The Canadian military is poised to become the first in the world to issue guidelines for dealing with child soldiers, which could be put to the test immediately in Africa.
The guidelines are intended to ensure Canadian troops are properly trained and emotionally prepared for situations involving child soldiers — including where they may have to shoot to kill.
"If a child has a gun pointed at you and they have the intent, they have the capability, and they have the means by which to conduct harm on you or your partners, you have to use force as necessary to neutralize that," said Cmdr. Rory McLay, who is overseeing development of the guidelines.
"That is a tough reality, but we cannot afford to have our folks harmed because they hesitated."
The guidelines are also intended to make sure Canadian soldiers deal appropriately with a child soldier who isn't a threat.
"If you're talking about detainees, for example, once it's suspected or proven that the individual is a minor then they are immediately removed from the adult population," said McLay. "The real push there is separation and rehabilitation. That's what you want to do with child soldiers...to try to get these kids into a rehabilitated state and back to their families."
The guidelines were ordered by defence chief Gen. Jonathan Vance last March after a meeting with retired senator Romeo Dallaire, who has championed the fight against using children in conflict.
While a variety of rules and policies on how to deal with child soldiers already exist, McLay said the new guidelines will be the first to gather everything into one place for Canadian military personnel.
Vance is expected to sign off on them in the coming days, after which they will be distributed to commanders across the Canadian Armed Forces to be included in training and other mission preparation.
"Training is one of the best ways to mentally prepare them to deal with the sights and sounds that they're going to encounter," McLay said.
"So if you can specifically guide the training to deal with a specific issue, you are better preparing your team to react appropriately and to be able to deal with their own actions during and down the road."
Such direction is timely given the Liberal government is expected to greenlight the deployment of hundreds of Canadian soldiers to Mali in the coming weeks.
The UN and human rights groups say armed groups in Mali have intentionally recruited and are using child soldiers in a number of capacities.
The presence of child soldiers on the battlefield is a potential minefield for militaries like Canada, as the French learned the hard way last month when they came under fire for killing a 10-year-old boy.
While the French military says the boy was acting as a lookout for one armed group suspected of planting improvised-explosive devices, the killing has marred its counter-terrorism mission in Mali.
The Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant, which Canadian troops are fighting in Iraq, has also made extensive use of child soldiers.
While the British are developing similar guidelines, Shelly Whitman, executive director of the Romeo Dallaire Child Soldiers Initiative, said they aren't as far along as the Canadian military.
Preparing Canadian soldiers for dealing with child soldiers in the field is critical for a number of reasons, Whitman said, which includes ensuring they are properly treated.
But it is also important to consider the impact of child soldiers on the battlefield when planning missions from a legal perspective and in terms of making sure Canadian soldiers don't hesitate when threatened.
"A lot of soldiers would tell you they didn't have any preparation for how to handle children in these contexts until they saw it in the battlefield," she said.
"And that's where the emotional part of your brain kicks in instead of the cognitive part of your brain. Which means you'll make decisions based on emotion and not on what's the best professional decision on that matter."