Waiving our responsibility to vulnerable children

Waiving our responsibility to vulnerable children

The bungled handling of the requirements of the Child Soldier Prevention Act last week is a clear and disturbing sign that the U.S. policy apparatus around global children’s issues remains seriously broken. Back in 2009, I urged Secretary Clinton to fix these problems by appointing a high-level Ambassador for Children. To her credit she has appointed Ambassador Susan Jacobs as her Special Advisor for Children’s Issues. This was an important step forward, but not enough. Ambassador Jacobs sits in the Bureau of Consular Affairs, limiting her remit to children who are either adopted internationally or abducted across borders. These issues, especially adoption, desperately needed more attention and I wish the Ambassador well in her efforts. The sad recent death of Steve Jobs, adopted as an infant, was a reminder of the positive outcomes adoption can have for children. While important for thousands of needy children and American families, adoption issues are a small part of the equation for adequately protecting the world’s children.

No high level attention exists for the millions of other vulnerable children — street children, child trafficking victims, unaccompanied minor refugees and the most neglected of all, children affected by war (including both forced conscription and gender based violence). Several bureaus and offices at State and USAID have some responsibility for each of these groups of children, but with no high level official responsible for tracking both policy and foreign assistance directed to all of them, they continue to fall through the cracks, all while disjointed policy decisions persist. This is the second year in a row that the Obama Administration granted waivers to every country identified in its own Trafficking in Persons Report (2011) as using child soldiers and under sanction threat. Josh Rogin reported on the debacle both years. I have no inside knowledge of the process either year, but to someone involved in this type of policy debate in the past it looks like the decision memo for the Secretary was cleared at low levels. The regional bureaus’ standard desire for waivers won over efforts by the Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor (DRL) and the Office to Combat Trafficking in Persons to use the diplomatic pressure Congress had given them with the CSPA. The result was the administration again playing catch up with an angry NGO community and Members of Congress who are fighting back.

National security waivers, like those included in the CSPA, are important for the Secretary’s discretion to weigh counter-veiling U.S. interests in each country impacted by legislation. Some of the waivers given this year may even have been justified. Yemen, for example, makes sense for a waiver based on important counter-terror cooperation. In the justification memo for the waivers, the arguments for the importance of our counter-terror efforts in Yemen are clear. Unfortunately, there is not a single mention of anything we are doing to address the issue of child soldiers in Yemen, probably because we are doing nothing. Youth can become the fiercest and most undisciplined soldiers and also the most susceptible to recruitment into terror networks. Linkages between child soldiers and counter-terrorism are clear to someone looking for them and seeking to find creative solutions to both threats.

The second CSPA mishandling reveals that no one is ‘minding the store’ when it comes to global rights-based child protection issues. There are special challenges to dealing with child rights and interests. Someone who understands those special security issues and vulnerabilities needs to be specifically tasked with monitoring and advocating for the full range of children vulnerable to abuse and neglect. There are several options. The Secretary could choose to create a separate office, like the Office of Global Women’s Issues, responsible for child protection issues. Concerns about a proliferation of such offices within the State Department makes this a big ask. Another option would be to handle children’s issues much like disability issues. In 2004, an Advisory Committee on Disability Policy was formed with participation from external experts and jointly chaired by State and USAID. This led to the appointment of the new Special Advisor on International Disability Rights who sits in DRL with the mandate to rally attention and cooperation around disability. Something similar for child protection would help avoid mistakes like the handling of the CSPA. It also would provide a natural ally and advocate within the Department for efforts such as the Child Soldier Initiative led by retired Lt. General Romeo Dallaire of Rwanda fame, or organizations focused on advocacy for children affected by armed conflict such as Invisible Children or the Network for Young People Affected by War.

Everyone, in theory, supports greater child protection. Specific challenges, however, are easy to forget and ignore. We do so to the detriment of U.S. interests and the future of our world. Inspired by my own view of these foreign policy disconnects, I have launched a new platform for cooperation and support called Each Inc. to help address the dire need for more attention to child protection globally. The private sector is waking up to the issues and Congress clearly wants to do more. Secretary Clinton is the perfect leader to implement the important changes required to avoid a third strike on the CSPA next year and better protect the world’s most vulnerable children. I hope she does.