Obama’s Child Soldiers

“When they came to my village, they asked my older brother whether he was ready to join the militia.

“He was just 17 and he said no; they shot him in the head.

“Then they asked me if I was ready to sign, so what could I do—I didn’t want to die.” 

This is the story of then-13-year-old Ndungutsa, who was recruited by the army of the Democratic Republic of the Congo (DRC) to fight in their on-again, off-again civil war, which has been the world’s most brutal conflict since World War II. In places like the Congo, where war has been waged for so long that many of the men of military age are dead, government forces and local militias will force children into these wars. These children often serve as cooks, porters, sex slaves, and even infantry. The U.S. Congress, wanting to not be a party to the use of child soldiers, passed the Child Soldiers Prevention Act of 2008. Although it makes me sick to my stomach to think about it, the United States used to give money to militaries that conscripted children to stop bullets and have sex with militiamen. I’m unhappy that my tax dollars used to go to these militaries, but at least now it’s over.

Actually… not quite.

Last year, on Oct. 25, Barack Obama made use of a loophole in that law that allowed for funding to continue if the president issued a waiver saying it was in the “national interest” for the funding to continue to four of the five countries that use child soldiers and receive U.S. aid. (By the way, does that mean we sometimes give money out when it’s not in the “national interest”?) The four countries are Chad, Sudan, Yemen, and the Democratic Republic of the Congo. The fifth country is Somalia, which we also still fund, but since our military aid falls under the rubric of “peacekeeping operations,” it doesn’t count as military aid, apparently. Recently, due to the upheavals in the Arab world and Sen. Rand Paul’s call to end all foreign aid, more scrutiny has been given to the money that we give to oppressive dictatorships and militaries the world over. However, until now there has been almost no attention given to the amount of money we give to countries that use children in their armed forces.

The first country is Chad, to which the U.S. contributed $7.3 million [.pdf] of the country’s total military budget of $412 million in 2009. (The administration’s aid request for 2011 was a meager $780,000.) According to the State Department, the reasons the U.S. gives money to Chad “include addressing the humanitarian emergency in eastern Chad
resulting from the Darfur crisis and restoring regional security essential to resolving that crisis; promoting a stronger and more legitimate polity by implementing electoral reform to ensure credible democratic elections in 2010 and 2011; and strengthening Chad’s capacity to deal with terrorist threats and the potential for intolerance and extremism.” You’ll notice that there is nothing in there about the national interests of the United States. You’ll also notice that it doesn’t tell you that the country has been ruled for two decades by a dictator, Idriss Déby, who needs our funding to fend off frequent rebel challenges (in the past five years, rebels have threatened to take the Chadian capital twice). Should we really be giving money to this dictator so he can arm children to keep himself in power?

The second country is the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), for which the administration requested $1.95 million in “peace and security” assistance for 2011. (The DRC’s total military budget for 2009 was an estimated $127 million.) The DRC has been fought over for years by numerous internal factions and neighboring nations. The reason for these wars, and our interest in the region, is that the DRC is sitting on an abundance of natural resources, including uranium and coltan, which is used in every computer and cell phone. Diplomatic cables released by WikiLeaks from the embassy in Kinshasa indicate that the U.S. government is primarily concerned with the trade of uranium in the area and growing Chinese influence in the DRC. As a result, child soldiers have become pawns in a race between rival powers to extract the country’s wealth.

The U.S. doesn’t actually give any military funding to the government of Sudan. All of our military funding actually goes to the Sudan People’s Liberation Army, a guerrilla army that fought the national government in Khartoum and won autonomy for Southern Sudan. In 2011, the administration requested $800,000 in military aid for this guerrilla army. According to the waiver, at least 1,200 children as young as 12 are in the SPLA. There’s no doubt in my mind that the Sudanese government is horrifically brutal, and the people of the South have a right to rise up against it. However, at a minimum, they should refrain from committing war crimes like the recruitment of children before we agree to make them our proxy army.

Yemen has received the greatest increase in requested military funding in the past year, going from $19.3 million to $36.1 million. The administration fears that Yemen will be used as a base for al-Qaeda-style terrorists. However, the majority of our money actually goes to fighting Houthi rebels, who are Shi’ites, not al-Qaeda-aligned Sunnis. In fact, the Houthi website, al-Menpar, claims that the Yemeni government is actually arming al-Qaeda cells to fight the Houthi rebels. You can read about it yourself here. Far from fighting al-Qaeda in Yemen, we may be arming it. Furthermore, Obama’s own waiver claims that as many as half of the fighters from militias that are used by the government against the Houthis are children under the age of 18. According to Abdul-Rahman al-Marwani, a representative of a non-governmental organization in the area, as many as 500-600 children are killed or wounded in Yemen’s civil wars every year. A possible explanation for the U.S. government’s actions in Yemen comes from another diplomatic cable on WikiLeaks. This cable indicates that President Ali Abdullah Saleh doesn’t care about terrorists in Yemen and is only interested in fighting the Houthis. He is more than happy to use American concerns about al-Qaeda to get our money, and the U.S. government is happy to give it to him. Two months after that cable was written, U.S. forces bombed both Houthi and al-Qaeda sites in Yemen, killing at least 120 people, mostly civilians.

Now, I don’t care how noble a cause is, I think it’s morally reprehensible to send children to suffer and die for it. However, Barack Obama disagrees with me and as mandated by the Child Soldiers Prevention Act, he wrote a justification for the waivers for each one of these countries. Obama’s justifications for providing military funding to these countries (which can be found on page 75,855 of the Federal Register) include three excuses that come up again and again in the waivers: (1) they have taken steps to stop using child soldiers; (2) if we don’t give them money, we won’t have the access to their government to change their policies on child soldiers; and (3) if we stop giving them money, it will irrevocably harm our relationship. The whole point of the Child Soldiers Prevention Act was that it would give incentives to these countries to stop using child soldiers. With these waivers, child slavers will know that we are not serious about protecting children from war, so any “steps” they take will be purely symbolic, or outright lies. In fact, the waiver for Yemen states that the government of Yemen claims that it does not use child soldiers. How can they be taking steps to stop the problem if they claim a problem does not exist? It is also ridiculous that we are worried about harming our relationships with these states when we’re giving them free money, all of them are plagued with hideous human rights abuses by their governments, and two of the four are ruled by perpetual dictators.

What I don’t understand about these waivers is that the Child Soldiers Prevention Act was made law on Dec. 23, 2008, and went into effect on June 21, 2009. The presidential waiver didn’t occur until Oct. 25, 2010. Since these countries were all using child soldiers at the time and they were all receiving military funding from the United States, why did the funding not cease on June 21, 2009, or why was a waiver at least not issued at that time? Since the Obama administration successfully ignored the law for over a year, why go to the trouble of issuing a waiver now? In fact, why bother enacting the law in the first place if no policy changes result from it? The only thing that this law and the subsequent waivers did was to draw our attention to the fact that we give money to people who force children to fight and die in wars.

Whether it’s Egypt, Afghanistan, Yemen, or Sudan, the fundamental basis for the argument for foreign aid is being undermined. That argument is that American money will make the governments of those countries behave appropriately. However, after decades of aid, we still see dictatorships in these countries carrying out torture, slavery, and genocide. This is because of two things. First, the government of the United States, including Barack Obama, is unconcerned with human rights but concerned with preserving the status quo. Second, there’s no way you can make someone stop behaving badly by giving them free money. So, when Rand Paul or anyone else calls for ending foreign aid, keep in mind that such a change won’t just help balance the budget, but it will also reduce our complicity in human rights abuses.

Author: Matthew Ehrlich

Matthew Ehrlich is a study skills teacher in southern Arizona and an alumnus of the University of Arizona with a B.A. in history.