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Will Obama Continue Supporting Child Soldiers In South Sudan?

South Sudanese child soldiers (Photo: Afronline)

South Sudanese child soldiers (Photo: Afronline)

Tuesday’s announcement that the United States was targeting both sides in South Sudan’s ongoing conflict with sanctions has raised the question of whether the Obama administration will continue to support child soldiers in the war-torn African nation.

The sanctions, although they only target one rebel army commander and the leader of President Salva Kiir’s presidential guard, demonstrate Washington’s frustration at the failure of the two sides to end their inter-ethnic warring.

One of the most shocking features of the 5-month long conflict, in which Nuer rebels commanded by former Vice President Riek Machar have been battling US-backed government forces loyal to President Kiir for control of the oil-rich but desperately poor nation, is both sides’ use of child soldiers.

According to United Nations human rights chief Navi Pillay, more than 9,000 child soldiers, a large number of them not even teenagers yet, are fighting for both sides in the brutal civil war. With more than 200,000 children among the more than 800,000 internally displaced South Sudanese, children are extremely vulnerable to exploitation and recruitment into both government and rebel armed forces.

In 2008, then-US President George W. Bush signed into law the Child Soldiers Prevention Act (CSPA), which barred US military aid to nations using child soldiers in their militaries. But tucked into the law is a “national interest waiver” clause, which allows the president to provide arms to countries that use child soldiers if he or she “determines that such waiver is in the national interest of the United States.”

The United States has many national interests in Africa and the Middle East, ranging from access to energy resources to counterterrorism to promoting regional stability. In service of these strategic and economic interests, President Obama in October 2010 issued a memorandum granting waivers from the CSPA to four regional nations that cooperate with the United States in the War on Terror: Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sudan and Yemen. All four nations were notorious for their use of child soldiers, yet they were able to secure US arms and other military aid thanks to Obama’s waiver.

Obama, who had co-sponsored the CSPA as a US senator, promised he would only grant the waivers once. But a year later, he did so again, with newly-independent South Sudan replacing Sudan on the list, despite the new nation’s horrific history of child soldiers.

In September 2012, Obama launched what was widely hailed as a landmark effort to combat human trafficking around the world. The president declared that “when a little boy is kidnapped, turned into a child soldier, forced to kill or be killed– that’s slavery.” He added that such actions were “barbaric” and “evil” and asserted that the United States has “long rejected such cruelty.”

But days later, Obama again granted CSPA waivers to four nations using child soldiers, with post-Gaddafi Libya replacing Chad on the list. He did so again in 2013, when Chad, South Sudan and Yemen were granted full waivers and the Democratic Republic of Congo was partially waved.

Particularly alarming is the continued inclusion of the Democratic Republic of Congo, where a decades-long war has claimed millions of lives and where the rampant use of child soldiers has been promoted by high-ranking military officials. The armed forces of both DRC and Somalia also practice widespread child rape as a weapon of war meant to terrorize targeted populations into submission. DRC forces also engage in the sexual enslavement of children.

The Obama administration has determined that US national interests are more important than these countries’ use of child soldiers, many of whom were forced into military service. In the case of South Sudan, Washington has provided some $270 million in military assistance since 2005.

In January, it was announced that the US was suspending military assistance and training to South Sudan. The administration has continued to withhold such aid, even while providing an additional $83 million in humanitarian assistance. But human rights groups are wondering whether the president will see fit to grant South Sudan CSPA waivers this fall, when he has made such decisions every year since 2010.

Although the Obama administration has pressed the nations it grants CSPA waivers to act to eliminate child soldiers from the ranks of their armed forces, and although progress has been made toward greater transparency and reduced numbers of children under arms, human rights officials assert the president needs to do more to address the tragic situation.

“We’ve seen that the Child Soldiers Prevention Act can work,” Jo Becker, children’s rights advocacy director at the international rights group Human Rights Watch, told ThinkProgress after Obama granted the waivers last October. “Last year, just days after the US withheld assistance from the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Congolese government signed an agreement with the UN to end their use of child soldiers.”

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