Moral Low Ground

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For 3rd Straight Year, Obama Waives Penalties on Countries Using Child Soldiers

By waiving sanctions on countries that employ child soldiers, President Obama is tacitly supporting the practice (Photo: UNICEF)

President Barack Obama issued a presidential memorandum waiving sanctions on countries that use child soldiers, allowing US military aid to continue to four countries despite their continued violation of the Child Soldiers Prevention Act (CSPA) of 2008.

Foreign Policy reports that President Obama issued the memo late Friday afternoon, a time of scant media attention. Libya, South Sudan and Yemen will be exempt from penalties enacted by Congress designed to prevent US arms sales to countries the US State Department determines are the worst violators of the CSPA.

President Obama also partially waived penalties for the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), where a decades-long war has claimed millions of lives and where the use of child soldiers, sometimes not even yet teenagers, is rampant. Despite the fact that DRC government military officers who have recruited child soldiers have been promoted to high-ranking positions, Obama’s penalty waiver means that some US military and training and arms sales to the DRC will continue.

Friday’s White House memo explains that the president “determine(s) that it is in the national interest of the United States” to continue sending US arms and aid to countries that use child soldiers. The administration argues that Washington needs to work with these countries to combat terrorism and on other security issues.

This is the third straight year that President Obama has granted waivers to countries using child soldiers. He first did so in 2010 without consulting Congress or NGOs of his decision. The administration promised that the waivers were a one-off but in 2011 Obama shocked human rights advocates and much of the world by granting the waivers again.

“The intent in this law was to use this waiver authority only in extreme circumstances, yet this has become an annual thing and this has become the default of this administration,” Jesse Eaves, senior policy adviser for child protection at the Christian children’s charity World Vision, told Foreign Policy.

This year, the addition of Libya to the list of countries being granted waivers is particularly alarming. During that country’s 2011 civil war that ousted longtime dictator and US enemy Muammar Gaddafi, US-backed rebels used children as young as seven to assist in their war effort.

President Obama’s continued support for countries whose militaries utilize child soldiers has led to an unusual situation in which Republicans are slamming his administration’s human rights record. It should be noted that the CSPA was signed into law by Republican President George W. Bush in 2008, and Rich Williamson, Bush’s special envoy to Sudan and a current senior adviser to the Mitt Romney campaign, accuses Obama of “[breaking] with a tradition that goes back to Woodrow Wilson about human rights and values animating our foreign policy.”

“This administration has not been an effective voice for human rights,” Williamson told The Cable in July.

Williamson’s critique is seen as brazenly hypocritical by many Democrats, who point to human rights violations including torture, secret prisons, extraordinary rendition, the military prison at Guantánamo Bay and the invasion of Iraq on questionable pretenses and charge that Bush administration officials lack any moral authority to pass judgement on Obama’s human rights record.

Still, some Republicans want to hold Obama officials accountable for their tacit support of child soldiers. Rep. Jeff Fontenberry (R-NE) attempted to pass legislation that would have required the president to notify Congress before renewing or issuing new waivers.

“Good citizens of this country who do not want to be complicit in this grave human rights abuse must challenge this administration,” Rep. Fontenberry told Foreign Policy, calling the president’s latest decision to grant waivers “an assault on human dignity.”

The Obama administration may itself have lost the moral ground from which to level charges of hypocrisy, since just last week the president issued an executive order to combat human trafficking that is at odds with his granting of child soldier waivers.

“When a little boy is kidnapped, turned into a child soldier, forced to kill or be killed– that’s slavery,” Obama said in an address at the Clinton Global Initiative.”It is barbaric, and it is evil, and it has no place in a civilized world. Now, as a nation, we’ve long rejected such cruelty.”

But by granting waivers from the CSPA to some of the world’s worst abusers of child soldiers for the third straight year, and by continuing to provide aid and sell arms to those countries, President Obama’s claim that America stands opposed to the “slavery” of child soldiering appears dubious to many observers.

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