War illuminates the best and worst of humanity. But even in the most difficult of times, our natural desire for structure and a rules-based order is evident. The Geneva Conventions define the rules of the battlefield, with the final treaty negotiated in 1949, and outlines the basic rights of prisoners, establishes protections for the wounded and sick, and for civilians trapped within a war-zone. A testament to the universality of humanity is that these treaties have been ratified, either fully or conditionally, in 196 countries. Yet these norms are only effective if enforced. And rarely are the norms of warfare enforced when battles see the guerilla tactic of child recruitment as a viable option for victory.

Despite the recruitment of children under 15 being prohibited under both the Geneva Convention and the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, as well as protections being offered in a myriad of legal and international resolutions, there are at least 250,000 child soldiers currently engaged in conflicts across almost 20 different nations. Because children are vulnerable to intimidation, violence and psychological manipulation, their training undergone consists of physical violence and ideological indoctrination. Infractions are punished and youth are forcibly desensitized to violence. There are countless horror stories of children as young as eight or nine being forced to commit atrocities through fear of death or beatings by commandants, who are themselves often child soldiers whose brutality has seen them rise through the ranks of their militias.

Most international law treats children in war-zones as innocent civilians, with the understanding that children have no place on the front lines of a battlefield. Soldiers who encounter and face child soldiers are given guidelines as to how they should be interrogated, demobilized and helped in any way possible. But this ignores the deeply disturbing possibility that a solider or peacekeeper may be faced with the horrifying decision wherein, faced by a child holding an assault rifle to his chest, he must choose to kill or be killed. In 2000, a group of peacekeepers were taken hostage in Angola by a group of child militants, with one peacekeeper killed and eleven others injured in a rescue attempt. Soldiers who are forced to act often suffer crippling psychological wounds and many have committed suicide rather than continue to be tortured by the moral implications of murdering a brainwashed child. Earlier this year, Canada became the first nation to explicitly outline a protocol for encountering an active militant under the age of fifteen on the battlefield.

In this, Canada is to be lauded for doing what is right – soldiers in combat face impossible decisions and, without rules or orders to fall back on, must act within their own instincts for self-preservation lest they themselves never come home. Creating a guideline ensures that a soldier who must act can hopefully maintain a sense of their own humanity in the face of trauma. The doctrine also goes beyond the point of confrontation, offering a holistic approach to combating child soldiers, and was written in partnership with the Child Soldiers Initiative, an institute founded by former UN peacekeeper and Canadian Senator Gen. Romeo Dallaire. The doctrine states that military intelligence should map out the presence and patterns of child soldiers in the area to avoid conflict whenever possible, and that soldiers entering these war zones should be trained to prepare them for such encounters and psychologically assessed upon their return.

Human rights groups are aware of the sensitivity of this topic and have, for the most part, shown understanding. They view the doctrine as attempting to strike a balance between treating children as innocents, as outlined in international agreements, and recognizing the realities of combat. After all, it is not the fault of the soldier that the rifle aimed at him is being steadied by the hand of a ten year old versus a twenty five year old. By recognizing that the reality of warfare often sees internationally recognized norms thrown out the window in favor of whatever competitive advantage can be sought, governments can go a long way towards creating rules that maintain the humanity of a soldier when every rule and structure fails to prepare them for the horrors of war.