What America Can Do to Stop the Practice of Child Soldiers

A boy holding a rifle stands next to a member of Turkish-backed Free Syrian Army (FSA) in the border town of Jarablus, Syria

The Trump administration appears poised to carry on the Obama administration’s unfortunate legacy as it pertains to preventing the recruitment and use of child soldiers.

In February, President Donald Trump identified human trafficking as a key issue of concern for U.S. domestic and foreign policies, and stated that his administration would make it a priority to stop the epidemic. Yet on September 30, President Trump waived nearly all sanctions that would prevent certain countries that use child soldiers from receiving U.S. military assistance and weapons. Such a move diminishes the impact that U.S. policy tools can have on combating a particularly heinous form of human trafficking—the recruitment and use of children in armed conflict.

In a major opportunity to use powerful leverage to encourage foreign governments to stop the horrific practice of recruiting and using child soldiers, the Trump administration again proved unwilling to take this commitment seriously. The Child Soldiers Prevention Act of 2008 (CSPA) aims to encourage foreign governments to stop recruiting and using children in armed conflict by leveraging traditionally coveted U.S. arms transfers and military assistance. Specifically, the law requires the secretary of state to identify countries that recruit and use child soldiers, and prohibits these countries from receiving seven categories of military assistance that fall under both Departments of State and Defense accounts, to include: direct commercial sales, excess defense articles, foreign military financing, foreign military sales, international military and education training assistance, peacekeeping operations assistance (PKO) and Section 1206 assistance.

In 2017, the State Department identified eight countries that recruit and use children in their national militaries or government-supported armed groups: The Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Mali, Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria and Yemen. The president, however, can choose to waive the CSPA’s prohibitions—in part or in full—and allow these identified countries to continue to receive U.S. weapons and military assistance. The 2017 list itself was controversial and marked the Trump administration’s first missed opportunity to seriously address the issue of child soldiers, as the list omits Afghanistan, Iraq and Myanmar—three countries with notorious and perpetual use of child soldiers.

The Trump administration’s second strike on child soldiers is evident in the issuing of the national security waivers. In a presidential memorandum, Trump waived CSPA prohibitions for five of the eight countries identified on the State Department’s child soldiers list. In so doing, Trump effectively gave a pass to governments that routinely exploit children in their national militaries or government-supported armed groups.

The administration waived all prohibited arms and assistance to Mali and Nigeria, authorizing at least $1.4 million in U.S. military assistance despite their records of child soldier recruitment and use. The administration also waived PKO assistance to the DRC and South Sudan. Somalia had PKO assistance, international military education and training assistance, as well as assistance that would have been prohibited under the CSPA but that is used for 10 U.S.C. § 333—foreign security forces: authority to build capacity waived. These waivers will allow the provision of $3 million in peacekeeping operations assistance for the DRC, more than $110 million in peacekeeping operations and military training for Somalia, and $25 million in peacekeeping operations for South Sudan. In a shift from previous years, the Trump administration did not waive international military and education training assistance for the DRC, thereby blocking $375,000 in assistance requested for FY18.

Although Sudan, Syria and Yemen did not receive waivers, they are currently not slated to receive any sanctionable assistance from the United States in FY18.

Unfortunately, the Trump administration’s failure to take a stand against the abusers of children is not unique. During the Obama administration, the United States routinely waived the CSPA’s prohibitions and authorized more than $315 million in arms sales and more than $1.2 billion in military assistance to countries with known human rights abuses against children in armed conflict. The Obama administration withheld approximately $8 million in arms sales and $56 million in military assistance—amounting to roughly 2.6 percent of the total amount of arms sales and less than 5 percent of the amount of military assistance that would otherwise have been prohibited by the CSPA. With this year’s waivers, the Trump administration has continued a familiar pattern, authorizing nearly $140 million in military assistance, or ninety-nine percent of U.S. military assistance that would have otherwise been prohibited by the CSPA.

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