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US Waivers Could Send Mixed Signals on Use of Child Soldiers

  • Pamela Dockins

President Barack Obama has waived restrictions against providing military aid to six countries cited this year for using child soldiers. The countries, mostly in Africa, were among nine listed by the State Department in a June report on human trafficking. The waivers shield six countries from being fully subjected to penalties under the Child Soldiers Prevention Act, which requires the U.S. to cut off some forms of military assistance to offending countries. There is concern that the waivers send out the wrong message.

Child soldiers often wind up being further victimized after joining a conflict, said American University youth and conflict professor Susan Shepler.

“They are often forcefully recruited into armed forces or sometimes go into armed forces because they have no other choice in terms of their poverty or family situation. Then, once they are participating, they are sometimes called on to commit horrible atrocities,” said Shepler.

Concerns about such abuses prompted the U.S. to cite nine countries for their use of child soldiers. They are the Central African Republic, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan, Syria, Yemen, and Myanmar.

Now the U.S. has given all of these countries, except Syria, Myanmar and Sudan, a full or partial waiver from the Child Soldier Prevention Act.

State Department Human Rights and Security advisor Dan Mahanty explained that the department considered if improvement was being made.

“We are looking primarily at progress that may have been made by the country, hopefully along the lines of a national action plan which we will work very closely with the U.N. to help enforce and implement. Second, we are looking at the relevance of the assistance to national security objectives of the United States,” said Mahanty.

Mahanty rejects claims that the waivers send out a mixed message to countries that use child soldiers.

“Quite the opposite actually. I think the time period we have between when the ‘Trafficking in Persons’ report comes out and the countries are identified and the point in which the president makes his determination of waivers is actually really a key target of opportunity for us to talk with civil society, to speak with U.N. and to speak with the countries in question to make it clear that it is by no means an automatic decision that the president will waive certain forms of assistance,” said Mahanty.

Human rights advocate Adotei Akwei disagrees.

“That is what a recipient government in Africa is going to interpret it as - business as usual. The United States wants to train our security forces. 'Yes, there is some concerns about child soldiers but don't worry, it's not that serious.' And I think that's the real danger here,” said Akwei.

He said while it can be difficult to implement changes, not doing something to curb the use of child soldiers is worse.

“Children being physically abused. Children being at risk of death. Children not having an education. Children being exposed to violence and beginning to be trained as soldiers before they have the mental ability or the moral ability to know when violence is acceptable, if it ever is,” said Akwei.

Akwei said one of the best things the U.S. can do to help children like these is to follow through on its policy to hold accountable countries that use children in conflicts.