For the second year in a row, U.S. President Barack Obama has waived a Congressionally-mandated ban on military aid for four countries that use child soldiers.
The four countries that will continue to receive military assistance despite the use of child soldiers in their armed forces include Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), Yemen and the newly independent nation of South Sudan, according to a memo released by the White House late Tuesday.
All four, which are slated to receive a total of more than 200 million dollars in military aid in 2012, were given waivers by the administration last year, as well.
The latest decision was denounced by Human Rights Watch (HRW) which said it showed "a lack of leadership and a disregard for U.S. law".
"Countries that keep using child soldiers aren't going to get serious about ending the practice until they see the U.S. is serious about withholding the money," said Jo Becker, who heads HRW's children's rights division.
"The Obama administration has been unwilling to make even small cuts to military assistance to governments exploiting children as soldiers," she added. "Children are paying the price for its poor leadership."
Under the U.S. Child Soldiers Prevention Act of 2008, which took effect in 2010, Washington is banned from providing U.S. foreign military financing (FMF), military training, and several other military aid programmes to countries that recruit soldiers under the age of 18.
Obama can waive the bans if he determines that doing so would serve "the national interest".
Five countries, as well as the Sudan Peoples Liberation Army (SPLA) in what in July became South Sudan, were identified last year as using child soldiers during 2009. They included Chad, the DRC, Yemen, Somalia, and Myanmar. Of those, only Somalia and Burma, with which the U.S. has no military ties anyway, were not given waivers.
At the time, the White House said that the other three countries and the SPLA had been "put…on notice" that they would be subject to future sanctions if they did not stop or reduce their recruitment practices.
In a private conference call, National Security Council Senior Director Samantha Power assured concerned non-governmental organisation (NGOs) representatives that the administration would fully enforce the law in 2011, according to foreignpolicy.com's The Cable blogger, Josh Rogin, who listened in on the call.
Of the four countries granted waivers this year, Yemen, which receives more than 100 million dollars a year in U.S. military and counterterrorism assistance, was perhaps the most notable, if only because the administration could not point to any effort on the part of its government to address the child soldier problem during the past year.
"Cooperation with the Yemeni government is a vital piece of the U.S. national strategy to disrupt, dismantle, and defeat al-Qa'ida and its affiliates and adherents by denying them sanctuary in the ungoverned spaces of Yemen's hinterland," the White House said in a memo justifying the waivers.
"Removing the Administration's flexibility to provide security assistance would have the potential to jeopardize the Yemeni government's capability to conduct special operations and counterterrorism missions," it said.
HRW said its monitors had observed child soldiers serving with Central Security, an elite paramilitary unit, and General Security, a police force in the capital, Sana'a, as recently as August. In addition, officers in the army's First Armoured Division, which joined the opposition earlier this year, told HRW that it had recruited children who were 15 years old or even younger, before its defection.
On South Sudan, which is supposed to receive 100 million dollars in military aid next year, the administration took the position in a meeting with NGOs Tuesday afternoon that the law should not apply to it this year since it did not exist as an independent country until after the publication in June of the State Department's 2011 Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report, according to The Cable blog. The report includes the official list of countries which use child soldiers.
The administration insisted that some progress had been made over the past year in addressing the child soldier problem in both Chad and the DRC.
In Chad, according to the White House, the government had issued an "action plan" to halt child recruitment and demobilise child soldiers and taken some steps towards its implementation. It said a U.N.-led task force charged with monitoring the problem had not verified any cases of recruitment during 2011 and that the government had turned over some 1,000 children to UNICEF and NGOs for re-integration programmes.
As for the DRC, the administration said it has taken "some steps to reduce child soldiers" over the past year and that some of its army commanders have made "an effort to remove child soldiers from the ranks and turn them over to the U.N.'s peace-keeping mission, UNICEF, and other humanitarian organisations.
It added, however, that the ongoing process of integrating rebel and militia groups that have also used child soldiers has made the effort more challenging. "As a result, the progress that has been made …does not yet represent the kind of institutional change required to make real progress toward eliminating child soldiers," the White House claimed.
As a result, the White House decided to grant a partial waiver whereby it will continue its military training programmes and provide non-lethal equipment to the army but withhold some 1.3 million dollars in FMF monies until the government signs and cooperates more fully with U.N. efforts to end the use of child soldiers.
HRW's Becker called the partial waiver a "positive step".
Somalia, which, like last year, was also found by the State Department to be using child soldiers, is not affected by the law, because U.S. military aid to the Transitional Federal Government (TFG) is channelled through the State Department's peacekeeping account.