Spotlight

Obama Administration Again Misses Opportunity on Child Soldiers

October 10, 2012

By Rachel Stohl - On September 28, after a week in which the President touted the tragedy of human slavery at the United Nations, the Obama administration released its Presidential Determination with regard to the Child Soldiers Prevention Act (CSPA) of 2008.  For the third year in a row, the Obama administration granted waivers to governments using child soldiers in their militaries. The administration again missed an opportunity to make a clear statement to those governments repeatedly violating human rights and gave a pass to those willfully targeting children.

In June 2012, the State Department's Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report listed seven governments that recruit or use child soldiers in the national armies or government supported militias: Burma (Myanmar), Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Libya, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, and Yemen.  The United States supplies military assistance to five of the seven, only Burma and Sudan are not slated to receive sanctionable military assistance under the Child Soldiers Protection Act.

The 2008 Act is intended to prevent US arms transfers and training to governments that use child soldiers under the age of 18 in their national militaries or in government supported armed groups. The idea of the Act - originally sponsored by Senator Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) was to use the leverage of much desired US military assistance to encourage states that use child soldiers in the militaries or associated groups to stop the horrific practice.

The law only applies to specific categories of military assistance under both the State and Defense Department accounts. Peacekeeping assistance, for example, is unaffected. Thus, the majority of US assistance to Somalia, for example falls outside these categories and is unaffected by the CSPA prohibitions.

When the law first took effect in 2010, the Obama administration used blanket waivers for the offenders - including: Chad, the DRC, Sudan, and Yemen - stating that those countries had been put on notice and were now being encouraged to change their behavior. The administration argued that national security concerns, particularly counter-terrorism efforts, weighted heavily on the decision, and that they would continue to use military assistance to maintain greater influence over their policies of these offending governments.  

Yet, in 2011, these same countries were again named in the TIP report and President Obama once again decided that Yemen, Chad, and the DRC would receive waivers on the CSPA.  South Sudan was immune from the provisions of the Act, since it became an independent country 12 days after the TIP report was released. The administration granted only a partial waiver to the DRC, allowing it only to receive funding for military exchanges, non-lethal excess defense articles, and licenses for direct commercial sales military equipment. Again, the administration justified their decision to grant waivers on national security grounds.

Now, with the law entering its third year of application, the Obama administration has again waived the provisions of the law, in particular for Libya, South Sudan, and Yemen, and again has given a partial waiver to allow the DRC to receive IMET, non-lethal excess defense articles, and direct commercial sales. However, the administration did release a policy statement that prevents the United States from training of a second light infantry battalion until the government of the DRC signs a UN action plan to prevent the use and recruitment of child soldiers. The plan was signed on Thursday October 4, so the administration must decide if this training can now take place. This statement was a surprise and welcome attempt by the administration to push the DRC to do more to stop the use and recruitment of child soldiers by the Congolese government.

The administration also missed opportunities to influence the behavior of the new Libyan and Yemeni governments. Arguing that these nascent governments needed time to come into their own and shouldn't be punished for the practices that went on during their political transitions, the United States chose to provide blanket waivers for the two countries. Rather than sending a clear signal of what behaviors are expected from responsible and democratic governments, the United States started with a soft sell on the human rights standards it finds acceptable.

The Obama administration could have implemented a partial waiver, allowing US training to help professionalize the new Libyan military or allow counter-terrorism training for Yemeni forces, but preventing the potential flow of lethal equipment and weapons. Such a statement of policy could have demonstrated the expectations the United States has for the two countries and encouraged them to make the changes necessary to get off the TIP report list. In addition, the United States could have made a statement of policy regarding assistance to Somalia. Although the majority of assistance is not covered by the CSPA, the Obama administration could have withheld some of the military assistance until specific benchmarks were met by the Somalia Transitional Federal Government (TFG).

The Obama administration should think about the CSPA in a larger context, as part of its efforts to make meaningful progress on improving institutions and security apparatuses in emerging democracies. Even with the waivers, the administration can focus on implementing policies and programs that ensure that US military and security assistance to those continuing to use child soldiers in their ranks is limited. Such efforts would complement existing and future democracy promotion and security sector reform in new US partner governments.


Photo Credit: United Nations, http://www.unmultimedia.org/photo/detail.jsp?id=527/527591&key=15&query=obama&lang=en&sf=

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