As a humanitarian worker, a child protection expert, and as a U.S. citizen, I have certain expectations -- some call them naive ideals -- that the U.S. government will work to reduce the vulnerability of children around the world and here in the United States.
Laws like the Trafficking Victims Protection Act, the PROTECT Act, and the Child Soldier Prevention Act have all set in place strict policies that made America the global leader in working to prevent and respond to vulnerability among children.
That’s why, on October 4, I was angry, and, to be honest, feeling slightly betrayed. On October 4, the Obama administration announced the latest round of guidelines outlining how, for the second year in a row, the federal government will provide military aid to countries whose armed forces recruit and use child soldiers.
In December 2008, I fell on my knees in thankful prayer when the Child Soldier Prevention Act (CSPA) unanimously passed both houses of Congress. Even though the law would not go into effect until 2010, I rejoiced at the United States taking leadership to end this terrible practice.
The bill had a simple goal: to prevent U.S. taxpayer money from supporting armies that use child soldiers. Right now, there are six countries in the world that actively use children in their national militaries -- Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Myanmar, Somalia, South Sudan, and Yemen.
The recent decision by the Obama administration means that the United States will now give military aid to five of those six countries, despite the existence of the CSPA.
At a time when Congress is locked in one of the most difficult budget battles I’ve ever seen, it is shameful that a portion of federal funding continues to help support governments who are abusing children. The worst part is that thousands of children around the world -- not the politicians in the White House, on Capitol Hill, or in the State Department -- are the ones who will suffer.
Six countries use children in their national armies. The U.S. government provides military assistance to five of them.
The statement on October 4 comes after President Obama used a loophole in the CSPA to grant a partial waiver to the Democratic Republic of Congo, and a full waiver to Yemen -- both countries implicated in child soldier usage, according to the most recent Trafficking in Persons Report (pdf) from the U.S. Department of State.
Citing improvements in addressing the issue of child soldiers, the White House also granted the government of Chad full access to all forms of military aid.
It's true that these countries need support to help end the widespread use of child soldiers. But in the meantime, they continue to exploit children in their armed forces -- and the United States refuses to show the moral and political backbone necessary to enforce the law that took effect just one year ago. Our leaders have not provided any clear benchmarks to track progress in these countries, and they've failed to use the diplomatic and punitive tools the CSPA provides.
Instead, it seems that we are now complicit in the problem by allowing American taxpayer dollars to support governments that persist in recruiting child soldiers or refuse to hold military commanders accountable for their use of children.
The decision to grant a full national security waiver to Yemen and a partial waiver to the Democratic Republic of Congo means that the United States will continue to give military aid to governments who, yet again, fail to meet the child protection requirements outlined under the CSPA.
Furthermore, the reinstatement of military aid to Chad -- which, due to a full waiver granted last year, never lost military aid to begin with -- without any clear benchmarks to ensure continued progress, is also troubling.
At its core, this is a missed opportunity to show leadership on the issue and protect thousands of vulnerable children around the world. Frankly, I expected more from our nation’s leaders.
Right now, Congress is responding to the president’s decision. They are working to close the loopholes in the CSPA by adding language to the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act. This bipartisan legislation is the centerpiece of U.S. laws and policies combating human trafficking at home and abroad. It's our best chance to stop the use of child soldiers where the Obama administration has failed to do so.
You have a chance to help. Call your senators and representatives today. Tell them to pass the Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act.
And call the White House. Tell President Obama to stop providing military assistance to countries that use child soldiers.
This is a moral issue for the United States. But for thousands of children abused as soldiers around the world, it could be a matter of life and death.
What do you think? Should U.S. military aid go to countries implicated in the use of child soldiers? How else can Americans help prevent their tax dollars from funding this?