US Push to End Child Soldiers?

In what is at least the second damning report on the topic in the last 4 years, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has encouraged the United States to stop assisting governments that recruit child soldiers in their armies. Despite the implementation of the Child Soldier Protection Act of 2008 (CSPA), the US continues to give millions in military aid to countries that have been documented as recruiting child soldiers, by giving them exemption from the law through annual waivers, making these regulations effectively useless.

The US has used its power to enact dramatic changes in governments’ child recruiting policies. As the HRW article points out, notably in both the Democratic Republic of Congo and in Chad, the act of the US’ withholding of a comparatively small portion of the military assistance was enough to push both Congo and Chad to sign agreements with the United Nations to combat existing child recruitment policies in those countries. The implementation of these plans resulted in a reduction of Congo’s child recruitments to only two for the 2014 fiscal year, and completely eliminating child recruitments from the Chadian army altogether.

In 2014, Yemen signed an agreement with the UN to end their recruitment and use of child soldiers. Brought into effect in May of that year, the agreement outlined the steps Yemen would take with the UN to end the practice of child recruitment. This action led to Yemen receiving full waivers from the United States, in relation to the CSPA.

However, since the escalation of the conflict earlier this year, Yemen has disregarded the agreement altogether. According to UNICEF estimates, 30% of armed combatants in the Yemen conflict are minors, with a confirmed 377 children being recruited this year – that is double the confirmed figure from the year before. Yet in spite of this rising child recruitment figures, the Obama administration has asked for a further $25 million in military aid for Yemen in the 2015 fiscal year.

While Yemen is yet to receive an exemption from the CSPA for this year, the money is readily available should the US choose to continue military aid. UNICEF is funding humanitarian efforts in the region, predominantly to help with access for children to safe water, nutrition, health and child protection services, yet the organization has little, if any, influence on the Yemeni government’s child recruitment policies. Withholding the little humanitarian funding it is able to give would not arguably incentivize Yemen/the Yemeni government to end the child recruitment practices in the country.

In Congo, while the government itself has stopped the practice of child recruitment, it continues to pledge support to militias and other non-governmental armed groups that use child soldiers within their factions. According to the UN Secretary-General’s report on Children and Armed Conflict, 241 new child recruits were documented in 2014.

This means that Congo is still on the CSPA list of offending countries, along with seven others. Despite this fact, Congo – as well as Nigeria, Somalia and South Sudan, three other offenders on the list – are all to receive waivers this year, with a combined total of $161 million in military funding to be dispersed across the four nations over the coming year, according to a HRW dispatch on the issue from this week. With Congo continuing to support the use of child soldiers in non-governmental groups, as well as a large number of child soldiers in both the Somali and South Sudan national armies, with both 197 and 418* cases of recruitment respectively, this funding does little to discourage governments involved in the practice to change their ways.

The United States has proven success that, with embargos on military funding for offending nations, serious change, and reductions of child soldier recruitments, is possible. It is currently withholding military aid to certain prominent countries that violate the CSPA, where negative developments are highly evident. However, the continuation of giving waivers to various nations known to recruit child soldiers, providing them with hundreds of millions of dollars in military aid, does nothing to dissuade governments that endorse child recruitment to end the practice.


*This figure is the combination of both the Sudan People’s Liberation Army (SPLA), with 310 cases of child recruitment, and the Sudan People’s Liberation Army in Opposition (SPLA-IO), with 108 cases of child recruitment.