(Washington, DC) – US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson should return Burma and Iraq to the US list of governments using child soldiers, Human Rights Watch said today. Reuters reported that Tillerson overruled State Department officials and senior US diplomats in ordering the two countries to be removed from the list, which will be announced on June 27, 2017.

The United Nations and nongovernmental organizations, including Human Rights Watch, have continued to report on the use of children by regular or militia forces in Burma and Iraq. The UN documented child recruitment by Burma’s armed forces in 2016, and just last week the Burmese army released dozens of child soldiers. Human Rights Watch has documented child recruitment by militias linked to Iraq’s government. In March, a State Department report said that at least a dozen children fighting with government-affiliated militia in Iraq had been killed in combat in 2016.

US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson

© Reuters

“Taking Burma and Iraq off the list when they continue to use child soldiers is both contrary to US law and harms children still in the ranks,” said Jo Becker, children’s rights advocacy director at Human Rights Watch. “Secretary of State Tillerson apparently believes the list is subject to backroom political calculations, rather than facts on the ground and US law. Unless Tillerson reverses this action, he will gravely damage US credibility in ending the use of children in warfare.”

The State Department is required by the Child Soldiers Prevention Act to annually identify and list governments that recruit or use child soldiers in their armed forces or provide support to militias that do so. Absent a presidential waiver, the law prohibits governments on the list from receiving several categories of US military assistance.

Burma has been listed under the Child Soldiers Prevention Act each year since the list was first published in 2010. In 2012, Burma signed an action plan with the UN to end its use of child soldiers. Since then, it has allowed the UN limited, periodic access to military facilities, and has released 849 children and former child soldiers from its ranks, including 67 on June 23.

However, new cases of child recruitment, although fewer in number, continue to be documented, and the government still has multiple steps to fully implement its action plan. For example, Burma has not yet adopted a law to criminalize the recruitment and use of children for military use, nor allowed the UN access to ethnic armed groups using child soldiers in order to negotiate action plans with those groups.

“This isn’t the time to let Burma off the hook for its use of child soldiers,” Becker said. “US and UN pressure has led to important progress, but as long as children are still being recruited and found in its army’s ranks, Burma should stay on the list.”

In Iraq, units of the government’s Popular Mobilization Forces (Hashd al-Sha’abi or PMF) have recruited and used children to fight Islamic State forces (also known as ISIS). Human Rights Watch found that two units, commanded by Sheikh Nishwan al-Jabouri and by Maghdad al-Sabawy, recruited children as young as 14 from a camp for displaced persons near Erbil throughout 2016. A 17-year-old who joined one of the units told Human Rights Watch that when he added his name to a list that fighters were passing around, he saw that of the 31 names on the list before his, eight were younger than 18.

After Iraq was included in the State Department’s list for the first time in 2016, President Barack Obama issued a presidential waiver, which allowed military assistance to Iraq that would otherwise have been prohibited under the law. In fiscal year 2016, Iraq received over US$3 billion in categories covered by the Child Soldiers Prevention Act, including foreign military financing, training, and excess defense articles. While presidential waivers by the Obama administration undermined the effectiveness of the law, the list itself was generally accurate and fact-based, Human Rights Watch said.

One omission from previous lists was Afghanistan, where the Afghan Local Police, a government-backed militia engaged in combat operations against the Taliban and other insurgents, recruits and uses children as soldiers. The State Department excluded Afghanistan, claiming that the Afghan Local Police fell into a gray area not covered by the Child Soldiers Prevention Act. That decision appears contrary to the plain meaning of the law, Human Rights Watch said. The law covers “governmental armed forces or government-supported armed groups, including paramilitaries, militias, or civil defense forces, that recruit and use child soldiers.” 

The State Department typically publishes the list of countries subject to the Child Soldiers Prevention Act every June as part of its Trafficking in Persons report. The president has until the end of September to decide whether or not to waive any of the military sanctions imposed by the law in the interests of national security.

“The Child Soldiers Prevention Act gives the president some discretion in applying sanctions against countries using child soldiers, but it doesn’t give the State Department discretion to take off countries that belong on the list,” Becker said. “Tillerson should do what the law requires and return Burma and Iraq to the list.”