Moral Low Ground


Obama Waives Ban on Military Aid to Child Soldier Armies for 7th Straight Year

A South Sudanese child soldier. (Photo: Africa Metro/Creative Commons)

A South Sudanese child soldier. (Photo: Africa Metro/Creative Commons)

For the seventh straight year, President Barack Obama has granted waivers from the Child Soldiers Prevention Act of 2008 (CSPA) to nations whose militaries conscript, employ and recruit children.

CSPA was passed in the last year of the George W. Bush administration and prohibits US military aid to nations whose armies include child soldiers among their ranks. CSPA contains a “national interest” waiver clause allowing the president to ignore the military aid ban if it is determined that granting such assistance to nations which violate the law serves the national interest.

Every year since 2010, Obama has issued — and the State Department under Hillary Clinton and John Kerry has implemented — waivers to a growing list of nations that includes some of the world’s most notorious child soldier recruiters. Countries that have received total or partial relief from CSPA sanctions include Libya, Chad, Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Sudan, South Sudan, Yemen, Somalia, Rwanda, Central African Republic and Nigeria.

This year, Obama issued full waivers for Burma, Iraq and Nigeria. Partial waivers were also granted for DRC, Rwanda, Somalia and South Sudan. The seven waivers are the most ever issued by the administration. Supporters argue the exemptions have been a useful tool for influencing governments identified as child soldier offenders — notably Chad, DRC and Rwanda — to take meaningful steps to eliminate or curb the enslavement, conscription, employment and recruitment of children into armed forces.

However, human rights groups continue to criticize the Obama administration for using the waivers despite continuing, and in some cases increasing, recruitment or use of child soldiers. In a letter to Obama from Amnesty International, Child Soldiers International, Human Rights Watch and Humanity United, the rights groups note:

Of the 12 countries that have been identified by the US State Department as having national armies or government-supported armed groups that used children between 2010 and 2015, ten countries had military assistance and/or arms sales authorized during that period. According to the Stimson Center, the administration has authorized more than $980 million in military assistance and over $275 million in arms sales for listed governments following waivers since 2010, and withheld only $56 million in military assistance and $5 million in arms sales under the CSPA.

The latest inclusion of South Sudan on the waiver list comes just weeks after an August 31, 2016 State Department statement expressing “profound alarm” over the South Sudanese army’s recruitment of child soldiers to fight in an ongoing civil war. The statement noted that an estimated 16,000 children have been recruited by both government and opposition forces since the outbreak of conflict in December 2013.

“The continued unlawful recruitment and use of children in armed conflict in South Sudan is unacceptable,” the statement asserted. “Eliminating the unlawful recruitment and use of child soldiers for armed groups in South Sudan is a leading priority of the United States. We remain committed to securing accountability for those who recruit and use children as soldiers.”

The State Department also said in the statement that “individuals responsible for the unlawful recruitment or use of child soldiers for armed groups or forces may be subject to sanction under US law and may be targeted for UN sanctions.” However, South Sudan is slated to receive some $30 million in US military assistance, in part to help its military participate in the war against the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), a fundamentalist Christian rebel group notorious for its use of child soldiers.

“The irony of supporting one government that is using child soldiers to hunt down a group that has relied upon child soldiers to wage war for decades seems to be lost on the Obama administration,” Rachel Stohl and Shannon Dick of the nonprofit Stimson Center wrote in a US News & World Report editorial.

In Iraq, which was granted full waivers in 2016, children are recruited or forced to fight by both Islamic State and by militias backed by the Iraqi government and the United States. These minors have participated in some of the fiercest campaigns of the war to recapture territory lost to Islamic State in the wake of the US withdrawal from Iraq, including the battle for Mosul.

The inclusion of Burma on this year’s waiver list has also raised serious concerns and objections. Despite the ongoing transition from military dictatorship to civilian rule there, and despite a professed commitment to end the use of child soldiers, the Burmese military and associated paramilitary and militia forces continue to “recruit and use” child soldiers, according to Human Rights Watch. Some progress has been made — the Burmese army has freed hundreds of child soldiers following a 2012 agreement with the UN — but critics say change has been slow and that some of the worst practices continue.

The Obama administration says the “carrot and stick” approach of granting waivers to reward progress and spur reform has led to some notable successes. “By linking waivers to specific actions in each country, the United States can use the possibility of a waiver to provide an incentive for reform and continue to work closely with those governments to end the use of child soldiers,” the State Department explained on its blog in 2014.

“Chad, for example, was listed under the CSPA in 2010, 2012, and 2013,” the blog continued. “In 2011, Chad signed a joint action plan with the UN outlining concrete steps toward ending the recruitment and use of child soldiers. Last year the Government of Chad fulfilled that action plan, and in a joint UN/Government of Chad screening mission found no children in its national army. As a result, Chad was not listed on the 2014 CSPA list.”

However, Stohl told the Washington Post that “we are not seeing change” and that in the case of South Sudan, one of the worst violators, “there’s no evidence partial waivers have worked to change… poor behavior and impunity.” Stohl also blasted the administration for excluding Afghanistan, an important US ally which saw a rise in the use of child soldiers in 2016, from the list of nations eligible for sanctions. State Department lawyers argue that because most child soldier violations occur in the police forces and not the army, the offenses technically do not take place in the “armed forces.”

“They [Obama administration] did bureaucratic somersaults to claim that the groups using child soldiers in Afghanistan are not government supported groups,” fumed Stohl.

Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE), who authored CSPA and serves as vice chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health, and Human Rights, has called Obama’s repeated decision to provide taxpayer-funded military aid to countries whose armies enslave children as soldiers “an assault on human dignity.”

“Children belong on playgrounds, not battlegrounds,” asserted Fortenberry. “It is unconscionable that the United States of America continues to facilitate the militarization of children, whose innocence is stripped as they are forced to fight and kill — and are subjected to the real likelihood that they will be killed themselves.”

Child rights advocates have slammed Obama — who claimed the waivers were a one-off the first time he issued them in 2010 — for failing to protect children to the best of his ability. “During President Obama’s tenure in office, the number of governments using child soldiers has grown from six to ten,” wrote Jo Becker, advocacy director for children’s rights at Human Rights Watch. “That’s a terrible legacy. If he had used this law more aggressively perhaps the number would not be as large. And perhaps fewer girls and boys will need to lose their childhoods and their lives while fighting other people’s wars.”

Others accused Obama of hypocrisy for speaking out against child soldiers while simultaneously assisting governments whose militaries include children among their ranks. On September 25, 2012, Obama delivered a rousing speech to the Clinton Global Initiative — an address attended by Sec. Clinton — in which he condemned the use of child soldiers, saying, “when a little boy is kidnapped, turned into a child soldier, forced to kill or be killed, that’s slavery. It is barbaric, and it is evil, and it has no place in a civilized world.” Three days later, he issued his third round of annual CSPA waivers.

It is unclear whether Hillary Clinton, who as secretary of state implemented the presidential waivers for three straight years, would continue with the annual exemptions if elected president. To date, there is no record of any journalist — or of anyone at all — asking any presidential candidate to clarify their stance on the matter and the corporate mainstream media has almost completely ignored the issue.

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