It is a distressing dilemma that has played out on battlefields around the world: how is a soldier to respond when a child points a gun at them?
The Canadian military has become the first in the world to offer guidance to troops who confront child soldiers, in an attempt to help service personnel navigate an issue that can inflict deep psychological wounds.
The document focuses on the complicated tangle of factors behind any encounter with child soldiers: while armed children can pose as much of a threat as adults, underage combatants are considered innocent victims under international law.
But soldiers may have to engage child soldiers with deadly forceto defend themselves or others, the document notes.
“It’s extremely tough and it’s emotional,” said Lt Cdr Rory McLay, who oversaw the development of the doctrine, which was announced in March and is being incorporated into training. “If you are faced with somebody pointing a gun at you that is planning to use that gun, it is very, very unfortunate, but you have to react first.”
Campaigners have long been pushing militaries around the world to better address the issue. The use of child soldiers is a tactical and strategic choice, as they are often cheaper to feed, can be fearless in battle and – most importantly – offer a moral advantage as many soldiers are reluctant to engage with them.
The result, Roméo Dallaire, a retired Canadian general, explained at a recent parliamentary hearing, is that “there isn’t one conflict in the world that is not using children as the primary weapon system”.
Soldiers have found themselves facing off against children as young as nine, leaving them crippled with post-traumatic stress. Dallaire described meeting one sergeant who wept as he told how fending off young suicide bombers in Afghanistan had left him unable to hug his own children.
“We always thought it was the ambush or the accident that was the hardest point,” said Dallaire. “The hardest one is the moral dilemma and the moral destruction of having to face children.”
About 10 months of work went into the Canadian doctrine, which provides operational and tactical considerations to emotionally prepare and train soldiers for these encounters. The focus is on de-escalating the situation – troops are instructed to first engage with any adult commanders who may be present, in hope of breaking the chain of command. Children who are captured in battle must be immediately separated from adult detainees to facilitate their rehabilitation.
The doctrine recognises the issue is a thorny one, with the potential to provoke outrage among the public. “The complexity of situations involving child soldiers, even when it was lawful to use force against them, will be challenging to address in domestic and international forums,” it notes.
But what the public often fails to realize is that Canadian soldiers – and their counterparts around the world – have long been grappling with this facet of conflict, said Shelly Whitman of the Roméo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative.
“Our forces have been facing child soldiers in Afghanistan, they’ve been facing them in Iraq now with the special ops,” she said. With no systems in place and a dearth of training, the soldiers have instead responded in an ad-hoc way that leans heavily on their emotions. “They’re making up their solutions to that very challenging moral dilemma, as well as a dilemma that has an impact on the overall success of their mission.”
Often this has led to missed opportunities. “A lot of times the first point of interaction is actually someone who is in uniform,” said Whitman, citing stories of former child soldiers who said they had approached foreign forces with their hands up, hoping to surrender, only to find themselves being shot at.
Her organisation has spent more than two years urging the Canadian government to draft a doctrine that specifically addresses the issue, highlighting it as a means of better protecting the children involved.
Canada may soon put the doctrine to the test; the government is weighing up a three-year peacekeeping mission involving up to 600 soldiers. One option being considered is Mali, where human rights campaigners have warned that armed groups are using child soldiers in various capacities.
The focus is on encouraging other governments to follow in Canada’s footsteps, said Whitman. Britain’s Ministry of Defence is expected to finalise its own doctrine in the coming weeks and Australia has expressed interest in the initiative.
These guidelines offer the best chance of chipping away at the moral dilemma that has fuelled the use of children in conflicts, Whitman said. “As long as we don’t prepare troops for this context and these interactions – or prepare for this on an operational level – those who want to use child soldiers will continue to use them because right now they have got the upper hand.”
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