Skip to content
child soldiers law

A Record Number of Countries Are Using Child Soldiers

And we’re still undermining a law that could encourage them to change their behavior.

Words: Shannon Dick and Rachel Stohl
Pictures: AP

Ten years ago, the US government took a notable step in working to secure the human rights of children around the world. On June 14, 2010, the State Department publicly listed, for the first time, countries that exploited children in armed conflict and, in so doing, blocked their access to coveted US military equipment and security assistance. Now, ten years later, on June 25, the State Department released the 10th edition of what has since come to be known as the “CSPA list” and named more countries than ever before as being complicit in the recruitment and/or use of child soldiers.

The CSPA list is a critical feature of US legislation aimed at ending the recruitment or use of child soldiers by foreign governments worldwide. The law, known as the Child Soldiers Prevention Act (CSPA, for short), requires the Secretary of State to publish an annual list of countries whose armed forces, police, or other security forces, or government-backed armed groups recruit or use child soldiers.

Six governments were identified on the first CSPA list. Ten years later, the list has more than doubled, with 14 countries identified in 2020 – the highest number of countries ever identified in a single year. This year’s list includes repeat offenders that have appeared on every list since 2010, as well as one new addition and some renewed appearances by countries that were previously removed from the list.

The 2020 CSPA List includes: Afghanistan, Cameroon, Democratic Republic of Congo, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Mali, Myanmar (Burma), Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, Sudan, Syria, and Yemen. Three of these countries (DRC, Somalia, and Yemen) have appeared on every CSPA List since 2010, while 10 (Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Libya, Mali, Myanmar (Burma), Nigeria, South Sudan, Sudan, and Syria) have appeared more than once over the last 10 years. Cameroon was added for the first time this year following reports that government security forces used a child in intelligence gathering operations.

The Trump administration requested CSPA-relevant security assistance for eight of the 14 countries identified on the 2020 CSPA list, valued at more than $108 million for this year alone.

Countries included on the CSPA list are prohibited from receiving certain types of US security assistance, training, and defense equipment the following fiscal year, including the largest military assistance programs such as Foreign Military Sales, Direct Commercial Sales, and International Military Education and Training, among others. The law seeks to leverage US military aid to stop the recruitment or use of child soldiers and, if used correctly, could serve as a powerful reinforcement for international norms against the recruitment or use of children in hostilities.

But there’s a catch. The CSPA allows the President of the United States to waive the law’s prohibitions against any or all countries identified on the list during a given year if doing so is deemed to be in the “national interest of the United States.” More often than not over the law’s history, the administration has elected to use such waivers and thereby allow sanctioned governments to receive otherwise prohibited US weapons and security assistance. Through national interest waivers, the executive branch has consistently undermined the law’s intent and, as a result, the law has failed to reach its full potential. In total, the US government is estimated to have waived more than $4 billion in US arms and security assistance to CSPA-blacklisted countries over the last 10 years.

The Trump administration requested CSPA-relevant security assistance for eight of the 14 countries identified on the 2020 CSPA list, valued at more than $108 million for this year alone. According to the State Department’s latest Congressional Budget Notification, the Trump administration specifically requested two types of security assistance for these countries: International Military Education and Training (IMET) and Peacekeeping Operations (PKO). The bulk of the administration’s request falls under PKO, with a total of $104.1 million requested for just three countries – Democratic Republic of Congo, Somalia, and South Sudan. The administration requested more than $4 million in IMET for seven countries: Afghanistan, Cameroon, Democratic Republic of Congo, Iraq, Mali, Nigeria, and Somalia.

For ten years, Stimson has been the only public source of comprehensive data examining the CSPA’s implementation. However, as required in an amendment to the CSPA, this year the administration was required to report publicly and annually on how it implemented the CSPA’s provisions during the previous year. The report is mandated to include the countries identified on the previous year’s CSPA list, a description and the amount of any US security assistance withheld under the law’s terms, a list of any waivers or exceptions granted by the administration, the administration’s justifications for those waiver or exception determinations, and a description and the amount of any assistance provided pursuant to a waiver. This year’s analysis, which appears in the State Department’s annual Trafficking In Persons report alongside the CSPA list, identifies at least $17 million in security assistance that was waived last year. Seemingly absent from the report, however, are details on the administration’s justification for such waivers, which are required by law. The report notes that “A copy of the Memorandum of Justification provided to Congress with the waiver determination is attached” – but there doesn’t appear to be any attachment or additional details offered. As with the law overall, it appears publicly that implementation of the new reporting provision is incomplete.

It remains to be seen whether the Trump administration will yet again waive the majority of the CSPA’s prohibitions this year. Unfortunately, if past practice is any indication, the outlook is grim and military assistance will continue to flow from the United States to some of the world’s most abusive governments. When the administration issues its 2020 waiver determinations later this fall, it has an opportunity to reverse course, reinforce the strong message of the CSPA, and recommit to the US principles established a decade ago of holding governments accountable for human rights abuses committed against children in armed conflict.

Shannon Dick is Deputy Director of the Conventional Defense Program at the Stimson Center. Rachel Stohl is Vice President at the Stimson Center.

Shannon Dick and Rachel Stohl

Hey there!

You made it to the bottom of the page! That means you must like what we do. In that case, can we ask for your help? Inkstick is changing the face of foreign policy, but we can’t do it without you. If our content is something that you’ve come to rely on, please make a tax-deductible donation today. Even $5 or $10 a month makes a huge difference. Together, we can tell the stories that need to be told.