U.S. President Barack Obama issued a new executive order last week to fight human trafficking, touting his administration’s handling of the issue.
“When a little boy is kidnapped, turned into a child soldier, forced to kill or be killed – that’s slavery,” Obama said in a speech at the Clinton Global Initiative. “It is barbaric, and it is evil, and it has no place in a civilized world. Now, as a nation, we’ve long rejected such cruelty.”
But for the third year in a row, Obama has waived almost all U.S. sanctions that would punish certain countries that use child soldiers, upsetting many in the human rights community.
Last week Obama issued a presidential memorandum waiving penalties under the Child Soldiers Protection Act of 2008 for Libya, South Sudan and Yemen, penalties that Congress put in place to prevent U.S. arms sales to countries determined by the State Department to be the worst abusers of child soldiers in their militaries. The president also partially waived sanctions against the Democratic Republic of Congo to allow some military training and arms sales to that country.
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Human rights advocates saw the waivers as harmful to the goal of using U.S. influence to urge countries that receive military assistance to move away from using child soldiers and contradictory to the rhetoric Obama used in his speech.
“After such a strong statement against the exploitation of children, it seems bizarre that Obama would give a pass to countries using children in their armed forces and using U.S. tax money to do that,” said Jesse Eaves, the senior policy advisor for child protection at World Vision.
The Obama administration doesn’t want to upset its relationships with countries that it needs for security cooperation, but the blanket use of waivers is allowing the administration to avoid the law’s intent, which was to use force the U.S. government to put a greater priority on human rights and child protection when doling out military aid, he said.
Jo Becker, advocacy director for the children’s rights division at Human Rights Watch, said that where the United States has used some pressure, such as in Congo, where there was a partial cutoff of military aid last year, there was a positive effect.
“After years of foot-dragging, Congo is close to signing a U.N. action plan to end its use of child soldiers,” she said. “But in other countries with child soldiers, including South Sudan, Libya and Yemen, the U.S. continues to squander its leverage by giving military aid with no conditions.”
NSC Spokesman Tommy Vietor did not respond to multiple requests for comment.
Rogin writes for Foreign Policy magazine.