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Obama Waives Penalties on Countries That Employ Child Soldiers – Again!

Josh Rogin

The Obama Administration has laid out a range of justifications for waiving penalties on Yemen, South Sudan, Chad, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, all of which amount to a gutting of the law for the second year in a row.

President Barack Obama has decided to waive almost all the legally mandated penalties for countries that use child soldiers and provide those countries U.S. military assistance, just like he did last year.

The White House is expected to soon announce its decision to issue a series of waivers for the Child Soldiers Protection Act, a 2008 law that is meant to stop the United States from giving military aid to countries that recruit soldiers under the age of 15 and use them to fight wars. The administration has laid out a range of justifications for waiving penalties on Yemen, South Sudan, Chad, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo, all of which amount to a gutting of the law for the second year in a row.

Last year, the White House didn't even tell Congress or the NGO community when it decided to do away with the Child Soldiers Prevention Act penalties. Most had to read about it first on The Cable. Aid workers, human rights activists, and even congressional offices were shocked that the administration had gutted the law without consulting them.

The White House argued at the time that because the law was new, the offending countries didn't have time to comply. As part of their damage control effort, they put National Security Council Senior Director Samantha Power on a private conference call with NGO workers (that we eavesdropped on) to explain that these waivers would only be for one year -- but that in the second year, the administration was going to enforce the law in full.

"Our judgment was to brand them, name them, shame them, and then try to leverage assistance in a fashion to make this work," Power said at the time. "Our judgment is we'll work from inside the tent."

Apparently that plan was scuttled, because the administration has decided to waive almost all the penalties again, despite the fact that little progress has been made in any of the offender countries.

In a meeting with NGO representatives on Tuesday afternoon at the White House, State Department officials, led by Deputy Assistant Secretary for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor Dan Baer, explained this year's reasons why the White House will continue to give military funding to countries that use child soldiers.

For South Sudan, State Department officials argued that since the country didn't exist when the latest report on child soldier abuse came out, that country doesn't fall under the law. Their reasoning is that the report in question, known as the 2011 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report, came out June 27. South Sudan was declared independent 12 days later on July 9. They will receive $100 million in U.S. military aid this year.

"South Sudan may be a new country, but it's not a blank slate here," one attendee at the White House meeting told The Cable. "There's been two decades of child soldier use and unfulfilled promises by the [Sudan People's Liberation Army]."

For Yemen, the administration's argument is simply that counterterrorism cooperation with that country is too important to suspend. Yemen is set to receive $35 million from the United States in foreign military financing. What stunned activists in the room, however, was State Department officials' admission that they don't know who actually controls the Yemeni military these days.

"The officials said, ‘We don't even know day by day who we're even talking to,'" one attendee reported.

For the Democratic Republic of Congo, the administration issued a partial waiver, allowing military training but withholding about $1.3 million in foreign military financing. But while this may seem like a compromise, that military financing was also prohibited by another law, the Trafficking Victims Prevention Act.

Regarding Chad, the administration is arguing the country has made sufficient progress on eliminating child soldiers because they signed a U.N. action plan. Activists at the meeting were skeptical that the plan constituted an attempt by Chad to address the issue head on.

Somalia and Burma are also covered by the Child Soldiers Prevention Act, but neither received direct military assistance from the United States, so waivers for those countries were not required.

To the human rights community, today's action by the White House represents both an abandonment of efforts to protect children, and a betrayal of the NGO community, which had been promised that this year would be different from last year.

"The White House said last year that they were putting these countries on notice but now it's a year later and the U.S. is still handing over taxpayer money to countries that use child soldiers with no strings attached," said Jo Becker, advocacy director for the children's rights division at Human Rights Watch.

"President Obama's decision today to provide taxpayer funded military assistance to countries that use children as soldiers is an assault on human dignity," said Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE),  vice chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Subcommittee on Africa, Global Health and Human Rights. "Good citizens of this country who do not want to be complicit in this grave human rights abuse must challenge this administration."

"Our law states that America does not fund the use of child soldiers," he said. "Any exceptions must be temporary and intended to help stop this pernicious practice."

The White House's justification memo can be found here.

The White House and State Department did not respond to requests for comment.

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