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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.
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"This is just crazy," said the president of the Iowa Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO. "A kid can still lose an arm in a work-based learning program."
Labor advocates on Tuesday decried a business-backed bill introduced by Republican state lawmakers in Iowa that would roll back child labor laws so that teens as young as 14 could work in previously prohibited jobs including mining, logging, and animal slaughtering—a proposal one union president called dangerous and "just crazy."
Senate File 167, introduced by state Sen. Jason Schultz (R-6) would expand job options available to teens—including letting children as young as 14 work in freezers and meat coolers and loading and unloading light tools, under certain conditions.
Teens under 18 would still be generally barred from employment in fields including mining, logging, demolition, and meatpacking, and from operating potentially dangerous machinery and equipment including circular saws, guillotine shears, and punching machines.
However, the Des Moines Registerreports the proposed law contains "an entirely new section" that "would allow the Iowa Workforce Development and state Department of Education heads to make exceptions to any of the prohibited jobs for teens 14-17 'participating in work-based learning or a school or employer-administered, work-related program.'"
\u201cThe new Iowa bill would also completely lift a ban on 14 and 15-year-olds working in freezers and meat coolers, and allow kids as young as 14 1/2 to drive themselves to work. Other dangerous jobs would be allowed with exemptions.\n\nhttps://t.co/t1nEAl4mEo\u201d— More Perfect Union (@More Perfect Union) 1675781655
The proposed bill—which comes amid an ongoing labor shortage in Iowa—also expands the hours teens may work, and shields businesses from liability if a minor employee is sickened, injured, or killed as a result of a company's negligence.
"This is just crazy," Charlie Wishman, president of the Iowa Federation of Labor, AFL-CIO, told the Des Moines Register. "A kid can still lose an arm in a work-based learning program."
Wishman said the bill will gut more than a century of child labor protections, many of which were enacted in an era when "children were hurt and killed" on the job.
\u201cInstead of raising the minimum wage and paying adults more or funding a social safety net, Iowa would rather bring back child labor.\u201d— Lyz Lenz (@Lyz Lenz) 1675789111
"The idea of putting children into work activities that could be dangerous is something that is not only irresponsible but reprehensible," Wishman added.
Iowa state Sen. Claire Celsi (D-16) called the proposed legislation "another sign that the labor market in Iowa is in big trouble."
"Businesses are so desperate to hire warm bodies that they want politicians to bend child labor laws (and eliminate corporate liability)," she wrote on Twitter.
\u201cIf you squint, you can see the future that the GOP envisions and it looks a lot like the past. Education will be a privilege for those who can afford it. For the rest, there is labor. Just don't get hurt! https://t.co/Ynke4bEKeG\u201d— Jennifer Berkshire (@Jennifer Berkshire) 1675349664
State Sen. Nate Boulton (D-20), an attorney specializing in labor law, described the bill as "offensive."
"Putting children at risk, and creating immunity for that risk, is not acceptable," he told Iowa Starting Line.
"These efforts to roll back child labor laws overlap with the conservative changes to school curriculum," tweeted education podcaster and author Jennifer Berkshire. "The through line is an effort to teach kids that free enterprise rules and that the boss is king."
The proposal treats the PFAS family of chemicals "as the public health menace it is," said one advocate.
The toxic materials that have come to be known as "forever chemicals" because of their ability to build up in the environment, wildlife, and humans could soon be on their way out in the European Union, after officials began consideration of ban on more than 10,000 chemical substances in the PFAS family.
Representatives from Germany, the Netherlands, Denmark, Sweden, and Norway have been collaborating on the proposal, and said in a statement that the ban will "make products and processes safer for humans."
"A ban on PFAS would reduce quantities of PFAS in the environment over the long term," they added.
"You can find PFAS in penguins in the Antarctic, in polar bears in the Arctic, even in rain water in Tibet."
The ban on per-and polyfluoroalkyl substances—used in tens of thousands of everyday products including non-stick pans, raincoats, textiles, and cars—would take effect 18 months after its passage for products for which manufacturers have identified alternatives.
Companies that cannot readily switch to using alternative materials will have up to 12 years to comply with the ban.
The Health and Environment Alliance (HEAL) praised the E.U. for its "comprehensive" proposal "to cut PFAS emissions at the source, which is long overdue."
"Now member states have to work together towards a highly protective restriction that is as broad as possible in terms of PFAS coverage and uses," said Natacha Cingotti, health and chemicals program lead at HEAL.
PFAS have been linked to a variety of illnesses including kidney and testicular cancer, thyroid issues, and immune problems.
Since the chemicals do not decompose due to strong bonds between carbon and fluorine atoms, they have been detected in human breast milk samples. A study released last month by Duke University and the Environmental Working Group found that eating just one freshwater fish in the U.S. exposes a person to the same amount of PFAS as drinking contaminated water for a month.
"You can find PFAS in penguins in the Antarctic, in polar bears in the Arctic, even in rain water in Tibet," said Audun Heggelund of the Norwegian Environment Agency at a media briefing in Brussels on Tuesday.
Actor and environmental activist Mark Ruffalo called the proposal "amazing news" and called on U.S. officials to act urgently to eliminate the use of PFAS.
\u201cAmazing news out of Europe. Treating the \u201cforever chemical\u201d family of PFAS as the public health menace it is. We need the US @EPA to stop playing with our people\u2019s health and do the same. \nhttps://t.co/t9hhXT8WjU\u201d— Mark Ruffalo (@Mark Ruffalo) 1675804513
"Antimicrobial resistance is one of the definitive challenges of our times," said one U.N. leader. "Getting a grip on environmental pollution is critical."
A new report out Tuesday from the U.N. Environment Program warns that as many as 10 million people could die from so-called "Superbugs" annually by 2050 as the result of antimicrobial resistance driven by environmental pollution and irresponsible practices from a range of industries.
The report, titled Bracing for Superbugs, explains how pollution from hospital wastewater, sewage discharged from pharmaceutical production facilities, and run-off from animal and plant agriculture can be rife with "not only resistant microorganisms, but also antimicrobials, various pharmaceuticals, microplastics, metals, and other chemicals, which all increase the risk of AMR [antimicrobial resistance] in the environment."
The more prevalent AMR becomes, the more likely the global community is to face a fast-spreading "superbug," which would threaten people in wealthy countries with well-funded healthcare systems and people across the Global South alike.
Preventing the spread of antibiotic-resistant superbugs is just the latest reason for global policymakers to ensure "solid regulation of discharges [and] strengthening [of] wastewater treatment," wrote U.N. researchers in the report, as UNEP executive director Inger Andersen noted that the report shows the far-reaching benefits of acting to protect the environment.
"Polluted waterways, particularly those that have been polluted for some time, are likely to harbor microorganisms that increase AMR development and distribution in the environment."
"The same drivers that cause environmental degradation are worsening the antimicrobial resistance problem," said Andersen at the sixth meeting of the Global Leaders Group on Antimicrobial Resistance (GLGAMR) in Barbados. "The impacts of anti-microbial resistance could destroy our health and food systems. Cutting down pollution is a prerequisite for another century of progress towards zero hunger and good health."
Currently, AMR is linked to as many as 1.27 million deaths per year, and as Barbados Prime Minister Mia Mottley, the chair of the GLGAMR, said at the conference, the crisis "is disproportionately affecting countries in the Global South."
\u201c"The environmental crisis of our time is also one of human rights and geopolitics" \u2013 Prime Minister of Barbados & @GLGAMR Chair @miaamormottley cites inequities & calls for global action on #AntimicrobialResistance at launch of @UNEP report: https://t.co/AFHp0xhMyS\u201d— UN Environment Programme (@UN Environment Programme) 1675796461
According to the study, the pharmaceutical industry frequently releases untreated wastewater containing "active pharmaceutical ingredients" such as "antibiotics, antivirals, and fungicides, as well as disinfectants."
Those contaminants increase the likelihood that "resistant superbugs" will "survive in untreated sewage," reads The Guardian.
According to UNEP, chronically polluted waterways are more likely "to harbor microorganisms that increase AMR development and distribution in the environment."
From the agricultural industry, the report warns that the "use of antimicrobials to treat infection and promote growth" among livestock, the "use of reclaimed wastewater for irrigating crops, use of manure as fertilizer, and inadequate waste management" all serve as entry points for AMR organisms into the environment.
According to a study published in OnEarth in 2014, Denmark instituted reforms including significantly limiting how much veterinarians could profit from the sale of antibiotics starting in 1995, and four years later outlawed all "nontherapeutic use of antibiotics in pigs... a huge change in a nation that is the world's leading exporter of pork."
"Although the situation is improving in some parts of the world, vast amounts of antimicrobials are used to treat and prevent infections in food animals," Matthew Upton, a professor of medical microbiology at the University of Plymouth in the U.K., told The Guardian. "Improved husbandry and other infection prevention and control methods like vaccination should be used to reduce infections and the need for antimicrobial use, which in turn limits environmental pollution with antimicrobials, antimicrobial residues, and resistant microbes."
Other steps policymakers can take, said UNEP, include: