Washington – As a senator, Barack Obama supported legislation requiring the United States to cut off military aid to countries recruiting and deploying child soldiers.
This week as president, Mr. Obama acted to ensure that four countries found to use child soldiers – but which are also considered key national security interests – do not lose their US military assistance. Obama heeded the recommendation of a State Department review and waived application of a year-old law on child soldiers in the case of Chad, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, and Yemen.
In a Oct. 25 presidential memorandum, Obama said he had “determined that it is in the national interest of the United States” to waive application of the Child Soldiers Prevention Act for the four countries.
The waiver, issued quietly this week, was another example of what some diplomatic analysts consider to be Obama’s pragmatic approach to foreign policy. But a number of human-rights and international-development groups say the waiver sends a bad signal.
“We are very concerned and disappointed with this decision,” says Jesse Eaves, policy adviser on children in crisis for World Vision, a nongovernmental aid organization with field programs in three of the four exempted countries. “It appears to send the message that you can get away with failing to stop using children in combat as long as your country is strategic enough to the US.”
White House: It’s a Warning
White House officials say the waivers serve as a wakeup call for the countries to clean up recruitment practices before the State Department delivers its next Trafficking in Persons Report. The annual report serves as the basis for determining which countries employ child soldiers.
The 2010 report found two other countries guilty of the practice: Burma and Somalia. Neither Burma nor Somalia receives US military aid or training.
Some rights activists say the US could have taken a middle road that would sanction the violating countries while preserving assistance focused on military professionalization and weeding out recruitment.
“The basic problem here is that the administration is taking an all-or-nothing approach,” says Jo Becker, advocacy director for the children’s rights division of Human Rights Watch. The US clearly has legitimate interests in these countries, she adds, “but they should have sought a middle ground that allows them to take the law seriously while still taking our cooperation with these countries seriously.”
The State Department review notes the important counterterrorism work Yemen is doing, while citing the negative impact defunding would have on force modernization and human-rights training in Chad, Sudan, and the Congo.
State: They’re on the Right Path
State Department officials would not confirm reports that the waiver decision prompted a heated debate between the department’s democracy and human rights bureau on one side and military affairs on the other. But they emphasized that the waivers do not mean the administration is abandoning the goal of ending the use of child soldiers.
“In each of these countries we are working with the governments to stop the recruitment of child soldiers or [to] demobilize those who may already be in the ranks,” State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said this week. In the meantime, he added, the waivers allow the US to continue valuable training programs.
“These countries have put the right policies in place,” he said, “but are struggling to correctly implement them.”