All in the Name of National Interest

"National Interest" used ambiguously to mean anything from economic resource security to one nations motivation for overstepping the line of another's national sovereignty. In the new millennium the term national interest seems to be defined by an apparent "need to know" agreement between us -- the individuals and our governments -- the rulers.

Obama's recent moratorium on the Child Soldiers Prevention Act in Chad, Sudan, DRC & Yemen on the basis of "national interest" creates a rather contentious debate between those driven by human rights abuse and those economic rationalists and political realists. The President of "Change" seems to have fallen back into the politically predictable path of ineffectively balancing superpower economic policy and human rights. Of course Washington's response to any such criticism is countered by an argument that engaging these countries influences change from within. The US State Department calls it "training programs" in a "wider political and economic framework." Training programs for units that openly allow and promote children as soldiers. Is the US really trying to open up a channel of influence or is this purely a move to secure economic sway in regions of new resource discovery? If it were the former, wouldn't the US have been engaged during the far more violent and turbulent histories in these regions?

This has reminded me of a story of one of our supported former child soldiers. He told me of the day he was abducted, how he and his family were ambushed in the early hours of the morning whilst they slept, thrown into the centre of their village and held at gun point only to look past the barrel of that gun and see that the person holding it was no older than he was perhaps 11, maybe twelve. Seeing a use for this boy they take him, after making him kill both his parents. Whilst in the bush he was trained in the act of warfare, how to use a panga [machete], how to use a rifle, how to kill and how to be a warrior of God. But he was not being trained by grown men, adults, people who know better than to push a child on the front line. He was being trained by yet another child, another youth who has become tied up in this conflict. A trained and armed young warrior.

Many of the young people we support when asked where they want to be tell us they would rather be back in the bush with the unit. I cannot with my western rationale understand how anyone could want to live day by day in fear of being attacked, with a group that has abducted them from their families, many having been forced to killed their own parents and trained to kill their own people and communities. But these children have become trained fighters. They are children at that age where impressionability is at its peak and their vulnerability to influences equally so. They return to communities that don't want them, don't respect them and fear them. They have learnt one skill in 5 years and that is how to be soldiers.

We see all the time the psychological trauma of grown adults associated with returned veterans of any number of wars in this and the last century. The malleability of young children makes them exponentially more open and vulnerable to trauma. I cannot then help but go back to my childhood, the organised play dates, the birthday parties, the sports camps, the frivolity and the overwhelming sense of total irresponsibility. I am often told that you can't make comparisons like this because I grew up "in another world." Certainly I grew up in another nation protected by our national interests.

I understand we can not make international and diplomatic decisions because of these young boys' or girls' stories as soldiers in guerrilla groups in Africa. Nor do I believe that that would be in the best "international interests." However, can we afford to subjugate the key rights of individuals, those that human interests should be protecting?

At what point does national interest no longer represent fundamental human interests? Or is the more pertinent question at what level does national resource endowment create national interest? I can't help but think that this moratorium has come at a rather convenient time. At the time that the strength of Sino-African mining relations strengthen and the western governments scramble to lock down national mineral goodies.

So I fly out again in a couple of weeks to the conflict affected regions of Africa to help the children forced into these killing zones and can't help but think that our governments have just endorsed the training of more of these child soldiers -- a promise I made to the children to protect, is becoming harder to keep.