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Sanctioning Countries That Use Child Soldiers: A Delicate Balance

Child soldiers of the Seleka coalition sit on a pickup truck near the Presidential palace in Bangui, March 25, 2013.

These countries then face legal restrictions on access to certain types of U.S. military assistance and training.

The Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict prohibits using anyone under 18 to take a direct part in hostilities. Recruiting and using children under the age of 15 as soldiers is defined as a war crime by the International Criminal Court. Still, around the world, 250,000 to 300,000 children are unlawfully recruited to participate in armed conflicts.

Six years ago, the United States enacted the Child Soldier Prevention Act, which requires the Secretary of State to compile and publish a list of countries that recruit or use child soldiers in their military forces, or support groups that do. These countries then face legal restrictions on access to certain types of U.S. military assistance and training.

But when a country takes significant positive steps and works to improve the situation, and it is in our national interest, the United States can fully or partially waive sanctions to provide an incentive for reform, and may continue to work closely with those governments to end the unlawful use of child soldiers.

Nine countries were listed this year. Syria, Burma and Sudan did not take significant steps to prevent recruitment of children, and will not receive a waiver. The Democratic Republic of Congo and the transitional government of the Central African Republic are making progress to reduce the recruitment and use of child soldiers. They received partial waivers. So has South Sudan, but for a different reason—to enable a cease fire monitoring and verification mission and to continue efforts to counter the Lord’s Resistance Army. Otherwise, the U.S. government suspended nearly all security assistance to South Sudan in early 2014.

Rwanda ceased support of the M23 rebel group, which recruited and used child soldiers. Somalia has made some progress, and needs help to fight against terrorist groups, while Yemen signed a UN action plan to end the recruitment and use of child soldiers. These three countries received full waivers.

“The waiver doesn’t mean that they are not guilty of recruiting child soldiers, to the contrary,” said Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, Michael Kozak. “It means they are, and therefore, the sanction and the law would apply but for the waivers.”

The goal, said Ambassador Kozak, is not to punish countries for their bad behavior, but to persuade them to change it.