“You cannot be completely happy with all these wounds—both in your body and in your mind.”
—15 year-old child soldier
The phenomenon of child soldiers, like genocide, slavery and torture, seems like one of those crimes that no nation could legitimately defend. Yet the Obama administration just decided to leave countless kids stranded on some of the world’s bloodiest battlegrounds.
The administration stunned human rights groups last month by sidestepping a commitment to help countries curb the military exploitation of children. Josh Rogin at Foreign Policy reported that President Obama issued a presidential memorandum granting waivers from the Child Soldiers Prevention Act to four countries: Chad, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan and Yemen. The memo instructed Secretary of State Hilary Clinton that it is in our “national interest” to continue extending military aid to those countries, despite their failure to comply with the rules Congress passed and George W. Bush signed in 2008.
A thumbs-up for child soldiers from the pen of President Obama? Whitehouse spokesperson P.J. Crowley explained it was a strategic decision to ease the 2008 law. The rationale is that on balance, it’s more effective for the U.S. to keep providing military assistance that will help countries gradually evolve out of the practice of marshaling kids to the battlefield, rather than isolating them.
According to the Christian Science Monitor, Crowley argued, “These countries have put the right policies in place… but are struggling to correctly implement them.” The New York Times reported that administration spokespeople also cited the countries’ crucial role in global counter-terrorism efforts.
Strategically granting certain countries a pass on child rights reflects Washington’s warped attitude toward the global human rights regime. The U.S. has failed to ratify, or simply ignored, numerous human rights protocols, and our ratification of the Convention on the Rights of the Child has languished. Human Rights Watch points out, “Only the United States and Somalia, which has no functioning national government, have failed to ratify the treaty.” (Although we did ratify two optional protocols in 2002, relating to child soldiers and other forms of exploitation.)
Somalia, by the way, is one of just two countries that the White House allowed to be sanctioned under the 2008 law; the second was Burma. Presumably this is because Somalia is not receiving direct military funding, reports the Monitor. Yet the U.S. continues to support Somali government forces as they fight Islamic insurgents—with the help of a large force of child soldiers. (To their credit, Somalia has at least promised the U.N. they”ll stop arming kids eventually, according to the Washington Post).
Maybe you could argue that the U.S. is so “advanced” it needn’t bother with rules about children’s rights to education and whatnot. Obama’s waivers might be seen as realpolitik in areas like Yemen, whose military we support as part of our sprawling counter-terrorism operations. But the bottom line is that the administration has carved out an exception to a law intended to ethically guide the flow of U.S. aid money around the world.
According to the Coalition to Stop the Use of Child Soldiers, which holds America to the same scrutiny that countries like Uganda and DRC routinely face in the media, we benefit indirectly and directly from the exploitation of child fighters:
In 2006 the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) registered 59 children in detention during 16 visits to five places of detention or internment controlled by the USA or the UK in Iraq. US soldiers stationed at the detention centres and former detainees described abuses against child detainees, including the rape of a 15-year-old boy at Abu Ghraib, Iraq, forced nudity, stress positions, beating and the use of dogs. Following US troop increases in Iraq in early 2007, US military arrests of children there rose from an average of 25 per month in 2006 to an average of 100 per month. Military officials reported that 828 were children held at Camp Cropper by mid-September, including children as young as 11. A 17-year-old was reportedly strangled by a fellow detainee in early 2007. In August 2007 the USA opened Dar al-Hikmah, a non-residential facility intended to provide education services to 600 detainees aged 11-17 pending release or transfer to Iraqi custody. US military officials excluded an estimated 100 children from participation in the program, apparently on the grounds that they were “extremists” and “beyond redemption”.
Omar Khadr, the young Canadian detainee at Guantanamo Bay, remains trapped in a Kafkaesque quasi-judicial system without regard to the fact that he was a child when captured. Rights advocates like Monia Mazigh in Ottowa have called for Khadr to be recognized as a child soldier, but the administration seems to think securing a conviction in Kangaroo Court takes precedence over international law. And because Khadr, like the other Gitmo prisoners, is identified with that faceless dark horde the U.S. has branded “terrorists,” Americans aren’t even inclined to see him as a human being, let alone as a juvenile soldier deserving of sympathy.
So America’s hypocrisy on children in war has many layers. Obama condemns the practice in theory, then undermines federal law by issuing waivers for our partners in Africa and the Middle East. And of course, Washington sees no problem with punishing child soldiers as adults when they’re aligned with the terrorists who are bent on destroying America.
UN Treaties alone obviously won’t demobilize all the world’s child soldiers, but their main role is to put down a legal placeholder. And it’s that moral guidepost that the U.S. undermines every time it waives parallel U.S. laws based on the “national interest.”
Obama’s memorandum may look jarring on paper, but it’s grimly consistent with Washington’s agenda of waging war indefinitely, without boundaries, against an enemy we can no longer really define. The U.S. supports warfare that uses children as weapons, warfare that kills civilian children indiscriminately, warfare that ultimately sends our own children to perish on foreign soil. And so America marches on in a world of conflict where the first casualty is innocence itself.