Child soldiers practice with machine guns in a militia camp near Bunia in the Democratic Republic of Congo.

© 2003 Reuters

(New York) – Under legislation adopted by the US Congress on December 10, 2008, governments involved in the use of children as soldiers may no longer be eligible for US military assistance, Human Rights Watch said today. The legislation, passed unanimously by both the Senate and the House, could affect six countries currently receiving US military training, financing, and other defense-related assistance: Afghanistan, Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sri Lanka, Sudan, and Uganda.

The measure is part of the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act. It affects both governments that recruit children directly into their armed forces and governments supporting paramilitary or militia groups that use child soldiers.

“Government forces that continue to recruit children into their ranks are going to risk losing US military assistance,” said Jo Becker, children’s rights advocate for Human Rights Watch. “US weapons should not end up in the hands of children, nor should US taxpayer dollars finance the exploitation of children in armed conflict.”

In 2008, the six countries received an estimated US$3.5 million in US military training. Sri Lanka and the DRC received over $800,000 in foreign military financing, and Afghanistan received over $6 billion in foreign military sales from the United States.

The measure was introduced by Senators Richard Durbin and Sam Brownback. It restricts the provision of US International Military Education and Training, foreign military financing, and other defense-related assistance to countries identified in the State Department’s annual human rights country reports as recruiting or using child soldiers in government armed forces or government-supported paramilitaries or militias in violation of international standards.

Countries taking active steps to end their use of child soldiers would be eligible for limited assistance to professionalize their armed forces until the problem is remedied.

“This legislation creates a powerful incentive for governments to end this reprehensible practice,” said Becker. “President Bush should sign this important legislation into law as soon as possible.”

The 2007 State Department human rights country reports, issued in March 2008, found that Afghanistan, Chad, DRC, Sudan, and Uganda used children in governmental armed forces. In Sri Lanka, children were used by paramilitary forces associated with the government.

All six countries are party to international treaties prohibiting the use of children under the age of 18 in hostilities. The DRC, Uganda, and Chad have also pledged to senior UN officials that they will end their use of child soldiers, but have failed to keep their promises.

“In the past, governments have been too willing to make empty promises about ending their use of child soldiers,” said Becker. “If they fail to act now, they not only face international condemnation, but also the loss of military training, weapons, and financing.”