Human rights groups are criticizing Barack Obama's decision to waive a prohibition on military assistance to foreign armies that employ children (under the age of 18) in their fighting ranks. Obama issued a presidential memo in October, and then signed a waiver last Monday that allows the US to continue military assistance to Chad, the Democratic republic of Congo, Sudan, and Yemen. (Burma, which receives no US military assistance, and Somalia, which already receives peacekeeping assistance not covered by the law, are also on the list.) The US provides training and support to the countries through the International Military Education and Training fund, which provides military training and counter-terrorism programs to these countries.
In 2008, President George W. Bush signed into law the Child Soldier Prevention Act, designed to bar US military assistance to states designated by the State Department as having recruited child soldiers into their armed forces. Radhika Coomaraswamy, the UN's top advocate for child soldiers, expressed her disappointment at Obama's decision, saying that this is a step backward. The White House argued,
"The decision to waive prohibition of military assistance to countries that use child soldiers was in the interest of national security in allowing the US to support countries that back American anti-terror policies or face fragile political transitions. It maintains that continued military assistance would actually accelerate these countries' ability to end controversial practices, including the conscription of child soldiers" (Turtle Bay, October 28th).
There are about 300,000 child soldiers across the globe. The UN is engaged in discussions about the fate of child soldiers in Chad and South Sudan, where local governments have pledged to release as many as 900 children from conscription by the end of the year. Jo Becker, from Human Rights Watch, has acknowledged that Congo and South Sudan have made previous commitments to release child soldiers that they have never honored.
The UN itself has UN peacekeepers cooperating with governments and militaries that use child soldiers in Congo and Somalia. As one UN official said, "We can't get too high on the moral ground" (Turtle Bay, October 28th).