Despite being legally obligated to an act that deters exploitation of children, US President Barack Obama has allowed South Sudan to continue recruiting child soldiers, writes Azad Essa.
Child soldiers are supposed to have been relegated to a chapter in the history books. In South Sudan, where intermittent violence has made a mockery of various attempts to broker peace, the incidence of children participating in war, is on the rise. So far this year, 650 children have been recruited by militia groups. And they’re still counting.
There’s a sameness to the reports.
Troops enter a village and round up boys and some girls, as young as 9. They forcibly take them away. Other children, orphaned and without any protection, ask to join for their own survival. They become porters, spies, cooks, messengers and killers.
For many, a firearm offers a rare anchor, a sense of belonging.
Last week, the UN said the official South Sudanese army fighting the rebel group was actively recruiting children.
“The dream we all shared for the children of this young country has become a nightmare,” said Justin Forsyth, UN Children’s Fund deputy executive director.
More than 1 000 incidents affecting 28 788 children have been documented in South Sudan, with 601 incidents in Unity State alone. Children have been documented wearing military uniforms throughout the country, and forced to loot and commit unspeakable crimes on civilians. For many of these children, war will shape who they are. It is the impossibility of these children ever living a “normal” life again, that exemplifies the tragedy of South Sudan.
A new country born out of the shackles of a long war with Khartoum plunged into another when South Sudan President Salva Kiir and his former vice-president Riek Machar faced off over control of the country in 2013.
Since then, tens of thousands of people have been killed. More than 1 million lost their homes after their villages were razed, their cattle killed or seized.
For the war, there is enough blame to go all around. Be it the appalling leadership on the continent or the interference of foreign states like Canada, Israel, Iran and China - all seeking to continue selling arms to South Sudan.
But when it comes to child soldiers, the blame must fall squarely on the US and specifically, Barack Obama.
Child soldiers are neither new nor unique to South Sudan.
But since 1996, there has been a concerted effort to end the use of child soldiers around the globe, especially after Graca Machel’s landmark Impact of Armed Conflict on Children report was endorsed by the UN as a blueprint to resolve the scourge.
Significantly however, the US, under former president George W Bush, passed the historic Child Soldiers Prevention Act in 2008, designed specifically to deter warring nations from exploiting children.
The act bans the US government from providing military assistance to countries found to be using child soldiers. But it gives the US president the right to waive the ruling if it is deemed to be in the national interest to do so. This is where Obama comes in.
Upon the recommendation of the State Department, first under the leadership of Hillary Clinton and then John Kerry, the US president has consistently found ways to waive the law when it relates to South Sudan.
By its own admission, the US is among the primary reasons South Sudan exists as a state.As a result, the Obama administration has pumped in billions of dollars into the country, making the US the biggest donor.
Despite knowing full well that South Sudan is rated 163 out of 168 countries in the global corruption perception index, has grotesque levels of poverty, unemployment and social strife, the US continues to extend military aid to a nation already drowning in arms.
To demonstrate the impact of Obama’s actions: South Sudan received a waiver in 2012-13 and partial waiver for 2014-15.
During this period, some 16 000 children were recruited for the war.
The US is so heavily invested in the South Sudan project, it will continue to bolster the semblance of a state, even if it means the recruitment of child soldiers.
Last year, Unicef oversaw the release of 1 775 former child soldiers in what the agency described as one of the largest demobilisations of children.
But no commander in South Sudan has been held accountable for recruiting child soldiers. And South Sudan is not the only one.
Obama has signed off an estimated $1 billion (R14.5bn) in arms sales and military assistance to countries with records of child soldier use since 2010. In effect, Obama provided 96% of requested military aid and 98% of arms sales to countries that otherwise should not have received a cent under the law.
The US is well aware that curtailing military aid is the most effective way to force states to change. Partial sanctions on the Congo for its refusal to sign an agreement to end child soldiers changed within five days after the sanctions were imposed. Withdrawal of funds from Rwanda for its support of M23 rebels in the DRC also resulted in a turnaround within no time. But in places and spaces it regards as vulnerable in lieu of its “national interest”, values are negotiable. The war in South Sudan needs to end. But so does American hypocrisy. And when the dust settles after his presidency, history will reveal the smoke and mirrors of the Obama’s foreign policy for what it is, a disaster.
Despite being legally obliged to an act that deters exploitation of
children, Obama has been waiving the law as it suits him.
* Azad Essa is a journalist at Al Jazeera. He is also the co-founder of The Daily Vox.
** The views expressed here are not necessarily those of Independent Media.