Tuesday, January 17, 2012

President Obama and The Rights of the Child

ARC 530623, WikiCommons
by S. Amanda Shelton

In the wake of the passage of the National Defense Authorization Act, a bill which human rights groups criticized for its broad curtailment of basic civil rights, many were left with questions about the contrast between President Obama’s human rights stance as President and his stance as a candidate and Senator. While national security, torture, and indefinite detention have been at the center of this debate, his administration’s policies on child soldiers are also fertile ground for this discussion.

On September 19, 2007, then-Senator and presidential hopeful Barack Obama co-sponsored  the Child Soldier Prevention Act of 2007. The act aimed to prevent taxpayer subsidization of the use of child soldiers by withholding U.S. military assistance to states with child soldiers in their militaries or in government-supported armed forces. The use of child soldiers is a practice that draws an estimated 250,000 children into direct armed conflict and indirect conflict support – including sexual exploitation – across the globe. 

This prohibition on military assistance to child-soldier states eventually became law as part of the William Wilberforce Trafficking Victims Protection Reauthorization Act of 2008, with the intent that “the United States Government should support and, to the extent practicable, lead efforts to establish and uphold international standards designed to end the abuse of human rights”—in this case, the use of child soldiers.
But on October 4, 2011, now-President Obama released a memorandum bypassing the enacted penalties for three states – Yemen, Chad, and the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC) – that the State Department says utilize child soldiers, which means that these states will continue to receive U.S. funding for military assistance programs. The DRC received a partial waiver. In addition, the administration has said that no waiver is necessary to provide military funding to South Sudan, as it was not a country at the time of the release of the 2011 Trafficking in Persons Report. 

USAID, WikiCommons
To the vocal dismay of the NGO community, The Cable reports that this is the second year in a row that the administration has issued waivers to countries known to violate some of the most basic of children’s rights. Last year, the administration attempted to stymie concerns by assuring that this would be a one-time occurrence to allow states time to comply and the administration an opportunity to engage. At the time, National Security Council Senior Director Samantha Power framed the decision as an opportunity to “work from inside the tent.” In light of this second round of waivers, this assurance may ring  hollow for many; seemingly little progress has been made since the first round of waivers in 2010.

As parties to the Optional Protocol on the Involvement of Children in Armed Conflict, Chad, Yemen, and the DRC are committed by article 6 to “take all feasible measures to ensure that [minor] persons within their jurisdiction recruited or used in hostilities … are demobilized or otherwise released from service.” The continued use of child soldiers in these countries (as documented by the U.S. State Department) is a striking violation of treaty obligations and would seem to leave room for foreign governments to leverage their aid dollars in the service of human rights norm enforcement. In fact, the protocol itself calls for the assistance of other states in implementation:

1.       States Parties shall cooperate in the implementation of the present Protocol, including in the prevention of any activity contrary thereto … including through technical cooperation and financial assistance. Such assistance and cooperation will be undertaken in consultation with the States Parties concerned and the relevant international organizations. (Article 7)

The United States has ratified the Optional Protocol and, as such, has agreed to cooperate in prevention efforts of such violations. It’s hard to make the case that continued provision of monetary support for offending parties constitutes participation in the implementation of the protocol, particularly when that support comes after a year of lackluster, if any, demonstrated progress on the issue.

The administration’s seemingly lackadaisical approach to creating incentives for cooperation with human rights norms in this area draws attention to an underlying concern—the impact of political incentives in the U.S. on both development policy and military foreign assistance.

Yemen is an excellent example. The White House waiver justification memo cites the importance of counterterrorism efforts as the “national interest” basis for our continued complicity in the funding of child soldiers there in 2012. The memo says nothing about whether any of these funds will be used for prevention of the use of child soldiers in accordance with article 7 of the protocol. (Chad has also been a force in counterterrorism efforts, and the memo certifies that it has made sufficient progress to have its military assistance reinstated.) For the DRC, the memo acknowledges serious problems with the continued use of child soldiers, but explains that monetary assistance will be used in part to professionalize the armed forces and promote human rights standards. In this regard, the justification certainly comes closer to the obligations imposed by article 7 of the protocol. It’s no secret, however, that aid to the Great Lakes region has been subject to political skepticism in recent years. The memo itself does not include any specific progress benchmarks upon which future assistance will be contingent if the State Department continues to find the use of child soldiers in Yemen or the DRC in its next report.

This issue is not a stand-alone issue. Along with the current criticism regarding assistance waivers, the U.S. approach to children’s rights on the international stage has been mixed in the last 20 years. In 1995, the Clinton administration signed the Convention on the Rights of the Child, which was adopted by the UN General Assembly on November 20, 1989, but did not submit it to the Senate for ratification1 Amidst conservative opposition in Congress and in the Bush administration, the U.S. never ratified the treaty and is now one of only two countries in the world (along with Somalia) that has not done so. Hopes for eventual ratification were revived as President Obama took office in 2009, but the President has yet to make any moves in the direction of submitting the children’s rights treaty to the Senate. The entry of a more conservative Congress has done little to liven up its prospects.

As the U.S. government continues to stew over the Convention, the children of 1989 have long since grown up, and it is now a new generation that waits for their rights to be recognized.

And in the case of children killed or lost on the battle fields of adult prerogatives, the decade that has already passed since the optional protocol has been far too long to wait for the U.S. to cooperate on child soldiers.

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