In a confidential State Department memo obtained by Reuters, officials claimed Secretary of State Rex Tillerson broke a federal law on child soldiers. By excluding Iraq, Afghanistan, and Myanmar from America's official list of countries utilizing child soldiers, the "dissent" memo accuses Tillerson of violating the Child Soldiers Prevention Act, claiming all three countries either used child soldiers last year or supported armed forces that did.
"Beyond contravening U.S. law, this decision risks marring the credibility of a broad range of State Department reports and analyses," the July memo reads, "and has weakened one of the U.S. government's primary diplomatic tools to deter governmental armed forced and government-supported armed groups from recruiting and using children in combat."
However, State Department spokesperson Heather Nauert said in a statement provided to Bustle there was no disagreement about preventing the unlawful recruitment and use of child soldiers. "We will not hesitate to designate any country as ineligible for assistance should the statutory standard for listing be met in the future," she said.
The Child Soldiers Prevention Act, passed in 2008, sought to prevent the U.S. from providing weapons to nations that either enlist children as soldiers or support armed groups that do. Tillerson's decision to leave Iraq, Afghanistan, and Myanmar off the list effectively made it easier for America to help those nations' military efforts. Iraq and Myanmar were previously on the list, and Tillerson reportedly denied a State Department recommendation to add Afghanistan.
The memo voicing opposition to Tillerson's decision was a rare move utilizing the department's "dissent channel," which provides officials an outlet to give constructive criticism about policies while protected from retaliation. However, the memo goes much further than simply voicing opposition to a department policy, and explicitly accuses Tillerson of breaking federal law. According to The New York Times, the State Department will respond to the report later Tuesday afternoon.
In order for a nation suspected of allowing child soldiers to legally be removed from the list, as Iraq and Myanmar were, the U.S. government must be sure children under the age of 18 aren't "recruited, conscripted, or otherwise compelled to serve as child soldiers" by government-supported groups. The dissent memo claims "all relevant bureaus, offices, and embassies agreed that there was sufficient information to establish Afghanistan, Burma [Myanmar], and Iraq had governmental armed forces or government-supported armed forces that recruited or used child soldiers." Afghanistan denies using children in any Afghan national security forces.
The memo further explains that failing to list the three countries will harm children and make it more difficult to combat the forced military labor of children worldwide. The memo also asserts that Tillerson's decision sends the message that minimal efforts are sufficient and that "we as a government are not interested in upholding international norms, nor in holding countries accountable for ongoing abuses against children."
As of June, the U.S. trafficking report list includes the Democratic Republic of Congo, Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, Mali, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. Although Iraq and Myanmar were listed in last year's report, they were granted waivers by the Obama administration that allowed the U.S. to provide them military assistance, a decision that was criticized at the time.
The Human Rights Watch called on Tillerson to reinstate Iraq and Myanmar to the list, as well as add Afghanistan. "While presidential waivers by the Obama administration undermined the effectiveness of the law, the list itself was generally accurate and fact-based," a Human Rights Watch blog post reads.
Jo Becker, children’s rights advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, said in the same post: "Secretary of State Tillerson apparently believes the list is subject to backroom political calculations, rather than facts on the ground and U.S. law. Unless Tillerson reverses this action, he will gravely damage U.S. credibility in ending the use of children in warfare."
The dissent memo recommends that the secretary of state follow the Child Soldiers Prevention Act and seriously consider the department's and legal experts' recommendations before making final decisions in the future.