June 28, 2012

The State Department’s new list of governments using child soldiers is out. Seven countries are named this year. The list is not that surprising: It includes the Democratic Republic of Congo, Burma and South Sudan, which have deployed child soldiers for years. What five countries have in common, however, is that they get U.S. military assistance. This puts the Obama administration’s commitment to end the use of child soldiers to the test — and the clock is ticking.

Congress agreed on a fairly simple concept in 2008 — U.S. tax money should not go to governments that conscript children younger than 18 or use them in hostilities. The Child Soldiers Prevention Act prohibits five categories of military aid to these governments. In the two years the law has been in effect, however, the Obama administration has withheld money only once — keeping back $2.7 million in foreign military financing for Congo. In other cases, the administration invoked national security waivers to allow military assistance to continue.

Now that the State Department has issued its list, the president has approximately three months to determine whether the act’s prohibitions on military aid will automatically go into effect or he will give some governments a pass by granting waivers. He needs to use the strategic leverage the law provides to send a strong message that Washington won’t tolerate the use of child soldiers by its allies.

Four governments named — Congo, Libya, South Sudan and Yemen — get U.S. military aid prohibited by the act. Somalia receives peacekeeping help not covered by the law, and Burma and Sudan receive no U.S. military assistance.

The administration has been pushing the child soldiers issue harder in the past year, helping secure U.N. agreements with Chad and South Sudan to end their use of child soldiers. But it can do more.

For example, the State Department reports that children as young as 11 have been conscripted into Yemen government forces, but the administration did not apply conditions on this issue for even a portion of the relevant $21 million in U.S. military aid.

As a new state, South Sudan is officially on the State Department’s list for the first time this year. The U.N. agreement was a big step, but implementation has been problematic. While the armed forces, the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, demobilized several hundred child soldiers last year, the U.N. reports that it recruited at least 250 more. It’s not surprising, considering that the military, formerly a rebel group, has used child soldiers for decades.

Only a small portion of the $100 million in U.S. military assistance to South Sudan is sanctionable under the act. But Washington can make clear that if South Sudan does not end all child recruitment and demobilize child soldiers, a portion of U.S. assistance will be withheld.

Similarly, the fledgling government of Libya, new to the list and receiving small amounts of assistance, should know that continued aid depends on ensuring that no children serve in its forces.

In Congo, army commanders have long recruited children, sometimes by force, as fighters, escorts and porters. The army has been on the U.N. “list of shame” for using child soldiers for seven consecutive years and last year, the U.N. says, recruited more children than any other Congolese military group.

One former rebel commander, Bosco Ntaganda, was promoted to army general — despite a 2006 International Criminal Court arrest warrant for his recruitment and use of child soldiers. After he launched a mutiny in April, the government said it intends to arrest him. Meanwhile, Ntaganda is again a rebel fighter and has continued to recruit children as young as 12.

The U.N. has been trying for years — unsuccessfully — to negotiate an agreement with the Congolese government to end its recruitment and use of child soldiers. Though the two parties have worked together to demobilize dozens of children in recent weeks because of the continued U.S. and U.N. pressure. The Obama administration’s decision last year to withhold $2.7 million in foreign military financing from Congo until it takes steps to stop using child soldiers was the first time the Child Soldiers Prevention Act has been used to actually withhold military aid from any government. But the administration needs to keep up the pressure and continue to condition Congo’s assistance on concrete progress.

This act is a powerful tool. It tells U.S. military allies clearly that they cannot use children in their forces and continue to receive U.S. military assistance. Some governments are getting the message. Others are not.

Jo Becker is the children’s rights advocacy director for Human Rights Watch. She has researched the use of child soldiers in Uganda, Burma, Sri Lanka, Nepal and India, and was the founding chairwoman of the global Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers. Follow her on Twitter @jobeckerhrw.