Published: October 28, 2010
WASHINGTON — In 2009, the government of Chad conscripted refugee children for unlawful use as guards and combatants in its desert battles against rebel forces; the army of the Democratic Republic of Congo forced children to carry ammunition and supplies through the jungle, and some died under their weight; hundreds of boys and girls were forced into the army of southern Sudan, despite a commitment to release them; and in Yemen, children as young as 14 make up perhaps half the ranks of both the government’s forces and the rebels opposing them.
Despite those findings, in an annual State Department report on human trafficking, the Obama administration is allowing American military aid to continue to the four countries, issuing a waiver this week of a 2008 law, the Child Soldiers Prevention Act.
The memo offered no elaboration. But administration spokesmen said that the law, signed by President George W. Bush but effective only as of this year, would have penalized countries providing crucial cooperation with the United States, including in the fight against Al Qaeda militants. In some cases, they said, it was easier to press countries to stop using young soldiers if the United States remained closely engaged with them.
And now, they said, the four countries are effectively being given a year to change their ways.
“We put these four countries on notice by naming them as having child soldiers, and thereby making them automatically subject to sanctions, absent the exercise of a presidential waiver,” said Tommy Vietor, a White House spokesman. “Our intention is to work with them over the next year to try to solve this problem — or at least make significant progress on it — and reassess our posture towards them next year, depending on the progress they have made.”
Human rights groups expressed concern, saying that the decision raised questions about the administration’s seriousness about protecting children, sometimes not yet in their teens, from the rigors and hazards of military service.
Of the six countries the State Department identified as using child soldiers during 2009, only two — Somalia and Myanmar — were not granted exemptions from the law, and Myanmar receives no military aid from the United States.
“Everyone’s gotten a pass, and Obama has really completely undercut the law and its intent,” said Jo Becker, children’s rights advocacy director for Human Rights Watch.
The law generally prohibits American military financing, training and other defense assistance to countries found to recruit soldiers under the age of 18.
According to White House officials and memos, ending aid to Yemen would have undercut that country’s intense struggle against Al Qaeda. Despite Yemeni government assurances, the national army is still suspected of enlisting children as young as 15, and regional militias of enlisting children 14 and older.
Sudan faces the possible secession of its southern region after a January referendum, and support from the United States may prove critical to stability in the south. Leaders of the breakaway southern region agreed last year to a plan to end the use of child soldiers in their forces, called the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, but as of last December, 1,200 children ages 12 to 17 remained in the army.
The Congo was exempted because United States-backed programs were helping its military become more professional and fight rights abuses.
And continued assistance to Chad, where a branch of Al Qaeda is active, was also said to be a reward for hosting an estimated 280,000 refugees from the Darfur region of Sudan.
Jesse Eaves, child protection policy adviser with World Vision, said he did not understand why the administration had not availed itself of a provision allowing specific cuts in military assistance to leave only programs explicitly helping demobilize child soldiers or professionalize national armies.
A White House official said this approach had been weighed but rejected as unwieldy.
Mr. Eaves said rights groups active on the issue were frustrated.
“This came as a total shock to everyone in the community,” he said. “At this point we’re just running to catch up.”