I MET A FEW of them in the town of Pibor last year. These battle-tested veterans had just completed two or three years of military service. They told me about the rigors of a soldier’s life, about toting AK-47s, about the circumstances that led them to take up arms. In the United States, not one of these soldiers would have met the age requirements to enlist in the Army. None were older than 16.
Rebel forces in southern Sudan began using child soldiers long before seceding from Sudan in 2011. The United States, on the other hand, passed a law in 2008 that banned providing military assistance to nations that use child soldiers. The law was called the Child Soldiers Prevention Act, or CSPA, but after South Sudan’s independence, the White House issued annual waivers that kept aid flowing to the world’s newest nation despite its use of child soldiers. President Obama stated in 2012 that the waiver that year was in “the national interest of the United States.”
The president’s move was criticized by human rights activists and others. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry, a Republican from Nebraska and the author of the CSPA,described the use of child soldiers as an “unthinkable practice.” The U.S. “must not be complicit in this practice,” he said. “The intent of the law is clear — the waiver authority should be used as a mechanism for reform, not as a way of continuing the status quo.” Because of the requirements of the law, the waivers were issued by the White House rather than the State Department, so Obama was the target of most of the criticism.
Hillary Clinton, who was secretary of state when the first waivers were issued, was apparently never asked to comment on them, and the State Department never provided any explanations about its role. Clinton had spent years vowing to defend the rights of children worldwide — in 2012, she railedagainst “modern-day slavery” in the introduction to a State Department report on human trafficking that took aim at the “unlawful recruitment or use of children” by armed forces. Yet she does not appear to have publicly explained her role in allowing South Sudan and other countries to receive military support despite using children as combatants. In fact, the State Department played a central role in issuing the controversial waivers, according to two sources, including a former State Department official.