WASHINGTON, DC – As the junior senator from Illinois, Barack Obama co-sponsored a bill to restrict the U.S. government’s military support of countries that use children as soldiers. But President Obama has waived those very same sanctions in the name of “national interest,” bypassing the findings of a State Department report and allowing millions of dollars in military aid to flow to countries where children as young as 11 have been conscripted to fight — many of whom have died in one bloody conflict after another.
Mr. Obama’s actions have inflamed an army of critics, who say the waivers have put at-risk children in even greater danger.
“The implementation of the law by President Obama has been a big disappointment,” said Jo Becker, children’s rights advocacy director for Human Rights Watch. She said countries won’t get serious about ending the use of child soldiers until they think the United States is serious about withholding aid. “U.S. tax dollars should not go to governments that use child soldiers.”
Mr. Obama, however, has an opportunity to silence his critics as he decides over the next two months whether to withhold aid or give waivers to seven countries named in a new State Department report as using children — both boys and girls — as armed combatants.
The original legislation, a strongly worded bipartisan law known as the Child Soldier Prevention Act, prohibits the U.S. government from giving military financing and training funds to countries identified by the State Department in its annual “Trafficking in Persons” report as having recruited and used children younger than 15 as soldiers in their armed forces or government-supported militias. The bill passed unanimously in both the Senate and the House, and was signed into law by President Bush on Dec. 23, 2008.
Amnesty International has said that more than 250,000 children worldwide, about 45 percent of them girls, are fighting in active conflicts.
Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, Nebraska Republican, who authored the House version of the law, said that national security “must not be an excuse to allow us to be complicit with countries using child soldiers.” He called Mr. Obama’s decision in October to grant waivers on the 2011 trafficking report “an assault on human dignity.”
Mr. Fortenberry has introduced legislation that would require the president to report to Congress 15 days before issuing another waiver what credible and verifiable steps are being undertaken in countries cited for child-soldiers violations to implement a plan of action to end the recruitment of child soldiers. It also would prohibit the use of peacekeeping funds for those countries.
“In 2008, Congress did something very courageous: We passed a law saying it was the policy of our nation that children — all children, no matter where they are from — belong on playgrounds, not battlegrounds,” he said. “This is the law of the land. We are obligated to stop underwriting this form of human trafficking, child conscription.”
Mr. Obama will decide by early October whether to withhold aid or give waivers to seven countries named in the State Department’s 2012 Trafficking in Persons list as using children as armed combatants. The countries are Congo, Libya, Myanmar (also known as Burma), Somalia, Sudan, South Sudan and Yemen. Burma, Congo, Somalia, Sudan and Yemen are repeat offenders, named on the 2011 list.
In October, responding to the State Department’s 2011 report, Mr. Obama said it was in the “national interest of the United States” that Yemen be granted a full waiver, meaning it was entitled to receive $20 million in military financing aid and $1.2 million in training funds for fiscal 2012. He called Yemen “a key partner in counterterrorism operations against al Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula” and said that cutting military aid would harm the U.S. relationship with the country and “have a negative impact on U.S. national security.”
The president granted a partial waiver to Congo, saying that government had “taken some steps to reduce child soldiers,” but acknowledged that the progress made by Congo “does not yet represent the kind of institutional change required to make real progress toward eliminating child soldiers.”
Chad received a waiver for efforts to come into compliance with the law. Burma, Somalia and Sudan did not receive U.S. aid subject to the act, although the Transitional Federal Government in Somalia, which has child soldiers, is scheduled to receive $50 million in separate peacekeeping aid not subject to the Child Soldier Prevention Act.
In 2010, the first year the law was in effect, Mr. Obama gave full national-interest waivers to Chad, Congo, Sudan and Yemen.
On its Web page, Human Rights Watch said governments using children as soldiers in armed conflicts are due to receive $200 million in U.S. military assistance in fiscal 2012 — only a portion of which are prohibited under the act.