The Obama administration quietly waived
a key section of the law meant to combat the
use of child soldiers for four toubled states on Monday, over the objections the State Department's democracy and human rights officials. Today, the
White House tells The Cable that they intend to give these
countries -- all of whose armed forces use underage troops -- one
more year to improve before bringing any penalties to bear.
The NGO community was shocked by the
announcement, reported Tuesday by The Cable, that President
Obama authorized exemptions from all penalties set to go into effect
this year under the Child Soldier Prevention Act of 2008. The
countries that received waivers were Chad, the Democratic Republic of
the Congo, Sudan, and Yemen.
The failure of the administration to
consult or even warn those groups that had worked hard to pass the
law caused unease and concern around the advocacy community Tuesday.
Child protection advocates worried that the administration was
abandoning the tactic of threatening to cut off military assistance
as a means to pressure abusive regimes to stop forcibly recruiting
troops under the age of 18.
"This took us totally by surprise and
was a complete shock to people who are working in the field," said
policy advisor for children in crisis at World Vision,
a children-focused humanitarian organization.
On Tuesday evening, a White House
official explained to The Cable the reasons for the decision
and the details of what it means for U.S. activity in the affected
countries. Essentially, the administration decided that it could not
ensure that the offending countries would be able to abide by the law
in time -- the breach of which would have required Washington to pull
funding. In the end, the administration's calculus weighed in favor
of continuing to fund several ongoing assistance programs like
military training and counterterrorism advising. They decided
to give each country at least one more year to implement reforms
before sanctions are brought to bear, according to the official.
"This is the first year that
sanctions were to take effect and part of our thinking here has been
to put countries on notice of these legal provisions that are taking
effect for the first time and that progress is going to have to be
made on these things if these countries are going to continue to
receive assistance," the White House official said.
The official also noted that the Obama
administration was keen to preserve their relationships with the
governments in question and argued that
engaging troubled militaries was the most effective way to
encourage the reform the law was designed to bring about.
"We still think it's important to
maintain a solid relationship with the governments there to ensure
they provide protection to those folks," the official said. "One
rationale for continuing the assistance is to help them address the
very problem that is the source of the sanctions."
Inside the administration, however,
The Cable has learned that there was a heated debate over
whether to issue the waivers. Apparently, this debate was held inside
the State Department, with the bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and
Labor (DRL) and the Office to Monitor and Combat Trafficking in
Persons arguing against blanket exemptions. The bureau of Political
and Military Affairs (PM) argued for the exemptions. The PM bureau's
argument won the day and the State Department submitted
recommendations to the White House, which issued the waivers.
The 2008 Child Soldier Prevention Act
was originally sponsored by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL) and
wrapped into a larger bill sponsored by then Sen. Joe Biden.
Durbin's office was not able to comment by deadline and Biden's
office deferred to the White House.
Leading human rights activists involved
in the issue were skeptical that letting abusive governments evade
sanctions would have the effect of producing reform faster.
"This is the first year it's being
enacted, so to waive everyone right out of the gate sends exactly the
wrong message," said Jo Becker, advocacy director for the
children's rights division at Human Rights Watch. "By providing a
blanket waiver, the U.S. is really giving up all of its leverage to
force them to change their approach to using child soldiers."
She also criticized the official's
contention that the abusive countries needed more time to become
aware of the law, which was signed in December 2008. It became
operative in June 2009 but couldn't go into effect until violator
countries were identified in the State Department's 2010
Trafficking in Persons Report, which came out
"If the State Department was doing
its job, governments would have been well aware two years ago that
this process was underway," said Becker.
The 2010 Trafficking in Persons report
identified six countries that are systematically employing the use of
child soldiers. In addition to the four that Obama waived sanctions
on, Burma and Somalia are also implicated. But neither of those
countries receive U.S. military assistance that could be cut off as a
sanction, according to the law. Therefore, Obama's waivers have the
effect of preventing the law from imposing any sanctions at all this
The White House official said when the
next State Department report comes out in June 2011, there will be
another assessment of whether to impose penalties on violator
countries. He also hastened to underline that the waivers weren't
issued to pave the way for new military sales to any of the countries
found to be using child soldiers.
In Chad, the U.S. is engaged in
counterterrorism activities but also is working with the government's
armed forces to deal with the spillover of refugees from the crisis
over the Sudanese border in Darfur. In the DRC, the U.S. is providing
training of various types, military advisors, and also military
vehicles and spare parts to the
Congolese army. Over 33,000 child soldiers have been involved in the
decade old civil war there and the country leads the world in the use
of underage troops, according
With regard to Sudan, other sanctions
prevent the United States from helping the Khartoum government in the
North, but the U.S. is giving military training assistance to the
Southern People's Liberation Army, which could end up a national
army if the South votes to separate in the January referendum. The
SPLA has about 1,200 child soldiers, the official said, adding that
cutting off such training would only undermine ongoing reform
Yemen is a recipient of significant
direct U.S. military assistance, having
received $155 million in fiscal 2010 with
a possible $1.2 billion coming over the next five years. Yemen is
also a much needed ally for counterterrorism operations. The
government is engaged in a bloody fight with al Qaeda (among
other separatist and terrorist groups), and
estimates put the ratio of child soldiers among all the groups there
than half. Nevertheless, "the president believes there
are profound equities with Yemen in terms of counterterrorism that we
need to continue to work on," the official told The Cable.
Several outside experts pointed out the
existing law already contains an exemption that
would permit the U.S. government to sanction abuser countries while
still providing assistance that "will directly support
professionalization of the military."
"This exception gives the U.S.
government very wide berth to continue to provide assistance to bring
these militaries more in line with the American image of what their
military should look like," said Rachel Stohl, Associate
Fellow at the Washington office of Chatham House, a U.K.-based think
tank. "The law allows for professionalization of these militaries,
so these waivers are really disappointing and add insult to injury."
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