Rights groups criticize US military aid for nations using child soldiers
WASHINGTON — Nearly four years after the passage of legislation aimed at withholding military aid to nations that employ child soldiers, the United States continues to selectively issue waivers for noncompliant countries.
The administration says exceptions must be made in the U.S. national interest, but human rights groups counter that repeatedly extending the waivers suggests that the U.S. is placing politics above the interests of children and not holding those nations accountable for failing to end the practice.
The Obama administration announced Friday that it would not cut off military aid to Yemen and South Sudan and that it would issue a partial waiver to the Democratic Republic of Congo. It also added a new country to the list of nations granted waivers: Libya.
“U.S. taxpayer money should not be used to support these governments [because of the Child Soldiers Protection Act],” said Jo Becker, director of children’s rights advocacy for Human Rights Watch.
Jesse Eaves, senior policy advisor for child protection at World Vision, a Christian humanitarian organization, said that the move showed a lack of will to enforce the law.
It seemed “really odd” in light of Obama’s tough remarks against human trafficking and the exploitation of children earlier last week at the United Nations, he said.
“They have avoided making the tough decision of stopping exploitation of children around the world,” Eaves said.
During last year’s civil war that overthrew Libyan leader Moammar Gadhafi, adolescent males served in military support and combat roles on both sides of the unrest, according to a State Department report released in June.
Boys under 18 manned checkpoints, secured strategic buildings and drove cars for the transitional government in Libya. In other instances, “some were armed and uniformed, while others took part in active fighting.”
In Yemen, children as young as 11 have been conscripted to the government armed forces, as well as rebel-backed militias, and over the past year, the enlistment of child soldiers has increased.
In 2010, when the first of the national security waivers were issued, White House officials said the listed countries, were effectively being given a year to mend their ways, before the United States relinquished aid.
“Our intention is to work with them over the next year to try to solve this problem — or at least make significant progress on it — and reassess our posture towards them next year, depending on the progress they have made,” said White House National Security spokesman Tommy Vietor, in 2010, to the New York Times.
But progress has been uneven, Becker said. The most headway had been made in South Sudan, which signed an action plan to stop using child soldiers and implemented many of its steps. Still, the practice hasn’t stopped, she said.
In Yemen, she said, virtually no progress has been made.
For the past two years, the waiver list also included Chad, which was dropped this year after it was not identified by the State Department as having a child soldier problem since its conflict ended last year, Becker said. However, she said she believes that decision was “premature.”
In an emailed statement this week, Vietor maintained that progress has been made.
“Three countries — Burma, Somalia, and South Sudan — signed joint Action Plans with the U.N. to eliminate the use of child soldiers,” he said: “These action plans are a key tool promoted by U.S. diplomacy and were a welcome achievement.”
In Libya’s case, despite reports of child soldiers on both sides, Vietor said it was important for the U.S. government to continue to support Libya’s “democratic transition.”
“In July, the country held credible national elections and is working to recover from over four decades of autocratic rule,” he said.
Libyan government officials have made public commitments to eliminate the use of child soldiers. The Obama administration plans to press the issue, he said.
“It is in the U.S. national interest to develop relationships with the new government to avoid the proliferation of loose weapons, tighten border security, develop counterterrorism capabilities, and provide the stability the country needs to avoid further violence,” Vietor said.
In Yemen, he added, security assistance is crucial to supporting counterterrorism against al-Qaida in the Arabian Peninsula.
However, Becker said that she would like to see the increased use of partial waivers, such as in Congo, to tow a stronger line. The U.S. withheld $2.7 million in military assistance last year, and this year, it announced it would not train a second battalion for the country and would withhold $200,000. Those tougher measures have gotten the country to agree to sign an action plan to put an end to child soldiers, she said.
However, Eaves said the law so far has only been applied to countries with child soldiers that aren’t receiving U.S. military assistance anyway, such as Myanmar and Somalia.
"The use of the waiver authority was to be used in just extreme situations. It was never meant to be the default reaction,” he said.
Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, R-Neb., author of the Child Soldiers Prevention Act, said in statement that “the waiver authority should be used as a mechanism for reform, not as a way of continuing the status quo.”
“The unthinkable practice of the use of children as soldiers continues in the world today,” he said. “The United States must not be complicit in this practice.”