The Cable

Congress strikes back against Obama’s child soldiers' waivers

The Cable reported yesterday that President Barack Obama waived penalties on several countries that recruit child soldiers for the second year in a row. Today, lawmakers moved to ensure that the administration won't keep funding governments that use child soldiers next year.

The administration waived penalties mandated under the Child Soldiers Protection Act (CSPA) against Yemen, Chad, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). The administration didn't provide a justification for not penalizing South Sudan, because the 2011 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report, which was released on June 27 and triggers the penalties, names "Sudan," not "South Sudan," as an abuser. South Sudan was declared independent on July 9, 12 days after the report came out.

"South Sudan wasn't a country during the reporting period and isn't subject to the CSPA; there are no penalties to waive under the law," National Security Council spokesman Tommy Vietor told The Cable.

That explanation struck several congressional aides and human rights activists we spoke with today as too clever by half. After all, the TIP report was referring to use of child soldiers by the government of "Southern Sudan" and the Southern People's Liberation Army (SPLA), which hasn't stopped the practice and will receive $100 million of U.S. taxpayers' money this year.

"They're using a legal and technical loophole to continue to build up partnership with a government that needs to be reminded how serious this problem is," said Sarah Margon, associate director for sustainable security and peace building at the Center for American Progress. "It's exactly how not to establish the message that they need to set up their government with full respect for human rights and transparency."

"At the time the TIP report came out, it was obvious South Sudan was going to be an independent country so any responsible person would have taken that into consideration," one senior House aide told The Cable. "Apart from the law, the White House still had discretion to address the issue as a policy matter and it chose not to condition any of the aid on the SPLA completing its demobilization of child soldiers."

The administration made the case that Chad has made sufficient progress on the child soldiers issue, and is no longer subject to penalties. "We've seen the government take concrete steps over the last year to implement policies and mechanisms to prohibit and prevent future government or government-supported use of child soldiers," Vietor said. 

"The U.N.'s Chad Country Task Force has reported no verified cases of child soldiers in 2011, and Chad has put in place safeguards to prevent further use or recruitment of child soldiers. The president's reinstatement of assistance to Chad reflects this progress," he explained.

But several activists noted that the United Nations and State Department both kept Chad on their list of countries violating international standards for child recruitment this year, and that international monitors' limited access in Chad calls into question anybody's ability to verify whether the government has stopped using child soldiers.

Several aides and activists were angry at the administration for failing to adequately consult or even inform them of the waivers before they were announced. Administration officials briefed congressional staffers and NGO leaders yesterday, and journalists not at all.

"It also says something about the State Department's willingness to engage with civil society actors," said Margon. "It's a black mark on them in their ability to work with friends and allies on these issues. Why alienate the people who want to work with you on this stuff? It just doesn't make any sense."

Congress has no intention of letting this scenario play out again next year. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE), vice chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health and Human Rights, successfully added an amendment to the Trafficking Victims Protection Act reauthorization bill today that would force the administration to give Congress 15 days notice before issuing waivers for the child-soldier penalties.

The amendment would also expand the law to include peacekeeping funds given to violator countries (such as Somalia), and force the White House to show that countries are making progress toward eliminating the use of child soldiers before receiving a waiver. Sens. Richard Durbin (D-IL) and John Boozman (R-AR) have already introduced a companion measure in the Senate.

Not all Capitol Hill staffers were completely unsympathetic to the administration's arguments, however.

One Senate aide referred to the progress noted by the Obama administration in Chad and the partial cut of U.S. military assistance in the DRC as "welcome steps -- steps that might not have occurred without the force of the Child Soldier Prevention Act," noting that they "will require serious follow up attention."

But overall, the administration's roll out of the decision was panned by the NGO and human rights communities, which see the administration's action as undermining the intent of the legislation.

"At a time when Congress is locked in one of the most difficult budget battles I've ever seen, it is shameful that a portion of federal funding continues to help support governments who are abusing children," said Jesse Eaves, World Vision's policy advisor for children in crisis. "This is a very weak decision by an administration paralyzed with inaction. And the worst part is that thousands of children around the world -- not the politicians in the White House or the State Department -- are the ones who will suffer."

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The Cable

Congress gears up to fight arms sales to Bahrain

Congress and the NGO community are gearing up to fight the Obama administration's plan to sell $53 million worth of weapons to Bahrain, which is proceeding on schedule despite that country's crackdown on protesters.

The State Department argued in its Sept. 14 notification to Congress that the proposed sale will contribute to U.S. national security "by helping to improve the security of a major non-NATO ally that has been, and continues to be, an important force for political stability and economic progress in the Middle East."

The administration is planning to sell Bahrain 44 armored, high-mobility Humvees and over 300 advanced missiles, 50 of which are bunker-buster missiles similar to those sold secretly to Israel in 2009.

"Bahrain will use the enhanced capability as a deterrent to regional threats and to strengthen its homeland defense," the notification reads.

But the government of Bahrain, led by King Hamad bin Isa Al Khalifa, has been engaged in a months-long struggle with a predominantly Shiite protest movement. Opposition groups claim that 30 protesters have been killed by the government and more than 1,000 have been arrested. The government also  called in a Saudi-led force in March that included dozens of tanks to bolster their position, effectively putting the country on lockdown.

Independent organizations such as Human Rights Watch have reported that the Bahrain government has used brutal tactics, including using masked thugs to sweep up lawyers and other activists in nighttime raids. Today, the government announced new trials for 20 medics whose long jail sentences provoked outrage in the international community.

"In Bahrain, steps have been taken toward reform and accountability, but more are required,"
President Obama said in his Sept. 21 speech at the U.N. "America is a close friend of Bahrain, and we will continue to call on the government and the main opposition bloc - the Wifaq - to pursue a meaningful dialogue that brings peaceful change that is responsive to the people."

The Obama administration has several interests in Bahrain, the fact that the U.S. Fifth Fleet is stationed there being chief among them. Bahrain is also a client state of Saudi Arabia and policymakers have voiced fears that a victory by the protest movement would strengthen Iranian influence in the country.

Regardless, a growing group of lawmakers and non-governmental organizations are gearing up to oppose the State Department's plan to sell weapons to Bahrain. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-OR) and Rep. Jim McGovern (D-MA) are circulating a resolution that would stop the sale from going through.

"Providing arms to a government that is actively committing human rights violations against peaceful protestors is at odds with United States foreign policy goals," Wyden told The Cable. "We should be promoting democracy and human rights in the region and not rewarding a regime that is jailing and in some cases killing those who choose to peacefully protest their government and anyone who supports them. This resolution will prevent the U.S. from providing the Kingdom of Bahrain with weaponry until they show a real commitment to respecting human rights."

"The Humvees are particularly worrisome for a regime that is quashing protests," said one Senate aide who works on the issue. "But the overall principle of selling arms to this regime as they use live ammunition to kill protesters is just awful and we're going to do what we can to try to stop it."

Other senior senators are just becoming aware of the issue, but their initial reactions are a mixture of concern and criticism of the Bahrain government.

"I'm cautious about empowering this regime now in Bahrain. The internal conflict in Bahrain needs to be settled," Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) told The Cable.  "I'm not so sure I would go down that road right now [in terms of arms sales]."

"I didn't even we were doing that until you told me," Graham admitted, thanking your humble Cable guy for bringing the issue to his attention.

Sen. Joe Lieberman (I-CT) also seemed conflicted about the idea of selling more weapons to Bahrain but declined to outright oppose the idea.

"I'm troubled by what's happened in Bahrain, but Bahrain has been a wonderful ally and our 5th Fleet there is critical to the security of the whole region," he told The Cable. "I'd be hesitant to cut off sales, but it is awkward now."

Senate Foreign Relations Middle East Subcommittee chairman Bob Casey (D-PA) also said he was concerned about the violence against protesters in Bahrain but didn't want to commit to a position about the arms sales either way.

"We're looking at it, because we want to do everything we can to hold a country like that to high standards," Casey told The Cable.

The big question is what Senate Foreign Relations Committee chairman John Kerry (D-MA) thinks. Kerry's committee has first crack at any resolution to oppose the sale, and the resolution's backers want his support. But -- despite Kerry's denials that he is seeking the secretary of state job -- he rarely picks fights with the White House in public. His office did not answer requests for comments on the topic.

Human Rights First, an international human rights organization, wrote an open letter to Kerry last month calling on him to oppose further arms sales to Bahrain.

"Stopping this arms sale to a country currently abusing the rights of its citizens is in step with your long record of opposition to arming tyrants," the letter states. "Arms sales to Bahrain at this time would contradict the United States' twin interests of regional stability and peaceful reform. If the United States aspires to be a global human rights leader... it should not reward the current repression with weapons."

The Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED) also drafted a letter to Congress, signed by a dozen organizations including Human Rights Watch and Freedom House, urging Congress "to take immediate action to block a proposed arms sale to Bahrain until it ends abuses against peaceful protesters and takes meaningful steps toward political reform and accountability for recent and ongoing serious human rights violation."

Cole Bockenfeld, director of advocacy for POMED, told The Cable that the arms sale will have a devastating effect on U.S. credibility in the Arab world.

"The sale will unquestionably be perceived by both the government of Bahrain and those in the opposition as a green light for the government to continue its brutal repression," he said. "In the broader picture of the Arab Spring, this further erodes the credibility of U.S. rhetoric about democracy and human rights in the region."

UPDATE: Wyden introduced his resolution Thursday, a copy of which can be found here.

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