US President Barack Obama announced yesterday that he will allow several governments that recruit and use child soldiers to continue receiving US military assistance – aid that is supposedly subject to child soldier-related restrictions. The decision wasn’t unexpected. After all, it’s what he has done during his entire two terms in office.

Soon after Obama became president in 2009, the Child Soldiers Prevention Act took effect. It prohibits certain forms of US military aid for governments implicated in child soldier use and was meant to send a powerful message: if you want this military aid, you can’t use child soldiers.

Child soldiers put down their guns in a disarmament and release ceremony in Jonglei state, South Sudan, February 10, 2015. 

Yet every year, Obama has used his presidential authority to forgo the sanctions on most of the affected countries under the law’s “national interest” waiver provision. This year, the only countries that were completely restricted – Sudan, Syria, and Yemen – are ones where the US is not planning any military assistance to governments anyway. 

Obama also announced that there will be no restrictions at all on military aid to three countries – Burma, Iraq, and Nigeria. That means Iraq, where Human Rights Watch has documented child recruitment by government-backed militia groups, will likely receive billions of dollars in arms and military assistance that could be subject to child soldier restrictions next year, with no strings attached. And it sends exactly the wrong message to Burma. The US has not given military aid to Burma for years, but is now saying that the use of child soldiers by Burma’s army won’t be an impediment to possible future aid.

In four cases – the Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, South Sudan, and Rwanda – Obama decided to waive sanctions to allow military training and peacekeeping support, but to prohibit other military aid like arms sales and military financing. We’ve seen that this approach can work. For example, withholding aid from DR Congo in previous years prompted its government to largely end its use of child soldiers. In the past, Obama allowed Somalia to buy nearly US$40 million of US arms, despite ongoing child recruitment. Banning such sales this year may push the government to take stronger steps to address the problem. 

But partial sanctions do not go far enough in the case of South Sudan, where some 16,000 children have been recruited by both government and opposition forces in the past three years alone. Human Rights Watch has urged a total arms embargo because of appalling abuses by all sides to the conflict

During President Obama’s tenure in office, the number of governments using child soldiers has grown from six to ten. That’s a terrible legacy. If he had used this law more aggressively perhaps the number would not be as large. And perhaps fewer girls and boys will need to lose their childhoods and their lives while fighting other people’s wars.