U.S. gives military aid to nations with child soldiers

By Chuck Neubauer

As the junior senator from Illinois, Barack Obama co-sponsored a bill to restrict the U.S. government’s military support of countries that use children as soldiers. But President Obama has waived those very same sanctions in the name of “national interest,” bypassing the findings of a State Department report and allowing millions of dollars in military aid to flow to countries where children as young as 11 have been conscripted to fight — many of whom have died in one bloody conflict after another.

Mr. Obama’s actions have inflamed an army of critics, who say the waivers have put at-risk children in even greater danger.

“The implementation of the law by President Obama has been a big disappointment,” said Jo Becker, children’s rights advocacy director for Human Rights Watch. She said countries won’t get serious about ending the use of child soldiers until they think the United States is serious about withholding aid. “U.S. tax dollars should not go to governments that use child soldiers.”

Mr. Obama, however, has an opportunity to silence his critics as he decides over the next two months whether to withhold aid or give waivers to seven countries named in a new State Department report as using children — both boys and girls — as armed combatants.

The original legislation, a strongly worded bipartisan law known as the Child Soldier Prevention Act, prohibits the U.S. government from giving military financing and training funds to countries identified by the State Department in its annual “Trafficking in Persons” report as having recruited and used children younger than 15 as soldiers in their armed forces or government-supported militias. The bill passed unanimously in both the Senate and the House, and was signed into law by President Bush on Dec. 23, 2008.

Amnesty International has said that more than 250,000 children worldwide, about 45 percent of them girls, are fighting in active conflicts.

Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, Nebraska Republican, who authored the House version of the law, said that national security “must not be an excuse to allow us to be complicit with countries using child soldiers.” He called Mr. Obama’s decision in October to grant waivers on the 2011 trafficking report “an assault on human dignity.”

Mr. Fortenberry has introduced legislation that would require the president to report to Congress 15 days before issuing another waiver what credible and verifiable steps are being undertaken in countries cited for child-soldiers violations to implement a plan of action to end the recruitment of child soldiers. It also would prohibit the use of peacekeeping funds for those countries.

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