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Justifying the Unspeakable

The list of dubious choices made by President Obama during his first two years in office is breathtaking in scope. But nothing he has done - not the expansion of the war in Afghanistan

The list of dubious choices made by President Obama during his first two years in office is breathtaking in scope. But nothing he has done – not the expansion of the war in Afghanistan, the appointment to his economic team of the men who’d just helped ruin our economy, nor the billion-dollar gift to the heath insurance industry – is as indefensible as his decision to continue military funding to four countries that utilize child soldiers.

Has it really come to this? Have the politics of fear so overwhelmed him that he is willing to sacrifice thousands of innocent children in the hope that a handful of warlords can be trusted to look out for our best interests?

According to Amnesty International, UNICEF, and other human rights organizations, as many as 300,000 children have been forced to participate in conflicts across the globe as child soldiers. Females taken captive by these troops are routinely used as sexual slaves by their commanders. As part of their indoctrination into the military, many children are required to perform acts of violence against their peers. One such soldier, a young girl named Susan, told Human Rights Watch investigators of being forced to kill a fellow abductee who had tried to escape:

“His hands were tied, and then they made us, the other new captives, kill him with a stick. I felt sick. I knew this boy from before. We were from the same village. I refused to kill him and they told me they would shoot me. They pointed a gun at me, so I had to do it. The boy was asking me, ‘Why are you doing this?’… I still dream about the boy from my village who I killed. I see him in my dreams, and he is talking to me and saying I killed him for nothing, and I am crying.”

In his memorandum of justification to Congress, Obama declared that his October 25 ruling was “in our national interest.” He also submitted rationales specific to each country.

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Sanctions against Chad, he wrote, were waived in order to preserve our “cooperative relationship in combating terrorism.” The Democratic Republic of Congo got a free pass to ensure that we do not “jeopardize the opportunity to influence the behavior we wish to change” – which, presumably, refers to years of systematic rape and murder of civilians by DRC military forces. Sudan was exempted so training could continue for Southern Sudan’s People’s Liberation Army – a proactive measure deemed necessary in case the now tenuous US brokered Comprehensive Peace Agreement, which ended the country’s 21-year North-South civil war, collapses. Funding for Yemen – where children “may make up more than half” of its government-mobilized tribal militias – was given the green light because it is “a key partner in counterterrorism operations against al Qaeda.”

In addition to creating a false sense of security, the waiving of these sanctions cripples the objective of one of Obama’s Senatorial highlights, the passage of the Child Soldiers Prevention Act, and further blurs the distinction between his administration and that of his predecessor, whose policy of torture defined the war in Iraq and whose concurrent intelligence-sharing arrangement with Sudanese President Omar al-Bashir served to temper the US response to the genocide in Darfur.

We all agree that the task of keeping America safe is of paramount importance and is enormously complex. But there must be a limit to how far a commander in chief will go to get that job done. For such clarity, the president need look no further than the transcript of a speech he delivered last year in Africa.

Speaking to the Ghanaian Parliament, Obama proclaimed: “we must stand up to inhumanity in our midst … It is never justified.” Adding: “It is the death sentence of a society to force children to kill in wars.”

Today, those remarks seem to have faded from his memory. As have the children.

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