The Cable

U.N. committee tells Obama to stop waiving sanctions on countries that use child soldiers

The Obama administration has waived sanctions on countries that use child soldiers for three years in a row, and today a United Nations committee urged the U.S. president to take a tougher stance.

Last October, President Barack Obama issued a presidential memorandum waiving penalties under the Child Soldiers Protection Act of 2008 (CSPA) for Libya, South Sudan, and Yemen, along with a partial waiver for the Democratic Republic of the Congo.

Those penalties were put in place by Congress to prevent U.S. arms sales to countries determined by the State Department to be the worst abusers of child soldiers in their militaries, but the Obama administration has waived almost all of them each year, arguing that continued arms sales to abuser countries are needed either to bolster those countries' fragile security or to support cooperation with the U.S. military in areas such as counterterrorism.

The president's move to waive the sanctions came just one week after he issued a new executive order to fight human trafficking, touting his administration's handling of the issue.

"When a little boy is kidnapped, turned into a child soldier, forced to kill or be killed -- that's slavery," Obama said in a speech at the Clinton Global Initiative. "It is barbaric, and it is evil, and it has no place in a civilized world. Now, as a nation, we've long rejected such cruelty."

On Tuesday, the U.N. Committee on the Rights of the Child released a report containing recommendations on how countries can address the issue of child soldiers -- along with some criticism of Obama.

"The Committee urges the [United States] to enact and apply a full prohibition of arms exports, including small arms and light weapons as well as any kind of military assistance to countries where children are known to be, or may potentially be, recruited or used in armed conflict and/or hostilities. To this end, the [United States] is encouraged to review and amend the 2008 Child Soldiers Prevention Act with the view to withdrawing the possibility to allow for presidential waivers to these countries," the report stated.

Human rights groups pointed to the U.N. report as supportive of their longstanding calls for the Obama administration to stop issuing the waivers.

"While the administration has stepped up its attention to child soldiers, it continues to squander the leverage it has through the Child Soldiers Prevention Act," Jo Becker, children's rights advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, told The Cable. "By giving waivers to nearly all of the countries that have been affected by the law, the president is telling military allies that ending the use of child soldiers is not that important."

The U.N. committee also reported that it was "alarmed at reports of the death of hundreds of children as a result of attacks and air strikes by the US military forces in Afghanistan," expressed "deep concern" about the arrest and detention of children by U.S. forces in Afghanistan, and criticized U.S. laws that prevent former child soldiers from being granted asylum in the United States.

President George W. Bush signed the child-soldiers law in 2008. It prohibits U.S. military education and training, foreign military financing, and other defense-related assistance to countries that actively recruit troops under the age of 18. Countries are designated as violators if the State Department's annual Trafficking in Persons report identifies them as recruiting child soldiers. The original bill was sponsored by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL).

Obama first waived the sanctions in 2010, the first year they were to go into effect. At that time, the White House failed to inform Congress or the NGO community of its decision in advance, setting off a fierce backlash. A justification memo obtained by The Cable at the time made several security-related arguments for the waivers. Sudan was going through a fragile transition, for example. Yemen was crucial to counterterrorism cooperation, the administration argued.

But NSC Senior Director for Multilateral Affairs Samantha Power told NGO leaders at the time that the waivers would not become a recurring event.

"Our judgment was: Brand them, name them, shame them, and then try to leverage assistance in a fashion to make this work," Power said, saying the administration wanted to give the violator countries one more year to show progress. "Our judgment is we'll work from inside the tent."

The waivers continued for the next two years. As The Cable reported Monday, Power will leave the administration, at least temporarily, at the end of this month.

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