The Child Soldiers Prevention Act of 2008 would normally prohibit military aid to Chad, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Sudan, and Yemen because those countries' militaries use child soldiers. But in October, President Obama made the unexpected and shocking policy announcement that he was waiving this prohibition. The decision, which caught children's and human rights advocates off guard, makes it appear that the U.S. is not committed to ending the use of child soldiers.
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The use of child soldiers is a global phenomenon. Although international law prohibits their use, approximately 250,000 children are currently being used in combat in 17 ongoing conflicts around the world. Child soldiers are found in the ranks of government militaries, paramilitary groups, and rebel armies.
Their experiences are horrific. Both boys and girls are used as soldiers, and they often suffer forced drug use and sexual abuse. Some are forced to wield weapons on the front lines; others are used in combat support roles as messengers, spies, porters, or cooks.
In its annual Trafficking in Persons assessment last June, the U.S. State Department reported that Burma, Chad, DRC, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen all use child soldiers. Burma receives no U.S. military assistance, due to unrelated sanctions; Somalia is not covered by the Child Soldiers Prevention Act. Effectively, then, the Obama administration's waiver eliminates any impact of the law whatsoever.
In his justification of the waiver, the president cited complex national interests, including counterterrorism concerns -- thus giving the impression that counterterrorism trumps the rights and protections that should be afforded to vulnerable children. Rather than foster such an impression, the administration should demonstrate that there is a middle ground that can both address security needs and stop the abuse of children.
The administration has also claimed that providing arms and military aid to these four countries will help the U.S. have greater influence to stop the use of child soldiers. This approach is misguided. The law already permits countries that are currently using child soldiers to receive military education and training, without October's waiver, if the president demonstrates that U.S. assistance is directly supporting the professionalization of the military and certifies to Congress that the government is taking reasonable steps to demobilize child soldiers and help rehabilitate them.
Moreover, the United States has been offering military training to these four countries throughout the last decade, with little effect -- and little progress toward ending their practice of recruiting children. Indeed, by granting the waiver the U.S. has lost its leverage and has not held these countries accountable for this despicable practice.
Even though the waiver was granted, the Obama administration could still take specific helpful steps before the next State Department report comes out this June.
First, despite the waiver, the U.S. does not have to provide military aid to these four countries. Second, for each of these four countries the United States should establish clear, specific, individually tailored benchmarks for ending child recruitment and for demobilization of current child soldiers -- benchmarks to be met before the June report. Third, plans of action should be developed for each of the four waiver countries to allow for better U.S. political, diplomatic, and military engagement on the issue of child soldiers.
The moral issue is clear: The United States cannot allow the use of child soldiers to continue without consequence.
Rachel Stohl is an associate fellow in the International Security Program at Chatham House, the Royal Institute of International Affairs. She is based in Washington, D.C.