris Principles of 2007, which Canada endorsed, a “child associated with an armed force or group refers to any person below 18 years of age who has been recruited or used by an armed force or armed group in any capacity…”

The principles also state that child soldiers accused of committing crimes “should be considered primarily as victims of offences against international law; not only as perpetrators” and they must also be protected under international law.

When Global News contacted the office of Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney on Wednesday, spokesperson Jeremy Laurin would not say why the Canadian government doesn’t recognize Khadr as having been a child soldier at the time of his capture.

In an email, Laurin said the government is “disappointed with today’s decision” and that the focus is on “supporting the victims of crimes and ensuring the safety of Canadians.

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“Omar Khadr has plead guilty to heinous crimes, including the murder of American Army medic Sergeant Christopher Speer,” Laurin said.

READ MORE: ‘Freedom is way better than I thought’: Omar Khadr after 13 years in prison

The Government of Canada website outlines Ottawa’s official stance on child soldiers:

“Canada is committed to ending the use of girls and boys in hostilities and to helping ensure that children affected by armed conflict around the world are protected. In pursuit of this goal, Canada continues to work with other governments and with international organizations to address these issues through multiple channels.”

Samantha Nutt, the founder and executive director of War Child, said it’s a “contradiction” that Canada has signed on to, and in some cases helped lay the groundwork for, conventions on child soldiers but refuses to recognize Khadr as one.

Nutt said there’s no denying that Khadr committed the crimes, but she suggested there’s a double-standard when it comes to how the Canadian government has dealt with him.

“I have interviewed thousands of young people in similar situations, who have done as much if not far worse criminal deeds than Omar Khadr has —young people who have raped, killed dozens and dozens of people, who have slaughtered villages and wiped out entire communities,” she said.

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“Yet in those contexts we still put the emphasis on rehabilitation and reintegration. We recognize that they weren’t at the age of consent, that there are all these other circumstances contributing to their radicalization [and] to their militarization.”

Canadian government officials weren’t the only ones arguing against Khadr’s release and referring to him as a terrorist over a child soldier.

READ MORE: Omar Khadr’s lawyer calls Harper ‘bigot,’ says he ‘doesn’t like Muslims’

Layne Morris, a former U.S. Special Forces member wounded in the 2002 incident that killed Sgt. Speer, slammed the decision to release Khadr on bail. He told Salt Lake City’s Desert News Khadr “has demonstrated a willingness and a capability to do great harm to Canadian society and Western interests in general.”

He previously called Khadr a “terrorist” and said he doesn’t think the Toronto-born man deserves a second chance.

Nutt said Khadr is often categorized as one thing or another — a victim or a terrorist.

“The reality is that when it comes to child soldiers around the world, often these kids are both things at the same time,” she said. “These are kids who have committed crimes… but what we also recognize is that these are kids who are victims too.”

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With a file from The Canadian Press

PLEASE NOTE: An earlier version of this story stated the government had tried to have Omar Khadr declared an adult offender three times. It was, in fact, the third time the Khadr case has been to the Supreme Court. The story has been updated accordingly.

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