The Child Soldiers Prevention Act of 2008 would normally prohibit military aid to Chad, the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC), Sudan, and Yemen because those countries' militaries use child soldiers. But in October, President Obama made the unexpected and shocking policy announcement that he was waiving this prohibition. The decision, which caught children's and human rights advocates off guard, makes it appear that the U.S. is not committed to ending the use of child soldiers.
The use of child soldiers is a global phenomenon. Although international law prohibits their use, approximately 250,000 children are currently being used in combat in 17 ongoing conflicts around the world. Child soldiers are found in the ranks of government militaries, paramilitary groups, and rebel armies.
Their experiences are horrific. Both boys and girls are used as soldiers, and they often suffer forced drug use and sexual abuse. Some are forced to wield weapons on the front lines; others are used in combat support roles as messengers, spies, porters, or cooks.
In its annual Trafficking in Persons assessment last June, the U.S. State Department reported that Burma, Chad, DRC, Somalia, Sudan, and Yemen all use child soldiers. Burma receives no U.S. military assistance, due to unrelated sanctions; Somalia is not covered by the Child Soldiers Prevention Act. Effectively, then, the Obama administration's waiver eliminates any impact of the law whatsoever.
In his justification of the waiver, the president cited complex national interests, including counterterrorism concerns -- thus giving the impression that counterterrorism trumps the rights and protections that should be afforded to vulnerable children. Rather than foster such an impression, the administration should demonstrate that there is a middle ground that can both address security needs and stop the abuse of children.