"When a little boy is kidnapped, turned into a child soldier, forced to kill or be killed -- that's slavery," Obama said in a speech at the Clinton Global Initiative. "It is barbaric, and it is evil, and it has no place in a civilized world. Now, as a nation, we've long rejected such cruelty."
But for the third year in a row, Obama has waived almost all U.S. sanctions that would punish certain countries that use child soldiers, upsetting many in the human rights community.
Late Friday afternoon, Obama issued a presidential memorandum waiving penalties under the Child Soldiers Protection Act of 2008 for Libya, South Sudan, and Yemen, penalties that Congress put in place to prevent U.S. arms sales to countries determined by the State Department to be the worst abusers of child soldiers in their militaries. The president also partially waived sanctions against the Democratic Republic of the Congo to allow some military training and arms sales to that country.
Human rights advocates saw the waivers as harmful to the goal of using U.S. influence to urge countries that receive military assistance to move away from using child soldiers and contradictory to the rhetoric Obama used in his speech.
"After such a strong statement against the exploitation of children, it seems bizarre that Obama would give a pass to countries using children in their armed forces and using U.S. tax money to do that," said Jesse Eaves, the senior policy advisor for child protection at World Vision.
The Obama administration doesn't want to upset its relationships with countries that it needs for security cooperation, but the blanket use of waivers is allowing the administration to avoid the law's intent, which was to use force the U.S. government to put a greater priority on human rights and child protection when doling out military aid, he said.
"The intent in this law was to use this waiver authority only in extreme circumstances, yet this has become an annual thing and this has become the default of this administration," Eaves said.
The Romney campaign has made Obama's record on human rights a feature of its foreign-policy critique, with top advisors accusing the president of deprioritizing the issue, often in sweeping terms.
"Barack Obama has broken with a tradition that goes back to Woodrow Wilson about human rights and values animating our foreign policy. This administration has not been an effective voice for human rights," said Romney campaign senior advisor for foreign policy Rich Williamson, who also served as George W. Bush's special envoy to Sudan, toldThe Cable in July.
Bush signed the child-soldiers law in 2008. It prohibits U.S. military education and training, foreign military financing, and other defense-related assistance to countries that actively recruit troops under the age of 18. Countries are designated as violators if the State Department's annual Trafficking in Persons report identifies them as recruiting child soldiers. The original bill was sponsored by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-IL).
Obama first waived the sanctions in 2010, the first year they were to go into effect. At that time, the White House failed to inform Congress or the NGO community of its decision in advance, setting off a fierce backlash. A justification memo obtained by The Cable at the time made several security-related arguments for the waivers. Sudan was going through a fragile transition, for example. Yemen was crucial to counterterrorism cooperation, the administration argued.
But NSC Senior Director for Multilateral Affairs Samantha Power told NGO leaders at the time that the waivers would not become a recurring event.
"Our judgment was: Brand them, name them, shame them, and then try to leverage assistance in a fashion to make this work," Power said, saying the administration wanted to give the violator countries one more year to show progress. "Our judgment is we'll work from inside the tent."
But the next year, in 2011, Obama waived almost all the sanctions once again, using largely the same justifications, except that the administration argued that the law didn't apply to South Sudan because it wasn't a country until July 2011. Rep. Jeff Fortenberry (R-NE) tried to pass new legislation to force Obama to notify Congress before issuing the waivers.
Fortenberry called the decision an "assault on human dignity," and said, "Good citizens of this country who do not want to be complicit in this grave human rights abuse must challenge this administration."
This year, the State Department held a briefing for NGO leaders and human rights activists to answer questions about the waivers and try to ally their concerns.
"They are addressing the concerns of the legislation in a more pragmatic and useful way than in the past, but they still have a ways to go and this was a clear missed opportunity," Rachel Stohl, a senior associate at the Stimson Center who attended the briefing, told The Cable. "You want the waivers to be used very sparingly but some of these countries get the waiver every year."
Stohl rejects the administration's argument that countries like Libya and South Sudan are so fragile that they can't be leaned on to do better on human rights.
"I would argue that this is exactly the right time to make clear to Libya what the parameters are," she said.
Jo Becker, advocacy director for the children's rights division at Human Rights Watch, told The Cable that where the United States has used some pressure, such as in the DRC, where there was a partial cutoff of military aid last year, there was a positive effect.
"After years of foot-dragging, Congo is close to signing a U.N. action plan to end its use of child soldiers," she said. "But in other countries with child soldiers, including South Sudan, Libya, and Yemen, the U.S. continues to squander its leverage by giving military aid with no conditions."
NSC Spokesman Tommy Vietor did not respond to multiple requests for comment.