The Donald Trump administration released the annual Trafficking in Persons Report this week, which includes the list of governments known to use or support the use of child soldiers and thus which may be prohibited from receiving U.S. weapons and military assistance. Yet this year’s list is particularly remarkable for what it lacks, namely the identification of three countries with well-known child soldier abuses: Afghanistan, Iraq, and Myanmar.
Through the Child Soldier Prevention Act (CSPA), the State Department is required annually to identify governments that recruit and use child soldiers in their national militaries or government-supported armed groups. If a country appears on the CSPA list, it may be ineligible to receive U.S. weapons and military assistance in the following fiscal year. The law applies to eight categories of military assistance that fall under both State and Defense Department accounts — international military education and training (IMET); foreign military financing; direct commercial sales; foreign military sales; excess defense articles; Section 1206 assistance to support counterterrorism operations; peacekeeping operations; and additional funding for peacekeeping operations provided through the Overseas Contingency Operations fund. The law is intended to leverage U.S. military assistance by encouraging governments to stop using children in combat by allowing them to maintain their access to much-desired U.S. arms and military assistance. The president may, however, waive the CSPA’s prohibitions and allow offending countries to continue to receive arms and assistance despite their records of child soldier recruitment and use.
The 2017 report lists eight countries as offenders: the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Mali, Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. These eight governments are slated to receive a combined $140 million in U.S. military assistance in the coming year.
The absence of Myanmar and Iraq from this year’s list is remarkable and disappointing. Myanmar has appeared on the list every year, and Iraq first appeared in 2016 after years of debate about the Iraqi government’s continued use of child soldiers. However, in 2016, the Barack Obama administration waived Iraq’s prohibitions due to political considerations and concerns about U.S. counterterrorism operations in Iraq and the region. Though Myanmar has never been slated to receive U.S. military assistance or arms sales covered by the CSPA, it too received a full waiver from the United States in 2016, due to the Obama administration’s desire to demonstrate its commitment to work with Naypyidaw on its path toward democracy. In 2018, Iraq is slated to receive $1 million in IMET funds, though in years past it has received hundreds of millions of dollars a year in foreign military financing, which the Trump administration has eliminated in its budget request. Myanmar is not slated to receive sanctionable U.S. military assistance, according to State Department budget justifications.
Afghanistan was also kept off the list again, despite robust evidence of child soldier recruitment and use reported by both the United Nations and the U.S. government. Indeed, the use of child soldiers in Afghanistan has been documented in the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces, including the Afghan National Police, the Afghan Local Police, and the Afghan National Army. The decision not to include Afghanistan in 2016 was a political move and received significant criticism from civil society groups, the United Nations, and members of Congress. The failure to include Afghanistan again demonstrates an unfortunate prioritization of national security considerations over human rights concerns.
Indeed, the omission of these countries from the CSPA list represents a considerable step back from the United States’ commitment to upholding human rights and protecting children in conflict. Reports of child soldier recruitment and use continue to be documented in all three countries from U.S. government and independent sources. The State Department’s failure to include Myanmar, Iraq, and Afghanistan on this year’s CPSA list sends the wrong messageto offending governments and ultimately undermines the administration’s ability to mitigate the exploitation of children in armed conflict.
The State Department itself has maintained the transformative effects of CSPA, stating that mere identification on the list is an effective means for changing government practice. In omitting these three countries, the Trump administration has effectively weakened the United States’ ability to influence government behavior and help end continued child soldier recruitment. This missed opportunity will have ramifications in the years ahead, as governments may calculate that they will not be held accountable for their continued use of child soldiers.
The announcement follows remarks from Secretary of State Rex Tillerson and other officials separating U.S. values from foreign-policy decisions. In making such announcements, the Trump administration appears to be taking a step back from traditional U.S. principles and downplaying the importance of human rights, which is sharply illustrated in the Trafficking in Persons Report release. The Trump administration’s first report is a regrettable effort to influence governments to stop using child soldiers or supporting those that do. The world’s worst violators of society’s most vulnerable are receiving a pass on their unconscionable actions and will continue to use child soldiers with impunity.