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US Officials Call Out Tillerson on Child Soldiers

Rare ‘Dissent Memo’ Says Secretary of State Contravened US Law

United States Secretary of State Rex Tillerson speaks during a press conference at the State Department in Washington, U.S. June 21, 2017. © 2017 Reuters

When US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson excluded Iraq, Burma, and Afghanistan from the State Department’s list of countries using child soldiers earlier this year, my colleagues and I at Human Rights Watch were angry. It turns out we weren’t the only ones. Today, Reuters reported a rare “dissent memo” from State Department officials, accusing Tillerson of contravening US law by excluding the three countries.

The officials, whose names were not reported, said that Tillerson’s decision contradicted the facts, discredited the State Department, and, “weakened one of the US government’s primary diplomatic tools,” to deter other governments from using child soldiers.

Under the Child Soldiers Prevention Act, countries on the State Department’s annual child soldier list are not eligible for some forms of US military assistance, absent a presidential waiver. In the past, the law has been used successfully to get the Democratic Republic of Congo, Rwanda, and Chad to take action to end the use of child soldiers. By excluding Burma, Iraq, and Afghanistan from this year’s list, Tillerson sent a message to these countries that there would be no consequences for continued child soldier use.

Human Rights Watch, the United Nations, and other organizations have documented the use of child soldiers in all three countries by regular or militia forces. The State Department’s own annual trafficking in persons report also confirms child soldier use in each of these countries.

Previously, under the Obama administration, the State Department had left Afghanistan off the list, when the legal advisor argued that child soldier use there fell outside the law. Human Rights Watch disagreed.

But according to the dissent memo, this year all relevant US embassies and State Department bureaus had agreed on the facts and recommended the three countries should be listed. By ignoring the evidence and overruling his own staff, the officials said that Tillerson’s decision, “harms children who are still in combat … and has global implications on our ability to continue advocacy against these heinous human rights abuses.”

We couldn’t agree more. Secretary Tillerson is failing in his responsibility to enforce a law that could help protect children. In doing so he may be emboldening and even benefitting those that would harm and exploit them. For the sake of the children, the US Congress should provide oversight to ensure this does not happen again.

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