In the fight against human trafficking, child soldiers get ignored

To bring public attention to a criminal practice that continues to harm millions around the world, Congress named Jan. 11 “National Human Trafficking Awareness Day.” The United States leads the world in efforts to end forced labor and modern slavery, devoting resources to protect and assist victims, creating laws to crack down on traffickers, and encouraging other countries to do the same.

But there is one place where U.S. government action on trafficking is lagging:  the recruitment and use of children—some as young as 10 years old—as soldiers. In some cases, the United States is possibly even complicit in this crime, by providing military support to governments that it has determined use children as fighters.

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Anti-trafficking organizations and activists must rally Congress to combat more effectively the recruitment and use of children in warfare as part of the broader effort to eradicate human trafficking and forced labor.

For more than a decade, human trafficking has been a core concern for U.S. foreign and domestic policy. Congress has passed 11 major laws to address the issue and made those laws tougher over the years. In 2000, Congress approved the Trafficking Victims Protection Act (TVPA), the centerpiece of U.S. anti-trafficking laws. This law requires the State Department to issue an annual report ranking countries on how compliant they are with minimum standards to prevent and combat human trafficking. There are three tiers, with the worst offenders placed on Tier 3, and subject to sanctions on all assistance except humanitarian aid.

TVPA also created other mechanisms to protect victims of trafficking and target traffickers, including the State Department’s Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons (TIP), which produces the report every year, and the T visa, which grants U.S. residency to trafficking victims and their families. In addition, it made human trafficking a federal crime.

By contrast, the Child Soldier Prevention Act (CSPA) of 2008 gives the U.S. government the authority to penalize governments that recruit and use child soldiers. This law requires the State Department to publish an annual list of countries that it determines have recruited or used child soldiers or have supported armed groups that have done so in the preceding year. The U.S. government is prohibited from giving police or military assistance to any governments on that list.

But the CSPA includes a major loophole: The president can easily waive this prohibition, either in full or in part, when it is deemed to be in the national interest. And every year since the law came into effect in 2010, the president has used the waiver. According to the Stimson Center, since 2010, more than $1 billion in assistance and arms sales should have been withheld from foreign governments as leverage to encourage reforms.

Last year, the State Department identified ten countries that recruited and used children as combatants: Burma, Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, Nigeria, Rwanda, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. But with the exception of three cases—Sudan, Syria, and Yemen, which were not going to receive U.S. military assistance anyway—each country was granted a full or partial waiver, and only a fraction of U.S. military assistance was withheld.

Instead of using the CSPA as a tool to punish abusive governments, the U.S. government’s liberal use of the waiver risks making it complicit in their crimes. For example, South Sudan, which has been on the CSPA list since its inception in 2010 and is currently on the brink of genocide, has received either a full or partial waiver every year. That means that over the past six years, the United States has earmarked $99 million in direct military assistance for a regime that openly coerces children into combat roles, while withholding a paltry $1.2 million.

Weak as it is, this law is the only tool the United States has in place to combat the use of children as soldiers.

Unlike sex and labor trafficking, there are no special visas for former child soldiers to come to America, no focus on assistance and rehabilitation of the victims, no visa bans on officials known to recruit and use child soldiers.  

Moreover, there is not even a mechanism for linking the CSPA list to the human trafficking tiers. In 2016, Congo, Iraq, Nigeria, and Rwanda all were on the CSPA list, but none of them appeared on Tier 3 of the TIP report—a clear signal that the U.S. treats enslavement of children as soldiers less seriously than it treats other forms of sex and labor trafficking. 

The United States should lead the world in the fight against all forms of human trafficking, not effectively looking the other way as some foreign militaries prey on children.  It certainly should not be rewarding such governments with U.S. taxpayer funded military assistance.

Jeremy Ravinsky is a policy associate for the Washington, D.C., office of the Open Society Foundations. Lora Lumpe is advocacy director for security sector governance in the Washington, D.C., office of the Open Society Foundations.


The views expressed by authors are their own and not the views of The Hill.