Former Guantanamo Bay detainee Omar Khadr made his first public speaking appearance in Halifax on Monday, Feb. 10.
Khadr was part of a panel discussion on child soldiers hosted in partnership between the Roméo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative and Dalhousie’s Open Dialogue Series.
Along with former child soldier-turned-author and activist Ishmael Beah, Khadr was a keynote speaker.
He told the large audience at Dalhousie University that he believes he has a role to play in the world, although he’s still not quite sure exactly what form it will take.
“I just want to see how I can help and what I can do to better humanity,” he said.
Security at the event was tight, with only ticket holders allowed in the building and police on scene. A small group gathered outside the Rebecca Cohn Theatre to protest Khadr’s appearance, calling him a terrorist, but inside the event ran smoothly.
Dr. Shelly Whtiman, executive director of the Dallaire Initiative, moderated the event and said the Initiative has been supportive of a better public understanding of Khadr’s case for nearly 10 years.
She also said that international law is very clear that children who are recruited and used as soldiers are not to be held criminally responsible for their participation in armed conflict.
She told the crowd neither Khadr or Beah were being paid to speak at the event, saying both were participating to shed light on the important topic and to show how to child soldiers can be treated differently.
“Tonight we challenge and unpack who is a child soldier,” she told the crowd.
Ishmael Beah grew up in Sierra Leone and become a child soldier as young teenager, after he was separated from his family when his town was attacked.
“At some point in my life war became every part of my being, that’s all I knew how to do,” he said.
But he was ultimately rescued by UNICEF, he said, and was given a chance to rehabilitate and change his life — something he says didn’t happen for Khadr.
“It’s easier to empathize and to forgive people who are far away. It’s easier to apply those rules of civility when people are not doing things that remind us that we, too, can be like that,” he said.
“I’ve always felt there was an injustice in how I was accepted and how they treated you,” Beah said to Khadr.
In 2002, Khadr was captured during a firefight with American forces and accused of throwing a grenade that killed one of the U.S. soldiers. That accusation landed Khadr in Guantanamo Bay at the age of 15.
In 2010 the Supreme Court of Canada ruled that Khadr’s human rights had been violated at Guantanamo Bay, a decision that ultimately lead to a settlement with the Government of Canada for an estimated $10.5 million.
During the discussion, Khadr spoke about challenges he’s experienced since his release, with everyone expecting him to be a bad person.
He says he’s been in “survival mode” for the last 17 years, but said he decided to speak publicly at the event because the Dallaire Initiative was a safe place to be with people who “understand people like myself.”
Khadr did not speak with media following the event, but during a brief question-and-answer session he was asked what he would say to the people protesting outside.
“I wouldn’t say anything,” said Khadr.