This article originally appeared in The Guardian

Canada’s compensation payment to a former child soldier could have worldwide implications, child rights defenders say. Omar Khadr, the only child soldier to have been prosecuted by a military tribunal for war crimes, has received an apology and $10.5m compensation from the Canadian government for failing to protect his rights.

The saga of Toronto-born Khadr has been a headache for Canada ever since he was found in 2002 following a firefight in Afghanistan alongside al-Qaida militants. The injured 15-year-old was suspected to have thrown a grenade that killed a US soldier. He was taken to Guantánamo Bay and in 2010 confessed to war crimes, including murder, before a US military commission.

His lawyers said his confession was obtained after torture and pressed for him to be repatriated to a Canadian jail, which went ahead in 2012, after much foot-dragging by Ottawa. Three years later, Khadr – once Guantánamo’s youngest inmate – was freed on bail to fight his conviction for killing US army medic Sgt Christopher Speer.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s decision to acknowledge Canada’s role in enabling Khadr’s detention by the US in violation of his rights has polarised opinion at a time when countries’ treatment of children recruited by extremist groups has come under high-level scrutiny. Not only did Canada fail to protect a citizen, it colluded in breaking with international standards on juvenile justice.

“It is a very significant development,” says Rachel Taylor, director of programmes at Child Soldiers International. “At the moment we see more involvement of children in Islamic armed groups worldwide and it’s a growing area. This is about being able to say categorically that whatever your involvement with a group that society finds particularly vile, you should lose neither your human rights nor your childhood.”

Khadr’s case is a robust response to the question: are all child soldiers equal? Is a child soldier who “volunteers” to join an armed group guiltier than one who is abducted and forced to fight? Anger over his compensation hinges on his apparent willingness to fight for al-Qaida and on his status as “convicted terrorist”.

“One of the problems we have had is that people reference Omar Khadr as a ‘child terrorist’ not a child soldier,” says Shelly Whitman of the Roméo Dellaire Child Soldiers Initiative based in Halifax, Canada, which campaigned against his detention. “We say there is no distinction, but the world believes they have less responsibility towards these children than towards those who have been abducted.”

The context in which children “volunteer” for armed groups – whether Islamic State, Boko Haram or the Lord’s Resistance Army – cannot be ignored, said Taylor, pointing out that a child might have been coerced or groomed online, or there may simply have been no alternative. Whitman asks whether Khadr, who was a young teen when he first received military training, could have really refused the orders of his father to get on a plane with him and fight for al-Qaida in Afghanistan?

At the start of his trial in 2010, former UN special envoy Radhika Coomaraswamy warned against setting a dangerous precedent by prosecuting a child for war crimes. Even if Khadr had been guilty of the five war crimes he eventually confessed to, he was under 18 at the time he allegedly committed them, and so entitled to “special protection” under the terms of the optional protocol to the UN convention on the rights of the child, which governs the involvement of children in armed conflict.

The protocol recognises “the special needs of those children who are particularly vulnerable to recruitment or use in hostilities” and requires countries that sign it to “promote the physical and psychosocial rehabilitation and social reintegration of children who are victims of armed conflict”.

Taylor says: “Of course, there may be an argument for bringing [child soldiers] to justice if they have committed war crimes but children should never be prosecuted in an adult court – and prosecuting those responsible for their recruitment is important. We need to ask what are the benefits of such a heavy-handed approach?”

 “On every level, Canada did everything wrong,” says Whitman. “Instead of following juvenile justice procedures, we sent him [Khadr] to the ‘hellhole’ on earth and locked him up next to hardened criminals. Then there was the treatment that was meted out to him over more than 10 years, during which he was tortured.”

The redress for Khadr should serve as a warning against kneejerk reactions when dealing with the growing number of child soldiers fighting for extremist groups, say campaigners. A report in 2016by the Office of the Special Representative for the Secretary General on Children and Armed Conflict highlighted how children are being increasingly swept up in conflict and imprisoned for long periods as a result.

“There are not different categories of child soldier. It is too easy to say that we are fearful of terror [to ignore standards]. We are fearful of terror as we were fearful of conflicts in the past,” says Taylor, adding that it was too early to identify a trend.

In its statement, Amnesty International Canada said the redress for Khadr has a wider significance and “plays a critical role in countering the impunity for national security-related human rights violations that is by far the norm in similar cases”.

For Canada, whose military has just become the first in the world to issue guidelines to troops on how to react if they encounter child soldiers, the redress for Khadr is an important step for a country whose human rights record was tainted by its handling of the case, says Whitman. “If Canada goes around the world asking others to comply with the rules on child soldiers, then it has to demonstrate compliance.”

“We want other countries to adopt the doctrine [on encountering child soldiers] so that it is in the training system, and the importance of children and child rights are up front on the pace and security agenda,” says Whitman, adding that there needs to be better awareness of the adults responsible for their recruitment.

The Khadr case highlights another issue, she says. “The message is also that we should not hold different standards for children in our country to those for children in other countries. We should be upholding the standards for others as well.”

Justice should not be determined according to whom the child soldier kills, she says. “In this instance, a US soldier is killed by an Islamic youth, but standards should always be the same. The more we don’t get that, the more we feed into a narrative that marginalises Islamic youth.”

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