Trump administration turns its back on child soldiers again

As headlines continue to call attention to massive suffering of civilians in conflict zones around the world, the Trump administration has been admonished for turning its back on defenseless civilians. This week, President TrumpDonald John TrumpThis week: House kicks off public phase of impeachment inquiry Impeachment week: Trump probe hits crucial point Judd Gregg: The big, big and bigger problem MORE has taken a less publicized step in putting another vulnerable population at risk, child soldiers.

The Trump administration has waived prohibitions that would have blocked more than $115 million in U.S. security assistance from flowing to governments identified by the State Department as being complicit in the use and recruitment of child soldiers. By allowing these countries to continue to benefit from U.S. security assistance, the Trump administration is signaling its continued unwillingness to hold countries to account for engaging in one of the most heinous and abusive practices – the recruitment and use of children in armed conflict.

The United States is one of few countries in the world to leverage U.S. military assistance to end the use of child soldiers, passing legislation aimed expressly at prohibiting foreign governments from receiving U.S. weapons and security assistance if they are known to exploit children in war. The law, known as the Child Soldiers Prevention Act (CSPA), directs the secretary of State to publish an annual list of countries whose armed forces or government-backed armed groups recruit or use child soldiers. Countries included on that list are barred from receiving certain types of U.S. military assistance, training, and defense equipment. By conditioning valuable U.S. military aid on compliance with international norms prohibiting the use of child soldiers, the CSPA could serve as a powerful tool to discourage the practice.

However, since the law took effect in 2010, the executive branch has repeatedly failed to realize the law’s full potential. The CSPA allows the president to waive the law’s prohibitions, in whole or in part, “if the President determines that such a waiver is in the national interest of the United States.” Both the Obama and Trump administrations have made liberal use of these national interest waivers, and as a consequence, more than $4.3 billion in otherwise prohibited U.S. military assistance has been provided to countries known to recruit and use child soldiers over the last nine years.

The 2019 CSPA list identifies 11 governments that use or support the use of child soldiers: Afghanistan, Burma, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Iran, Iraq, Mali, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. Seven of these governments received waivers, four did not. The State Department should be commended for including Afghanistan, Iraq, and Burma on the CSPA list – countries it controversially neglected to include in 2017. Notably absent from the 2019 list, however, is the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which is widely reported to be using children as young as 14 to fight its war in Yemen. In fact, State Department experts pushed for the inclusion of Saudi Arabia in this year’s CSPA list, but were overruled by Secretary of State Mike PompeoMichael (Mike) Richard PompeoIran lays foundation for second nuclear plant: report Pompeo knocks Iran's treatment of UN nuclear inspector Reagan statue unveiled near site where he called for Gorbachev to 'tear down' Berlin Wall MORE.

What’s particularly egregious about this year’s decision is that President Trump has in effect waived all of the CSPA’s prohibitions, allowing all relevant military assistance to remain accessible to the seven countries currently budgeted to receive such assistance. The four countries absent from the waiver announcement – Iran, Burma/Myanmar, Sudan, and Syria – do not receive U.S. military assistance, irrespective of their use of child soldiers. 

As a result, U.S. military assistance will be provided to governments that use child soldiers in their ranks, or support government militias that do. Arguably, some progress on demobilization and ending child soldier recruitment has been made in four countries that received partial waivers – indicating that the law can be used as a carrot to incentivize further progress – but the waiver for Yemen raises serious concerns. Children continue to be exploited in Yemen’s civil war, and proactive steps have not been taken to stop this tragic practice. Especially troubling is the decision to waive the CSPA prohibition for South Sudan, which leaves the country eligible to receive $20 million in assistance a mere month after UN investigators determined that child soldier recruitment by government and rebel forces in South Sudan is intensifying.

With this latest decision, President Trump left an especially vulnerable population, children caught in conflict, at risk. The complete waiving of all eligible security assistance is another glaring indication that this administration is not serious about holding human rights abusers accountable.

Rachel Stohl is managing director and Ryan Fletcher is a researcher at the Stimson Center.