During a February meeting on domestic and international human trafficking, Trump said he would bring
the “full force and weight” of the US government to solve “the human trafficking epidemic.” And on March 15, Nikki Haley, US ambassador to the United Nations, noted
that “standing up to modern slavery and forced labor is a core element of foreign policy.”
While it is unclear how broadly the Trump administration will define human trafficking, one of the most tragic forms of trafficking is the recruitment and use of children in government militaries and government-supported armed groups. The administration should therefore integrate child soldier prevention policies into its broader anti-trafficking efforts.
Under President George W. Bush, the United States took positive steps to stop the horrific practice of using children in combat. The 2008 Child Soldiers Prevention Act
prohibits US arms sales and military training to foreign governments that recruit and deploy child soldiers in their national militaries or government-backed armed groups.
The United States is one of the few countries to condition military assistance on a government’s record of child soldier use. Each year, as part of the Trafficking in Persons report
, the State Department releases a list of governments complicit in the recruitment and use of child soldiers. Any country listed is prohibited from receiving certain US military aid under the law.
The Child Soldiers Prevention Act is intended to convince governments to stop using child soldiers by leveraging access to highly desired military weapons, training and assistance. While the act does not prohibit all US military assistance, it does limit the largest US arms sales and military assistance initiatives, including the International Military Education and Training and the Foreign Military Financing programs.
Under the law, however, the president can employ “national interest waivers,” allowing identified countries to still receive US military assistance. The United States has issued such waivers to authorize more than $1.2 billion
in otherwise prohibited assistance. Of the 56 opportunities to block military assistance, the United States offered full or partial waivers to offending governments nearly 60% of the time. Rationale for the waivers has ranged from political considerations to supporting counterterrorism operations.
By comparison, it has only withheld an estimated $61 million — or roughly 5% — of military assistance since the 2008 act took effect.
The liberal use of the waivers has undermined the purpose of the law, eliminating an important incentive for foreign governments to professionalize their militaries and stop exploiting children.
In the coming months, the Trump administration has an opportunity to reshape how the United States confronts this challenge and demonstrate leadership on the issue of child soldiers. Specifically, there are three key steps the administration can take to strengthen US commitment to preventing the use of children in conflict.
First, the administration should ensure the Child Soldiers Prevention Act list is as comprehensive as possible. This year marks the first time the Trump administration will make its determinations on countries using or supporting the use of child soldiers. A broad approach would help avoid loopholes
that have been used in the past to exclude countries known to use child soldiers, such as Afghanistan.
The State Department has long maintained that identification on the list sends a strong message to offending governments and can result in changed behavior. And there is some evidence it has been effective. This listing likely encouraged the government of Chad
to adopt prevention measures and demobilize exiting child soldiers from its armed forces. The Trump administration would do well to embrace that perspective and ensure it sends a strong message to offending governments.
Second, the administration should be more judicious in the use of national interest waivers. In the past, waivers were often granted to countries repeatedly identified on the Trafficking in Persons list — such as South Sudan
— absent noticeable changes in behavior. Habitual use of national interest waivers sends the wrong message to governments, implying countries can continue to recruit children with impunity.
Third, the Trump administration should demonstrate US commitment to stop human trafficking in all its forms. The United States has largely relied on the Child Soldiers Prevention Act to underscore the importance of preventing the recruitment and use of child soldiers. Yet this approach is needlessly narrow. As government officials discuss human trafficking during interactions with foreign counterparts, the use of child soldiers should be included.
The administration has indicated its interest in being a strong leader in the fight against human trafficking. In the coming months, it has an opportunity to demonstrate that commitment and move beyond rhetoric, putting into practice policies that address human trafficking in all its forms and stop the use of child soldiers.