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This week, President Barack Obama announced that four countries that use child soldiers — the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria, Somalia, and South Sudan – will continue to receive United States military assistance.

A child soldier rides back to his base in Ituri Province. Children are routinely recruited as soldiers in Congo by all sides. © 2003 Marcus Bleasdale/VII

The decision is disappointing, particularly since Obama has a powerful tool at his disposal – the Child Soldiers Prevention Act – that allows him to withhold US military aid until governments end their exploitation of children in war. Instead, Obama has invoked “national interest” waivers that will allow these governments to receive over $161 million in US military aid in the coming year.

In Nigeria the child soldier problem is relatively new, as government-allied vigilante groups have recruited children to fight against the Islamist extremist group Boko Haram. Not so for Congo, Somalia, and South Sudan, where child soldiers have long been used by all warring parties. In Somalia, the United Nations documented nearly 200 cases of child recruitment by the Somali National Army and allied militias last year – likely just a fraction of the total number.

In South Sudan, UNICEF estimated this year that as many as 13,000 children have fought in the war there, with both government and opposition forces and their allies. Incredibly, just weeks ago, both sides formally declared they don’t have any child soldiers to release. Although much of US assistance to South Sudan is to monitor the August peace deal, the timing of the waiver is especially unfortunate without a strong policy statement from the US outlining the concrete steps that South Sudan needs to take to end its use of child soldiers and maintain a security relationship with the US. 

At the height of Congo’s war in 2003, the UN estimated the country had nearly 30,000 child soldiers. For the past three years, the US has withheld some military assistance from Congo, and the result has been significant progress: the UN documented only two instances of child recruitment by government forces last year. But Congo has not yet fully implemented its plan to end its use of child soldiers, and some Congolese army officers have supported armed groups that use large numbers of child soldiers.

In Yemen, where UNICEF estimates that one in three fighters is younger than 18, Obama has left his options open. Currently, all US aid to Yemen is suspended, but if it resumes, Obama has given Secretary of State John Kerry authority to restart aid that would otherwise be prohibited by the Child Soldiers Prevention Act. This should not happen.

In the five years since the Child Soldiers Prevention Act has been in force, the Obama administration has withheld only a fraction of the military aid flowing to governments with child soldiers and rarely imposed the full sanctions the law proscribes. This sends governments exactly the wrong message: that they can use child soldiers without consequences to their military relationship with the US. This only perpetuates the use and abuse of children in war. 

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