Dozens of children were part of Burma’s armed forces as recently as last week. In Iraq, children have died fighting the Islamic State (also known as ISIS) with Iraqi government military units. But United States Secretary of State Rex Tillerson ignored these facts and took Burma and Iraq off the annual list, issued today, that identifies countries that use child soldiers or support militias that do.
The US Child Soldiers Prevention Act requires the State Department to publish the list each year. The new list includes the Democratic Republic of Congo, Mali, Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. In addition to Burma and Iraq, Afghanistan was again missing from the list, despite ongoing use of child soldiers by its security forces.
Why does the list matter? Under the Child Soldiers Prevention Act, countries on the list are not eligible for certain forms of US military assistance unless they get a special waiver from the president. Human Rights Watch frequently criticized President Barack Obama for giving too many countries waivers, but the law has made a real difference. When the US withheld military training and financing from the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the government began making progress to end its use of child soldiers. The law influenced Chad to end child recruitment and Rwanda to cut off support for an abusive militia that recruited children.
Tillerson reportedly overruled his own staff and US diplomats to take Burma and Iraq off the list this year. His decision flies in the face of evidence that both governments are still complicit in child soldier use, and undermines US leverage to influence change. The US provides Iraq with billions of dollars of military assistance each year; in exchange, it should insist the government put an end to child recruitment by its units. Instead, the State Department isn’t even acknowledging Iraq has a child soldier problem.
Congress should ask tough questions about the State Department’s listing process. It’s one thing to assert that governments using child soldiers still require military aid, but it’s another to pretend the problem doesn’t even exist.