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Child soldiers backlash: White House argues continuing military assistance more important than enforcing law

Child soldiers backlash: White House argues continuing military assistance more important than enforcing law

The Obama administration quietly waived a key section of the law meant to combat the use of child soldiers for four toubled states on Monday, over the objections the State Department’s democracy and human rights officials. Today, the White House tells The Cable that they intend to give these countries — all of whose armed forces use underage troops — one more year to improve before bringing any penalties to bear.

The NGO community was shocked by the announcement, reported Tuesday by The Cable, that President Obama authorized exemptions from all penalties set to go into effect this year under the Child Soldier Prevention Act of 2008. The countries that received waivers were Chad, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, and Yemen.

The failure of the administration to consult or even warn those groups that had worked hard to pass the law caused unease and concern around the advocacy community Tuesday. Child protection advocates worried that the administration was abandoning the tactic of threatening to cut off military assistance as a means to pressure abusive regimes to stop forcibly recruiting troops under the age of 18.

"This took us totally by surprise and was a complete shock to people who are working in the field," said Jesse Eaves, policy advisor for children in crisis at World Vision, a children-focused humanitarian organization.

On Tuesday evening, a White House official explained to The Cable the reasons for the decision and the details of what it means for U.S. activity in the affected countries. Essentially, the administration decided that it could not ensure that the offending countries would be able to abide by the law in time — the breach of which would have required Washington to pull funding. In the end, the administration’s calculus weighed in favor of continuing to fund several ongoing assistance programs like military training and counterterrorism advising. They decided to give each country at least one more year to implement reforms before sanctions are brought to bear, according to the official.

"This is the first year that sanctions were to take effect and part of our thinking here has been to put countries on notice of these legal provisions that are taking effect for the first time and that progress is going to have to be made on these things if these countries are going to continue to receive assistance," the White House official said.

The official also noted that the Obama administration was keen to preserve their relationships with the governments in question and argued that engaging troubled militaries was the most effective way to encourage the reform the law was designed to bring about.

"We still think it’s important to maintain a solid relationship with the governments there to ensure they provide protection to those folks," the official said. "One rationale for continuing the assistance is to help them address the very problem that is the source of the sanctions."

Inside the administration, however, The Cable has learned that there was a heated debate over whether to issue the waivers. Apparently, this debate was held inside the State Department, with the bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor (DRL) and the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in Persons arguing against blanket exemptions. The bureau of Political and Military Affairs (PM) argued for the exemptions. The PM bureau’s argument won the day and the State Department submitted recommendations to the White House, which issued the waivers.

The 2008 Child Soldier Prevention Act was originally sponsored by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) and wrapped into a larger bill sponsored by then Sen. Joe Biden. Durbin’s office was not able to comment by deadline and Biden’s office deferred to the White House.

Leading human rights activists involved in the issue were skeptical that letting abusive governments evade sanctions would have the effect of producing reform faster.

"This is the first year it’s being enacted, so to waive everyone right out of the gate sends exactly the wrong message," said Jo Becker, advocacy director for the children’s rights division at Human Rights Watch. "By providing a blanket waiver, the U.S. is really giving up all of its leverage to force them to change their approach to using child soldiers."

She also criticized the official’s contention that the abusive countries needed more time to become aware of the law, which was signed in December 2008. It became operative in June 2009 but couldn’t go into effect until violator countries were identified in the State Department’s 2010 Trafficking in Persons Report, which came out in June.

"If the State Department was doing its job, governments would have been well aware two years ago that this process was underway," said Becker.

The 2010 Trafficking in Persons report identified six countries that are systematically employing the use of child soldiers. In addition to the four that Obama waived sanctions on, Burma and Somalia are also implicated. But neither of those countries receive U.S. military assistance that could be cut off as a sanction, according to the law. Therefore, Obama’s waivers have the effect of preventing the law from imposing any sanctions at all this year.

The White House official said when the next State Department report comes out in June 2011, there will be another assessment of whether to impose penalties on violator countries. He also hastened to underline that the waivers weren’t issued to pave the way for new military sales to any of the countries found to be using child soldiers.

In Chad, the U.S. is engaged in counterterrorism activities but also is working with the government’s armed forces to deal with the spillover of refugees from the crisis over the Sudanese border in Darfur. In the DRC, the U.S. is providing training of various types, military advisors, and also military vehicles and spare parts to the Congolese army. Over 33,000 child soldiers have been involved in the decade old civil war there and the country leads the world in the use of underage troops, according to UNICEF.

With regard to Sudan, other sanctions prevent the United States from helping the Khartoum government in the North, but the U.S. is giving military training assistance to the Southern People’s Liberation Army, which could end up a national army if the South votes to separate in the January referendum. The SPLA has about 1,200 child soldiers, the official said, adding that cutting off such training would only undermine ongoing reform efforts.

Yemen is a recipient of significant direct U.S. military assistance, having received $155 million in fiscal 2010 with a possible $1.2 billion coming over the next five years. Yemen is also a much needed ally for counterterrorism operations. The government is engaged in a bloody fight with al Qaeda (among other separatist and terrorist groups), and estimates put the ratio of child soldiers among all the groups there at more than half. Nevertheless, "the president believes there are profound equities with Yemen in terms of counterterrorism that we need to continue to work on," the official told The Cable.

Several outside experts pointed out the existing law already contains an exemption that would permit the U.S. government to sanction abuser countries while still providing assistance that "will directly support professionalization of the military."

"This exception gives the U.S. government very wide berth to continue to provide assistance to bring these militaries more in line with the American image of what their military should look like," said Rachel Stohl, Associate Fellow at the Washington office of Chatham House, a U.K.-based think tank. "The law allows for professionalization of these militaries, so these waivers are really disappointing and add insult to injury."