Human rights groups press Obama on child soldiers decision

Human rights groups press Obama on child soldiers decision

Twenty-nine leading human rights organizations wrote to President Obama on Friday to express their disappointment with his decision last week to waive sanctions against four countries the State Department has identified as using child soldiers.

The human rights and child advocacy community was not consulted before the White House announced its decision on Oct. 25 to waive penalties under the Child Soldiers Prevention Act of 2008, which was supposed to go into effect last month, for violators Chad, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan, and Yemen. The NGO leaders, along with officials on Capitol Hill, also expressed their unhappiness about the announcement, and their exclusion from the decision making process, in an Oct. 29 conference call with senior administration officials. Today, they backed up their complaints in writing and called on the administration to mitigate the consequences.

"We believe that your waiver undermines the intent of the law and sends an unfortunate message that the administration is not seriously committed to ending the use of child soldiers," the groups wrote to Obama. "By giving a blanket waiver, the administration has also given up the significant leverage that the law provides to influence the child recruitment practices of its military allies."

A secret administration justification memo spelled out the reasons that the White House ultimately decided to forgo the sanctions for each country, explaining why cooperation with these troubled militaries was in the U.S. national interest. But critics countered that these interests could have been maintained without gutting the law.

"We recognize that the United States has a complex set of national interests in each of these countries, including for example, counter-terrorism concerns in Yemen," they wrote. "However, the administration could have accommodated these concerns while also showing that it was taking the Child Soldiers Prevention Act seriously and using its leverage strategically to effectively end the use of child soldiers."

In the administration’s  conference call reported first on The Cable , the National Security Council senior director Samantha Power argued that staying engaged with these militaries while "naming and shaming" them was actually the most effective way to make progress on the child soldiers issue.

In their letter, the human rights groups rejected that argument. "This approach has been ineffective thus far," they noted. "Continuing existing programs — as the U.S. has done for years — without other changes in the approach is unlikely to yield change."

The groups had some specific recommendations for how the administration could mitigate the damage caused by waiving the sanctions. They want the administration to establish benchmarks to gauge whether these troubled militaries are actually making progress on demobilizing child soldiers, publicly commit to not transfer lethal materials to these armies, and start engaging the NGO community and congressional offices about these issues in an organized and transparent manner.

Jo Becker, advocacy director for the children’s rights division at Human Rights Watch, said the groups are also preparing some specific recommendations for the administration for each of the four countries.

So is the White House dealing well with the NGO groups involved, following last week’s botched roll out? "They’re certainly paying attention to this issue now," said Becker. "They say this is a priority and we would like to take them at their word."

The letter was signed by the African Centre for Justice and Peace Studies, the African Faith & Justice Network, the American Federation of Teachers, Amnesty International USA, the Baptist Peace Fellowship of North America, Caring for Kaela, Child Protection International, the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, the 3D Security Initiative, the Fellowship of Reconciliation, Foreign Policy in Focus , the Friends Committee on National Legislation, Human Rights First, Human Rights Program, the University of Minnesota, Human Rights Watch, the International Labor Rights Forum, International Justice Mission, Multifaith Voices for Peace and Justice, National Consumers League, the Open Society Policy Center, Oxfam America, Pax Christi USA, Physicians for Human Rights, Presbyterian Church USA, the Ramsay Merriam Fund, Refugees International, Resolve, the United Methodist Church, and the General Board of Church & Society.