The Cable

Cable exclusive: Inside the White House conference call on child soldiers

The White House spent an hour Friday afternoon trying to convince angry Hill staffers and human rights activists that "naming and shaming" governments that recruit child soldiers, rather than imposing Congressionally-mandated sanctions on them, will better address the problem. But advocacy leaders are upset with the administration and rejected top White House officials' contention that removing sanctions against four troubled states will be a positive move.

The White House began a conference call on the issue Friday afternoon by apologizing to the NGO and Hill community for the decision's botched rollout, which was announced only through a short official presidential memorandum on Monday and then reported on by The Cable on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday. The call was off the record and not for press purposes, but a recording was made available to The Cable.

"This is a call that should have happened before you read about the administration's child soldiers' posture in the newspaper," said Samantha Power, the National Security Council's senior director for multilateral affairs and human rights. "Given the way you all heard about the implementation of the statute, I can understand why some of the reactions that you had were prevalent."

Power defended the president's decision to waive penalties under the Child Soldiers Prevention Act of 2008, which was set to go into effect this month, for Chad, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Sudan, and Yemen. She argued that identifying these countries as violators while giving them one more year to stop recruiting underage troops would help make progress.

"Our judgment was brand them, name them, shame them, and then try to leverage assistance in a fashion to make this work," said Power, adding that this was the first year the Obama administration had to make a decision on this issue, so they want to give the violator countries one more year to show progress.

"In year one to just say we're out of here, best of luck, we wish you well... Our judgment is we'll work from inside the tent."

But Hill staffers and advocacy leaders on the call weren't buying what Power was selling. They were upset that they learned about the decision via The Cable, and challenged Power on each point that she made.

For example, Jo Becker, advocacy director for the children's rights division at Human Rights Watch, pointed out that the law was passed two years ago.

"The law was enacted in 2008, so countries have had two years to know that this was coming down the pike," she said. "So the consequences of the law really shouldn't be taking anyone by surprise, so to say countries need a year to get their act together is really problematic."

She also disputed Power's contention on the call that "there's evidence that our diplomatic engagement and this military assistance has resulted in some changes."

"The U.S. has been providing training for years already with no real change on the ground," said Becker. "We haven't seen significant changes in practice so far from the engagement approach, so that seems to indicate to me we need to change the approach, maybe withholding programs until we see changes on the ground."

"I think the logic of engagement is something reasonable people can disagree on," Power responded. "There's probably empirical evidence on both sides."

Advocates on the call did acknowledge Chad's efforts on child soldier demobilization, but lamented that little or no progress has been seen in the DRC or with South Sudan's Southern People's Liberation Army (SPLA). But they wanted to know: If the administration believes that the threat of the sanctions has caused progress, then how does removing that threat keep the pressure on?

"Why remove that leverage now when we've seen it's been so valuable?" asked Scott Stedjan, senior policy advisor at Oxfam America

Jesse Eaves, policy advisor for children in crisis at World Vision, was one of several on the call to wonder why the administration decided to waive all sanctions, rather than using a part of the law that allows the continuation of military assistance to violator countries, along as that assistance goes toward military professionalization.

"Naming and shaming has not worked," he said. "You can give support under the law. Much of the aid that's even discussed in the justification memo that many of us have seen can still be given to these countries if they show a reasonable attempt to demobilize child soldiers."

Overall, Power wanted to point out that the administration is still intent on fighting the use of child soldiers and that waiving the sanctions doesn't mean that all pressures will stop. She promised that if these countries don't shape up, the administration will take a tougher line when reevaluating the sanctions next year.

Power repeatedly attempted to argue that the attention over the president's decision to waive sanctions was exactly the kind of public pressure needed to spur violator governments to change. However, her argument was complicated by the fact that the administration failed to tell anyone about the decision and announced it with no rollout or explanation whatsoever.

"I do think there's something different between what happened in 2008 [when the law passed] versus actually being named this week," she said. "And we're already seeing out in the field via our embassies a huge amount of discomfort and angst on the part of those countries about being branded in this way."

Power said at the end of the call that the administration plans to capitalize on the fallout from its decision. She said that the administration planned on "[u]sing the attention from this moment and the leverage of having abstained from having put the sanctions in effect right now and saying... ‘You're not going to get so lucky next time if we don't see some progress.'"

Overall, the call showed that the White House realized it botched the rollout of the decision but is standing by the decision itself. Next, they will have to defend it on Capitol Hill, where staffers are set to receive a special briefing on the issue next week.

"I think it's unfortunate that the NGO community and those in Congress who wrote the law were not involved in its implementation," said Kody Kness, an aide to Sen. Sam Brownback (R-KS), one of the lead sponsors of the law. "I think that's a missed opportunity."

AFP / Getty Images

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