Obama Gives a Pass to Nations Using Child Soldiers

Exec. Prod. of Franchises & Series. He previously reported for HuffPost, L.A. Daily Journal, and Biloxi Sun-Herald.
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A child soldier in the Chadian army. (Photo: Reuters)

The White House has decided to permit four nations that use child soldiers to continue receiving U.S. military aid, despite a 2008 law designed to discourage the practice worldwide.

On Monday, President Obama sent a memo to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton stating that he was waiving the application of the Child Soldiers Protection Act to Chad, Sudan, the Democratic Republic of Congo and Yemen.

The waivers were first reported by Foreign Policy magazine. The White House would not comment on the record to The New York Times for a follow-up story.

The 2008 law, which was signed by President George W. Bush, dictates that the United States cannot provide any military assistance to nations that the State Department identifies as active recruiters of child soldiers. It also makes the recruitment of anyone under 18 for military service a federal crime, and allows for their prosecution on U.S. soil. As President Obama did this week, the Commander-in-Chief can waive the law's application to specific nations.

So why is the U.S. waiving the law?

The memo offered no elaboration. But administration spokesmen said that the law, signed by President George W. Bush but effective only as of this year, would have penalized countries providing crucial cooperation, including in the fight against Al Qaeda militants. In some cases, they said, it was easier to press countries to stop using young soldiers if the United States remained closely engaged with them.

Human rights groups expressed outrage and frustration, with Jo Becker, the children's rights advocacy director of Human Rights Watch telling the Times, "everyone's gotten a pass, and Obama has really completely undercut the law and its intent."

The White House is responding to the backlash by saying that the military assistance to these regimes is more important than the fight against child soldiers, and that America would use its influence over these countries to end the practice.

But the Cable blog at Foreign Policy, which first reported the waivers, reacted with cynicism:

So the Obama administration has determined that deepening military relationships with brutal dictatorships and unsavory regimes is the best way to reform them? That seems like a pretty big shift in policy. It still remains unclear what military assistance the United States actually plans to give to countries like Sudan, Chad, and Yemen, as well as how it will use its engagement to protect child soldiers.

Only two nations that use child soldiers—Myanmar and Somalia—were not exempted from the law. Neither receives U.S. military assistance. 

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