Turtle Bay

U.N. ‘very disappointed’ by Obama’s reversal on child soldiers

The U.N.’s top advocate for child soldiers, Radhika Coomaraswamy, told Turtle Bay she was "very disappointed" by U.S. President Barack Obama‘s decision to waive a prohibition on military assistance to foreign armies that employ youths in their fighting ranks. But she urged the U.S. military to use its influence to convince these countries to sign ...

The U.N.’s top advocate for child soldiers, Radhika Coomaraswamy, told Turtle Bay she was "very disappointed" by U.S. President Barack Obama‘s decision to waive a prohibition on military assistance to foreign armies that employ youths in their fighting ranks. But she urged the U.S. military to use its influence to convince these countries to sign pacts with the U.N. designed to end the conscription of children.

"We are very disappointed — we didn’t see it coming," she said in an interview today. Coomaraswamy, a Sri Lankan national who serves as the U.N. secretary-general’s special representative for Children in Armed Conflict, said that her office is not in the position to "second guess a security decision" by the United States, but that she would now urge the U.S. military to use its influence to convince these governments to sign U.N. action plans that are designed to release thousands of child soldiers from military service. She said she would press her case with the U.S. mission to the United Nations and then travel to Washington to make her case, hopefully with the Pentagon.

President George W. Bush signed into law in 2008 the Child Soldiers Prevention Act, which was designed to bar U.S. military assistance to states designated by the State Department as having recruited child soldiers into their armies. On Monday, President Obama signed a waiver that allows the U.S. to continue military assistance to Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan and Yemen — four of the six countries targeted by the law. Burma, which receives no U.S. military assistance, and Somalia, which already receives peacekeeping assistance not covered by the law, are also on the list.

But in her first public remarks on Obama’s decision to waive prohibitions on military assistance programs to country’s that hire child soldiers, Coomaraswamy told Turtle Bay that she was disappointed."We all thought that it was an excellent idea," she said of the original U.S. law, noting that her office had cited it as a model to other key donor nations. "The fact that they are going back is a step backward."

Despite the reversal, Coomaraswamy said that the Obama administration has generally been supportive of her office’s efforts to end the recruitment of child soldiers. For instance, she said that U.S. political pressure has been critical in persuading the Afghan government, which recruits minors into its police forces, to begin negotiations with the U.N. on a plan to end the practice.

Still, Coomaraswamy acknowledged serious differences with the Obama administration over its treatment of Omar Khadr, the youngest militant detained at Guantanamo Bay. In a letter to the U.S. military commission in Guantanamo Bay, Coomaraswamy complained about the ongoing detention of Khadr, a Canadian national who pleaded guilty to killing a U.S. serviceman in a firefight with American forces in Afghanistan in 2002. She called on the U.S. commission to release Khadr, who was 15 years old at the time of the battle, on the grounds that he was an unwitting child soldier.

"In every sense Omar represents the classic child soldier narrative, recruited by unscrupulous groups to undertake actions at the bidding of adults to fight battles they barely understand," she wrote. "I would therefore urge the military commission members to consider international practice — practice supported by the U.S. government — that Omar Khadr not be subjected to further incarceration but the arrangement be made for him to enter a controlled rehabilitation program in Canada."

The White House, meanwhile, argued that its decision to waive prohibition of military assistance to countries that use child soldiers was in the interest of national security in allowing the United States to support countries that back American anti-terror policies or face fragile political transitions. It maintains that continued U.S. military assistance would actually accelerate these countries’ ability to end controversial practices, including the conscription of child soldiers.

In the case of Yemen, the United States defended its waiver on the grounds that a ban on military assistance would undermine its ability to prosecute the war on terror, noting that a cut-off of military aid "would seriously jeopardize the Yemeni government’s capability to conduct special operations and counterterrorism missions."

In Chad, the State Department said the measure would undercut the U.S. backed humanitarian effort there, which hosts more than 280,000 Sudanese refugees, and "could harm the cooperation relationship we currently hold with Chad in combating terrorism." The State Department said that the waiver were also necessary to professionalize the militaries in Congo and Southern Sudan, which is in the midst of a highly sensitive transition to possible independence.

The administration has come under criticism from child soldier advocates, who say the U.S. waiver will lessen the incentive for these governments to release child soldiers. "The intent of the law — to use the United States considerable leverage to persuade governments to stop using child soldiers — has unfortunately been undermined," said Jo Becker, an expert on child soldiers at Human Rights Watch. "By giving a waiver to these four countries, Obama has essentially given everyone a pass." But Becker noted that the leadership in Congo and South Sudan have made previous commitments to release from conscription child soldiers that they have never honored.

Coomaraswamy said that she is also engaged in discussions on the fate of child soldiers in Chad, Congo and South Sudan, where the local government has pledged to release from conscription as many as 900 child soldiers by the end of the year. U.N. officials said that the organization has to be pragmatic, and use the American policy shift as an opportunity to press countries to release child soldiers. They noted the U.N. itself, which has instructed U.N. peacekeepers to cooperate with the militaries that use child soldiers in Congo and Somalia, is in no position to lecture. "We can’t get too high on the moral ground," said one U.N. official.

Follow me on Twitter @columlynch

Colum Lynch is a senior staff writer at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @columlynch

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