Obama Should Take Tougher Stance Against Countries That Exploit Child Soldiers

Our guest blogger, Lauren Jenkins, works on post-conflict peacebuilding issues at the Education for Peace in Iraq Center and writes about national security at her blog, International Development Without Pity.

On Friday, President Obama announced that approximately 100 U.S. troops would travel to Central Africa and begin assisting regional militaries pursuing the apprehension of Joseph Kony and other senior leaders of the Lord’s Resistance Army. Defending his decision in an interview with ABC’s Jake Tapper, Obama spared no adjective in describing the atrocities committed by the LRA:

“But those who are familiar with the Lord’s Resistance Army and their leader, Mr. Kony, know that these are some of the most vicious killers, they terrorize villages, they take children into custody and turn them into child soldiers, they engage in rape and slaughter in villages they go through. They have been a scourge on Uganda and that entire region, Eastern Africa.”

Words barely capture the horrors the LRA has visited upon the people of northern Uganda, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, the Central African Republic, and South Sudan. Over the years, thousands of children have been abducted in LRA raids, indoctrinated, and exploited, some militarily, some sexually. Human Rights Watch reported in August 2010 that “many children as young as 10 or 11, abducted in Congo, CAR, and Southern Sudan in 2008 and 2009, are now armed with guns and participate in LRA attacks.”

It’s thus no surprise there has been bipartisan support for a more robust U.S. response to the LRA and its atrocities. In May 2010, Congress unanimously passed the Lord’s Resistance Army Disarmament and Northern Uganda Recovery Act of 2009. That bill laid the foundations for President Obama’s recent decision to send U.S. troops to reinforce the efforts of the Ugandan, Congolese, and South Sudanese armies, to finally put an end to the LRA and its use of child soldiers.

However, only a few weeks ago Obama issued a series of waivers that will allow the U.S. to continue providing funding and assistance to countries whose militaries recruit, conscript and use child soldiers. Under U.S. law, military aid to Yemen, Chad, South Sudan and the Democratic Republic of the Congo should have been suspended due to the child soldiers among their armies’ ranks. Perhaps conveniently, two of those militaries are ones the U.S. will be working with in central Africa.

Worse, this is the second year in a row the U.S. has waived penalties for countries arming and exploiting children as combatants. Last year, the administration granted the same waivers with the intent that continued U.S. assistance and engagement would lead to a reduction in the use of child soldiers among the four militaries. It did not. Yet the same tactic is once again being used to circumvent the law.

President Obama was forceful in his reasoning for potentially putting U.S. troops in harm’s way to end the LRA’s reign of terror, highlighting its abominable use of child soldiers. But elsewhere, the exploitation of child soldiers’ goes unchecked. It won’t take 100 U.S. troops to end the practice in Yemen, Chad, the DRC, or South Sudan. It would simply take following the law and following the President’s own convictions.