Obama neglects child soldiers

Last week, the Obama administration made the stunning decision to waive restrictions on military assistance to governments that use and recruit child soldiers. The decision marks the second time in as many years that the president has used his authority to undermine the spirit of a 2008 law geared to block aid to foreign governments that press-gang children.

In 2010, the first year that the legislation took effect, the Obama administration used blanket exemptions for Chad, Congo, Sudan and Yemen despite explicit concerns — highlighted by none other than the State Department — that these governments were dependent on child soldiers. At the time, the decision sent ripples through the human-rights community: Why was the administration abandoning an opportunity to help stop forcible recruitment of children? Why would it not seize the opportunity to press for greater reform in countries with long, well-known histories of abuse? 

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In light of last year’s disappointing outcome and the ensuing uproar in the human-rights community, this year the State Department agreed to conduct a more thorough review of each government in question. It also agreed to consult more openly with outside groups and with Congress, promising to base waiver determinations on measurable indicators of tangible progress. Neither the commitment nor the process appears to have carried much weight. 

Yemen’s restrictions have been completely waived, Congo’s partially so. Security assistance to Chad is now free of prohibitions. These are all deeply fragile countries that have seen either sporadic or ongoing conflict for at least a decade. The steps they’ve taken on security-sector reform are moderate, at best, and yet opportunities for robust military aid are now set to increase. 

Chad might have developed an action plan and made some demobilization efforts, but scores of children remain associated with the army. Indeed, both human-rights groups and the United Nations have verified the use of child soldiers by the Chadian National Army as recently as August. 

In Congo, the situation remains equally bad, with a recent U.N. report underscoring the national military’s recruitment of children. The U.N. also estimated that hundreds of children are within the military ranks. Without as much as a draft plan to release these children, even a partial restriction seems generous. 

In Yemen, the government’s future remains unclear. Government militias respond violently to the peaceful protests of their fellow citizens while the recruitment and usage of child soldiers remains common. President Ali Abdullah Saleh could use the demobilization of child soldiers as a step toward greater reform, but he’s made it clear that’s not his intention, and the Obama administration’s prioritization of counterterrorism means everything else falls by the wayside.

Although Somalia has been a failing state for more than 20 years, the administration continues to provide security assistance — which falls outside the scope of the legislation — to its barely functional government. Somalia, however, was listed by the State Department for its child soldier problem. The U.N. and Human Rights Watch have also found child soldier recruitment continuing. The Obama administration could have taken a strong stand on Somalia and restricted security assistance to the country as a matter of policy. But it did not.

Remarkably, the administration’s most outrageous defense came with South Sudan, which continues to have hundreds of child soldiers. U.S. government officials claim that because South Sudan did not officially exist prior to July 2010, it cannot be subject to any restrictions. As if the other exemptions weren’t egregious enough, using legal and practical loopholes to maintain the status quo with a government that still uses child soldiers is appalling. How could the administration so clearly have lost its way? 

Meanwhile, the House of Representatives took quick responsive action: It unanimously passed legislation to expand current law restricting funds to governments that rely on child soldiers and made it more difficult to undermine the intention of the law down the road. The Senate has a chance to take a stand on this issue and endorse the same language during Thursday’s Judiciary Committee markup. If it does, the stricter rules will inevitably serve as a much-needed wake-up call for an administration that seems to have lost its moral compass on this issue.

The child soldier bill is not a panacea. But it can make important contributions to reversing a harmful trend that has destroyed hundreds of thousands of lives. The Obama administration has repeatedly committed to supporting good governance and the rule of law abroad. Waiving these restrictions, however, is tantamount to a free pass.  

Margon is associate director of the Sustainable Security and Peacebuilding Initiative at the Center for American Progress. She previously served as senior foreign policy adviser to former Sen. Russ Feingold (D-Wis.). Stohl is a fellow at The Stimson Center.