Last week, Nigerian President Muhammadu Buhari visited Washington and criticized the Leahy Law and the restrictions it places on certain Nigerian military units’ ability to acquire weapons the government says are necessary to fight Boko Haram. Under the law, the United States has limited military assistance to Nigeria due to documented human rights violations against the civilian population in response to Boko Haram attacks – in some cases using excessive force, physical abuse and violence against those suspected of aiding the terrorist group.
This week’s release of the State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report gives yet another reason to restrict Nigeria’s access to much-desired U.S. military assistance. For the first time, Nigeria has found itself listed in the (TIP) report, which identifies foreign governments that use or support the use of child soldiers. If a country appears on the list, it may be ineligible to receive U.S. military assistance under the prohibitions detailed in the Child Soldiers Prevention Act (CSPA).
The CSPA, passed by Congress in 2008 and which went into effect in 2010, prevents U.S. arms transfers and military training to governments that use child soldiers in their national militaries or in government-supported armed groups. The law is intended to leverage provisions of U.S. military assistance to encourage governments to stop using child soldiers. The law applies to eight specific categories of military aid under both State and Defense Department accounts – International Military Education and Training (IMET), Foreign Military Financing (FMF), Direct Commercial Sales (DCS), Foreign Military Sales (FMS), Excess Defense Articles, Section 1206, Peacekeeping Operations, and Peacekeeping Operations provided through the Overseas Contingency Operations fund. The president may, however, elect to waive the law’s prohibitions – in part or in full – under specific circumstances and permit otherwise withheld military assistance to be delivered to countries identified in the TIP report.
The 2015 TIP report identified eight governments that use child soldiers in their own militaries or in government-supported groups. Nigeria was included on the list after documented cases provided evidence of children being recruited and used by a government-supported group in the fight against Boko Haram. The Obama administration has requested more than $1.3 million in military assistance to Nigeria for fiscal year 2016 through IMET and FMF accounts – assistance that now falls under CSPA restrictions and could be withheld under the terms of the act. This military assistance could be used as one more tool to encourage Nigeria and other governments to improve their national institutions, to better attend to human rights concerns, and to demobilize child soldiers from their ranks.
Seven other countries are also identified on the 2015 list: Burma (Myanmar), the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. Each of these countries has been regularly identified by the State Department as having used or supported the use of child soldiers in their national armies or government-backed militant groups, and five of these seven countries have previously received some form of national interest waiver – be it partial or full – to allow for provisions of otherwise prohibited arms transfers and military assistance.
In the five years since the CSPA was implemented, the United States has authorized over $1.2 billion in military assistance to governments identified on the act’s list. Additionally, since the law’s enactment, the U.S. has authorized more than $275 million in arms sales through the FMS and DCS programs. The administration has also blocked approximately $35 million in military assistance and roughly $5 million in arms sales to countries with known child soldier abuses.
The CSPA has demonstrated some progress as well. Chad, the Central African Republic, Libya, and Rwanda have been previously included on the TIP report list, but have been removed at different times due to noted progress in demobilizing children from national militaries and/or government-supported militias, as well as steps taken to improve their security institutions and apparatuses.
President Obama will again make waiver determinations in October and decide which countries identified in the TIP report – if any – will receive U.S. military assistance. By using the waivers strategically and thoughtfully, the United States can encourage changes in government behavior and promote human rights norms within military structures. The waivers should be used as an incentive for change. For Nigeria, and the other governments on the list, access to desired U.S. military assistance must come with a commitment to protect the most vulnerable.