The Biden administration is finally putting firmer pressure on governments using child soldiers. On October 3, it announced that a majority of the 12 governments implicated in using child soldiers would be ineligible for certain categories of military assistance until they addressed the problem.
In 2008, Congress passed a landmark law, the Child Soldiers Prevention Act, which withholds certain types of US military assistance from governments using children in their forces or supporting militias that recruit children. The law is designed to pressure governments to end child recruitment and release children from their forces.
In some cases, it’s worked. For example, after the US announced it would stop providing training for military battalions in the Democratic Republic of Congo, the Congolese government signed a United Nations action plan to end its recruitment and use of child soldiers. In the decade since, the UN has documented only a handful of child recruitment cases by Congolese government forces.
In many other cases, however, US administrations – including under both Barack Obama and Donald Trump – waived the law’s prohibitions for governments using child soldiers, citing national security as a reason to continue military aid. According to the Stimson Center, these waivers have allowed governments using child soldiers to receive over US$7 billion in arms sales and military assistance since 2010. It found that only 3 percent of aid prohibited by the Child Soldiers Prevention Act was actually withheld.
The result is that countries exploiting children as soldiers have little incentive to change their practices. For example, Somalia has received waivers for 10 years straight, allowing over $2 billion in US military assistance. Not surprisingly, the security forces continue to recruit child soldiers. Last year, the UN documented 135 cases of child recruitment by Somali army and police forces.
This year, for the first time, the White House gave no full waivers to the countries on its list, meaning that at least some military assistance will be withheld from governments using child soldiers. Seven of the 12 countries received no waivers at all, a record high.
While this is progress, four countries using child soldiers will receive at least $234 million in US military aid next year. The US needs to make clear to these countries that if they want aid beyond next year, they need to stop using child soldiers.