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Tempered Criticism as Trump Administration Releases Annual List of Countries Recruiting and Using Child Soldiers

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By Rachel Stohl, Shannon Dick, and Cassandra Cronin

The use of child soldiers is one of the most horrific abuses of children in conflict. Every year, the U.S. State Department identifies foreign governments that use or support the use of child soldiers as part of the Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report. On June 28, 2018, Secretary of State Pompeo released the updated list – in as required by the Child Soldiers Prevention Act (CSPA) – and included child soldier recruitment and/or use by 11 governments.

The 2018 list has some notable improvements compared to previous years, and includes Burma (Myanmar), the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Iran, Iraq, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. In a positive move, Iraq and Burma reappeared after then-Secretary of State Rex Tillerson’s controversial decision to remove both countries from the list in 2017. In Burma, a recent UN investigation verified more than 100 cases of child recruitment by the Burmese government. In Iraq, children remain vulnerable to forcible recruitment by several armed groups, and last year more than 50 children were recruited by groups that operate under the Iraqi armed forces, according to UN estimates.

Additionally, Iran and Niger appeared on the CSPA list for the first time. According to the State Department, Iranian government officials were reportedly complicit in recruiting Afghan children living in Syria to fight alongside Iranian-backed militias. And there are reports that the government of Niger provided support to the Imghad Tuareg and Allies Self-Defense Group, which is known to use child soldiers. By comparison, Sudan was removed from the list this year, as the United States (as well as the United Nations) have not verified cases of child recruitment by Sudan’s government forces since 2015. Sudan had appeared on the CSPA list every year since the list’s inception.

One regrettable absence from the 2018 CSPA list, however, is Afghanistan, despite continued ample evidence of ongoing recruitment of children in Afghan defense and security forces. The UN Secretary General’s Report on Children in Armed Conflict documented 23 cases of child soldier recruitment and use by the Afghan National Defence and Security Forces in 2017, including by the Afghan Local Police and the Afghan National Police. The Trump administration has acknowledged the continued use of children in Afghan security forces in the 2017 and 2018 TIP reports, but despite such evidence, has failed to include Afghanistan in its list of offending countries.

The CSPA list leverages U.S. security assistance to prevent the recruitment and use of child soldiers. Countries included in the list are ineligible to receive certain forms of U.S. military assistance and arms sales in the upcoming fiscal year (including Foreign Military Sales; Direct Commercial Sales; Excess Defense Articles; Foreign Military Financing; International Military Education and Training (IMET); Peacekeeping Operations assistance (PKO), including through overseas contingency operations accounts; and Section 1206 authorities), unless otherwise exempted by the president via national interest waivers.

Of the eleven countries identified on the 2018 CSPA list, seven are slated to receive some form of U.S. military assistance in fiscal year 2019.The DRC, Iraq, Mali, Niger, Nigeria, Somalia, and South Sudan may receive a combined total of $126.2 million in U.S. military assistance in fiscal year 2019. Iraq, Mali, Niger, and Nigeria are slated to receive IMET assistance, while South Sudan is slated to receive PKO assistance. The DRC and Somalia are scheduled to receive both IMET and PKO assistance next year.

Before October 1, President Trump will make his determinations as to whether to employ national interest waivers to exempt any of the eleven countries identified on the 2018 CSPA list from the law’s prohibitions. The 2018 list is a step in the right direction in spotlighting countries implicated in the recruitment and use of child soldiers – and thereby helping work towards encouraging those countries to change their behaviors. In reinstating Burma and Iraq on the list, the Trump administration is acknowledging the continued recruitment and use of child soldiers by both countries. And in including Iran and Niger, the United States is demonstrating the CSPA’s potential reach. The United States should maintain its commitment to preventing the recruitment and use of children in armed conflict by fully utilizing the CSPA to hold the worst offenders accountable in order to protect the most vulnerable in armed conflict and better prevent the use of children as tools of warfare.


Rachel Stohl is Managing Director and Director of the Conventional Defense Program, Shannon Dick is Research Associate and Cassandra Cronin is a research intern with the Conventional Defense Program.

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