Twenty-two years ago, the United Nations treaty banning the use of child soldiers entered into force. While the treaty represents an important milestone, it has not eliminated the tragedy of child soldiers across the globe. We must continue to ask what more can be done to put an end to this heinous practice. In the United States, the answer may lie in a woefully underutilized law that has been on the books for over a decade.
The Optional Protocol to the Convention on the Rights of the Child on the involvement of children in armed conflict requires governments to ensure children under the age of 18 are not forcibly recruited into their armed forces and to take all feasible measures to prevent children from taking a direct part in hostilities. Taking effect on Feb. 12, 2002, the protocol has been ratified by 173 countries, including the United States.
The treaty brought about important change, prompting some violating governments to demobilize child soldiers, prosecute officers that recruited children, or change their deployment practices. But the recruitment and use of child soldiers by government forces and non-state armed groups remains an endemic global challenge, with 7,622 U.N.-verified cases of child soldier recruitment and use in 2022 alone — a 21 percent increase compared to 2021 — across at least 25 countries. The situation is all the more dire given the unprecedented threats facing children caught in conflict today, which apart from recruitment and use can include killing and maiming, attacks on schools and hospitals, and denials of humanitarian access.
The United States is uniquely well-positioned to reverse this worrying trend and revitalize global child soldier prevention efforts.
The 2008 Child Soldiers Prevention Act (CSPA) creates a framework for restricting U.S. arms sales and military assistance to countries whose security forces or government-supported armed groups recruited or used child soldiers during the previous year. Given the United States’ role as the world’s leading arms exporter, the fierce global demand for U.S. arms and assistance, and the fact that several governments recently implicated in child soldier recruitment or use — including Egypt, Libya, Somalia and Turkey — are heavily reliant on U.S. security assistance, robust CSPA implementation can create a powerful incentive for governments to put an end to these practices for fear of losing out on valuable U.S. arms and assistance.
Unfortunately, the CSPA’s utility as a child soldier prevention tool has been repeatedly undercut by persistent implementation issues. Since the law took effect in 2009, the State Department has at various points declined to formally acknowledge reports that certain countries recruited or used child soldiers, which has allowed some U.S. security partners to skirt CSPA restrictions. And even when countries have been implicated by the U.S. government, presidents have tended to waive most of the law’s restrictions in the “national interest” of the United States. As a result, an estimated $6.36 billion in arms and assistance — roughly 97 percent of the amount that could have been prohibited under the CSPA — has been allowed to flow to governments complicit in the recruitment or use of child soldiers.
It’s not too late for the U.S. to reverse course. By holding any and all governments to account for their role in the recruitment or use of child soldiers and waiving CSPA restrictions only in truly exceptional circumstances and in response to clear and compelling national security interests, the U.S. can send a powerful signal to would-be recipients of U.S. arms and assistance that their failure to address the issue of child soldiers will be met with consequences.
The Biden administration’s most recent CSPA implementation decisions, which were announced last year with respect to fiscal 2024 arms sales and military assistance, were in some respects a step in the right direction. The administration implicated 17 governments in the recruitment or use of child soldiers — more than in any previous year — and subjected a record-breaking nine governments to the full scope of the CSPA’s restrictions.
But there is clearly room for improvement, with the administration deciding not to implicate several countries it previously suggested were complicit in the recruitment or use of child soldiers, waiving restrictions on the single largest tranche of military aid to ever come within the scope of the CSPA (over $1.3 billion in aid to Egypt), and failing to meet a statutory reporting requirement that all previous presidents have adhered to.
As a state party to the Optional Protocol, the United States is obliged not only to prevent the unlawful recruitment or use of child soldiers within its own ranks but to cooperate with other states parties in preventing activities contrary to the treaty. As we mark the anniversary of this landmark instrument, now is an opportune time for the United States to live up to that commitment, by meaningfully engaging with its security partners through the CSPA framework to push for concrete action to end the recruitment and use of child soldiers once and for all.
Ryan Fletcher is a research associate at the Stimson Center, a nonpartisan research center located in Washington, D.C.
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