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Looking ahead - Child soldiers

By Rachel Stohl, Managing Director

Children represent some of the most vulnerable populations in armed conflicts around the world. Too often, children shoulder the burden of conflict and are exploited by armed groups to serve on the frontlines and/or support armed operations – with national militaries, government-supported paramilitaries, and non-state armed groups recruiting and using child soldiers as tools of warfare. According to recent estimates by Child Soldiers International, 240 million children around the world live in countries affected by ongoing armed conflict and children have been exploited by armed forces and groups in at least 18 countries since 2016 – including in Afghanistan, Colombia, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, Libya, Mali, Myanmar, Nigeria, the Philippines, Sudan and South Sudan, Somalia, Syria, and Yemen, among others.

An often-overlooked component of this tragic reality is the impact of global arms transfers on the use of children in armed conflict. The dynamics of the international arms trade have made weapons more accessible to more actors – including those that forcibly recruit child soldiers. Many countries with known records of child soldier abuse rely on weapons and military assistance from some of the world’s leading arms exporters, including the United States. Yet few major arms exporters have incorporated the nexus between arms transfers and the recruitment and use of child soldiers into their national export policies or legislation. To underscore this connection and identify means to encourage national governments around the world to stop the recruitment and use of child soldiers, U.S. lawmakers adopted the Child Soldiers Prevention Act (CSPA) of 2008. The CSPA requires the U.S. Secretary of State to publish an annual list of countries whose armed forces or government-backed armed groups recruit or use child soldiers. This list is commonly referred to as the CSPA list and is published in the State Department’s annual Trafficking in Persons report. Countries included on the list are prohibited from receiving certain types of U.S. military assistance, training, and defense equipment.

This new year marks ten years of CSPA implementation and offers an important opportunity to review the CSPA’s efforts and examine its impact. Although the United States is one of few countries in the world to leverage U.S. military assistance to end the use of child soldiers, thus far, implementation of the law has been lacking.

One reason for poor implementation is the frequent use of what is known as a “national interest waiver” as detailed in the law itself. The CSPA allows the president to waive the law’s prohibitions, in whole or in part, “if the President determines that such a waiver is in the national interest of the United States.” The Obama and Trump administrations have both used these national interest waivers regularly. As a result, more than $4.3 billion in otherwise prohibited U.S. military assistance has been provided to countries known to recruit and use child soldiers over the last nine years, thereby limiting the consequences (or perceived consequences) for not aligning with the law’s requirements.

Another notable challenge to comprehensive CSPA implementation has been the omission of key countries from the CSPA list itself. For years, countries known to support the recruitment and use of child soldiers – such as Afghanistan, Iraq, and Saudi Arabia – have been deliberately kept off the CSPA list for political reasons. In a positive move, the State Department included Afghanistan, Iraq, and Burma on the 2019 CSPA list – countries it neglected to include in 2017, with notable controversy. However, absent from the 2019 list is the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, which has been widely reported to be using children as young as 14 to fight its war in Yemen.

With his 2019 determination, President Trump waived all of the CSPA’s prohibited assistance, allowing all relevant military assistance to go to the seven countries currently budgeted to receive such assistance. The four countries absent from the waiver announcement – Iran, Burma/Myanmar, Sudan, and Syria – do not receive any U.S. military assistance.

The application of the CSPA over the last nine years has not lived up to the hope of the law’s potential. Children in conflict continue to be put at risk with no accountability by the governments that continue to violate the rights of their most vulnerable populations. In 2020 we must reflect on the trends of the CSPA’s implementation over the last 10 years and identify potential fixes to the law’s loopholes and weaknesses.

**This commentary is part of a blog series, Looking Ahead 2020, published by the Forum on the Arms Trade, looking at an array of issues in 2020 related to weapons use, the arms trade and security assistance, at times offering recommendations.