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International Intervention Needed on Behalf of Obama's Child Soldiers

Jennifer Turner,
Human Rights Researcher,
ACLU Human Rights Program
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January 16, 2009

President-elect Barack Obama will make history on his inauguration day. And if a scheduled Guantánamo military commission trial goes forward on January 26, President-elect Obama will make a wholly different kind of history, by presiding over a terrible historical event.

On January 26, Guantánamo detainee Omar Khadr, a 22-year-old Canadian national who has been held at Guantánamo for nearly one-third of his life, is slated to be tried by military commission for war crimes allegedly committed when he was 15. If Omar Khadr’s trial goes forward as scheduled on January 26, one of the first acts of President-elect Obama’s administration will be to preside over the first war crimes prosecution of a child soldier in U.S. history.

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If President-elect Obama does not suspend the military commission trial of Omar Khadr, the United States will become the first western nation since Nuremberg to hold a war crimes trial for crimes allegedly committed by a child. Omar Khadr’s trial would require President-elect Obama to break from international practice and flout international standards that recognize children used as child soldiers should be treated first as victims in need of rehabilitation, not abused and prosecuted by an unjust and discredited military commission.

Today, the ACLU called on two international U.N. bodies to intervene in the military commission cases of Omar Khadr and Mohammed Jawad, who were both teenagers when they were captured by U.S. forces. (Like Omar Khadr, Mohammed Jawad faces trial by military commission, though a trial date has not yet been set in his case.) We called on the U.N. Special Representative for Children and Armed Conflict and the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child to issue public statements calling for their military commission cases to be suspended. Earlier this week, the ACLU, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, Human Rights First, and the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers jointly called on President-elect Obama to suspend Omar Khadr’s trial — a call that was echoed by children’s rights scholars, advocates, and professionals who work with youth.

While intervention by U.N. bodies in Omar Khadr’s case is an exceptional measure, it is warranted by the urgent circumstances. If Omar Khadr’s trial goes forward, it would establish dangerous precedent for the United States and the entire world. Time is running out for President-elect Obama to honor his promise to break from the Bush administration by respecting U.S. human rights treaty obligations. Guantánamo, its military commissions, and unjust trials of child soldiers have no place in the new direction the U.S. government plans to take under his leadership. Join us in asking President-elect Obama to stop this travesty in its tracks. Send him a message through the website at

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