U.S. diplomats accuse Tillerson of breaking child soldiers law
A group of about a dozen U.S. State Department officials have taken the unusual step of formally accusing Secretary of State Rex Tillerson of violating a federal law designed to stop foreign militaries from enlisting child soldiers, according to internal documents reviewed by Reuters.
A confidential State Department “dissent” memo, which Reuters was first to report on, said Tillerson breached the Child Soldiers Prevention Act when he decided in June to exclude Iraq, Myanmar, and Afghanistan from a U.S. list of offenders in the use of child soldiers. This was despite the department publicly acknowledging that children were being conscripted in those countries. [http://tmsnrt.rs/2jJ7pav]
Keeping the countries off the annual list makes it easier to provide them with U.S. military assistance. Iraq and Afghanistan are close allies in the fight against Islamist militants, while Myanmar is an emerging ally to offset China’s influence in Southeast Asia.
Documents reviewed by Reuters also show Tillerson’s decision was at odds with a unanimous recommendation by the heads of the State Department’s regional bureaus overseeing embassies in the Middle East and Asia, the U.S. envoy on Afghanistan and Pakistan, the department’s human rights office and its own in-house lawyers. [http://tmsnrt.rs/2Ah6tB4] “Beyond contravening U.S. law, this decision risks marring the credibility of a broad range of State Department reports and analyses and has weakened one of the U.S. government's primary diplomatic tools to deter governmental armed forces and government-supported armed groups from recruiting and using children in combat and support roles around the world,” said the July 28 memo.
State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert, questioned at length by reporters on the issue at her daily briefing, strongly defended Tillerson's decision as valid and in "technical compliance with the law in the way he read it."
"No one in the United States government likes the idea of the use of child soldiers," she said. "It's abhorrent.
Reuters reported in June that Tillerson had disregarded internal recommendations on Iraq, Myanmar and Afghan- istan. The new documents reveal the scale of the opposition in the State Department, including the rare use of what is known as the “dissent channel,” which allows officials to object to policies without fear of reprisals.
The views expressed by the U.S. officials illustrate ongoing tensions between career diplomats and the former chief of Exxon Mobil Corp appointed by President Donald Trump to pursue an “America First” approach to diplomacy.
INTERPRETING THE LAW
The child soldiers law passed in 2008 states that the U.S. government must be satisfied that no children under the age of 18 “are recruited, conscripted or otherwise compelled to serve as child soldiers" for a country to be removed from the list. The statute extends specifically to government militaries and government-supported armed groups like militias.
The list currently includes the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, Mali, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.
In a written response to the dissent memo on Sept. 1, Tillerson adviser Brian Hook acknowledged that the three countries did use child soldiers. He said, however, it was necessary to distinguish between governments “making little or no effort to correct their child soldier violations ... and those which are making sincere - if as yet incomplete - efforts.” 'A POWERFUL MESSAGE'
Foreign militaries on the list are prohibited from receiving aid, training and weapons from Washington unless the White House issues a waiver based on U.S. “national interest.” In 2016, under the Obama administration, both Iraq and Myanmar, as well as others such as Nigeria and Somalia, received waivers. At times, the human rights community chided President Barack Obama for being too willing to issue waivers and exemptions, especially for governments that had security ties with Washington, instead of sanctioning more of those countries.
“Human Rights Watch frequently criticized President Barack Obama for giving too many countries waivers, but the law has made a real difference,” Jo Becker, advocacy director for the group's children’s rights division, wrote in June in a critique of Tillerson’s decision. (Reuters)