Obama Administration Supports Child Soldier Use, Again

October 12, 2011

Earlier this month, the Obama administration again disappointed human rights groups and the Hill when it decided to grant national security waivers to governments identified by the State Department's Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report as using and recruiting child soldiers. The decision marks the second time in as many years that the President has used his authority to undermine the spirit of the Child Soldiers Prevention Act of 2008 (CSPA).  In short, with a swipe of the pen, the Obama administration has agreed to continue using American taxpayer dollars to provide unrestricted military assistance to governments that have taken, at best, a small step forward toward addressing the problem and remain, overall, profoundly undisciplined.    

The CSPA was signed into law in 2008 by then-President George W. Bush, prohibiting U.S. military assistance and training to countries that actively recruit and use soldiers under the age of 18.  The law's jurisdiction extends to the following accounts: International Military Education and Training (IMET), Foreign Military Financing (FMF), Excess Defense Articles, Foreign Military Sales (FMS), and Direct Commercial Sales (DCS). Under the CSPA, the United States is prohibited from providing funds from these accounts to governments using child soldiers directly in their own armed forces or supporting paramilitaries or militias that do so. 

Governments, however, remain eligible to receive assistance to professionalize their militaries from these specific accounts if the President certifies to the appropriate congressional committees that the government is taking reasonable steps to demobilize child soldiers as well as providing rehabilitation and reintegration assistance. In addition, the President must demonstrate that U.S. assistance is directly supporting military reform efforts. The certification from the President signifies that a government under scrutiny is taking concrete steps to stop using or supporting troops that use child soldiers under Section 404 (e) of the law, which allows the United States to provide assistance toward "international military education, training, and nonlethal supplies."  

In 2010, the first year the law took effect, the Obama administration used blanket exemptions for some of the egregious offenders - all of whom were identified in State's TIP report, supported by undeniable evidence-including: Chad, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Sudan, and Yemen. Despite the explicit concerns outlined by the State Department to justify the waivers, the President argued that complex national interests, including counter-terrorism concerns, had been taken into account. Moreover, the administration claimed that providing military assistance to these governments would allow the United States to maintain greater influence over their policies and practices, particularly with regards to child soldiers. Instead of being seen as a strong message that the continued use of child soldiers would not be tolerated, it was seen as a free pass by most of the governments in question.

In response to the uproar in the human rights community and on Capitol Hill, the State Department agreed to conduct a more thorough review of waivers for the upcoming year. It also agreed to consult more openly with outside groups and with Congress, promising to base waiver determinations on tangible indicators of progress toward implementing an action plan on child soldiers. The State Department also stated that each country would be considered on a case by case basis, concerns raised by the human rights community and Congress would be taken seriously, and that signs of actual steps toward ceasing child recruitment, conscription, or usage - including implementation of policies and/or legislation making it illegal to use child soldiers - would be critical to country evaluation.

While such indicators aren't a panacea, they can begin to shift the culture of child recruitment and serve as deterrents in places where these practices remain commonplace. They would also indicate an important commitment to the international community about compliance with international law. According to the 2011 World Bank Development report on conflict, security, and development, genuine security sector reform is a complex process that can take decades, at a minimum. And while child soldier demobilization is an important aspect of this process, governments need not wait for the development of a comprehensive action plan to be adopted. Indeed, it is entirely feasible - and in fact optimal - for countries to take some initial tangible measures - including those delineated above - to indicate a sustained commitment toward ending the scourge of child soldiers while still undergoing more comprehensive security sector reform.

Even with the promise of a better evaluative process, President Obama once again decided that Yemen, Chad, and the DRC - all countries identified again this year by the State Department as users of child soldiers - would continue to receive U.S. weapons and training. In the DRC, the administration granted only a partial waiver, meaning that the DRC would only be eligible to receive funding for military exchanges - estimated at $500 million for FY 2012 - non-lethal excess defense articles, and licenses for direct commercial sales military equipment, while all other countries received a full waiver.  The decisions were justified by national security interests (Yemen); the need to encourage good governance and respect for human rights and democracy (DRC); and compliance with standards in the CSPA (Chad).

Rather surprisingly to human rights groups, the waivers were granted amidst specific and tangible reports of ongoing child soldier recruitment and usage - in each country of concern - since at least 2010.

In Chad, despite an action plan and some efforts at demobilization, throngs of children remain associated with army units in both a formal and informal way. Indeed, human rights groups and the United Nations have verified the use of child soldiers by the Chadian National Army, or ANT, as recently as July 2011.

In the DRC, the UN Secretary General's annual report to the Security Council found that the national military was continuing to recruit children as recently as 2010 and estimated hundreds of children exist within the ranks of government.  Equally as concerning is that the Congolese government refuses to share its plans to cease the use of child soldiers with the United Nations and other key actors. There is also still no known plan to release the many children that continue to be engaged in military operations.

Yemen remains a hotbed of political turmoil with the uncertain future of the current government. In the midst of the continued fighting, there has been little progress to purge the national military of child soldiers. Lacking significant leverage, the administration has turned its focus primarily to counter-terrorism concerns, at the expense of crafting a broader and more comprehensive Yemen policy. Notably, as the government militias respond to the peaceful protests of their fellow citizens with violence, Yemen's recruitment and usage of child soldiers remains common.

Ironically, despite a long history of conscripting child soldiers, because of Sudan's transition into two countries over the last year, the Obama administration argues that South Sudan is not yet subject to a CSPA prohibition because the country did not exist when the State Department released its list in June, a mere 12 days before South Sudan's independence.  Paradoxically, the fact that South Sudan didn't officially exist before this year proved no obstacle to providing millions of U.S. taxpayer dollars in security assistance.

Somalia, which was listed by the Stated Department for its continued use and recruitment of child soldiers, does not receive military assistance covered by the CSPA. However, the United States continues to provide military assistance to the transitional federal government, or TFG, even though the UN reported 40 new cases of child recruitment by its allied militia. Moreover, Human Rights Watch found that as recently as June 2011, children were still serving with with government forces as well as with Ahlu Sunna Wal Jama'a, a Somali paramilitary group, and clan militias allied to the TFG. Although the assistance provided to Somalia falls outside the scope of the CSPA, the Obama administration could have prohibited the provision of such assistance as a matter of policy in order to require genuine reform.

Truth be told, in many cases the accounts subject to restriction under CSPA are not the primary means by which these governments receive security assistance from the U.S government. These countries could collectively receive over $200 million in security assistance through other accounts unaffected by the CSPA. And, when factoring in Defense Department and inaccessible covert operations, funding for Yemen just for counter-terrorism operations would be even greater. Indeed, the power of the CSPA is not simply in withholding particular resources, which in Yemen or Sudan, are comparable to pocket change. Rather, at the same time that the bill restricts particular pots of cash, it also reflects fundamental principles that should not be sacrificed in favor of small scale changes that are unlikely to be concretized.   

Although the waiver has been granted, the Obama administration is not required to provide military assistance to these governments. There is still time for the administration reverse its position and agree not to provide lethal assistance under the CSPA, or any other account, to these countries until specific, tangible steps are taken to demobilize existing child soldiers and stop ongoing recruitment.

The Obama administration should use the determination as a way to improve its political, diplomatic, and military engagement on the issue of child soldiers. Indeed, the CSPA was initially developed to provide an incentive for governments to change their policy and practices with regards to child soldiers. Letting governments off the hook two years in a row, however, won't make much of a contribution towards helping to reverse the trend of inaction or encouraging legitimate movement toward building accountable and effective security institutions. In fact, it is likely to do just the opposite.

Sarah Margon is the associate director of the Sustainable Security and Peacebuilding Initiative at the Center for American Progress. She previously served as senior foreign policy adviser to former Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.). Rachel Stohl is a fellow at the Stimson Center in the Managing Across Boundaries program.

For more on the subject by the authors, click here to read their recent op-ed, "Obama neglects child soldiers," published in The Hill. 

Written by

  • Rachel Stohl
    Senior Associate
  • Sarah Margon
    Associate Director for Sustainable Security at the Center For American Progress