Rex Tillerson accused by his own department of breaking child soldier laws, leaked document reveals

Experts have said the Secretary of State gave a 'free pass' to countries recruiting and using children to fight

Mythili Sampathkumar
New York
Tuesday 21 November 2017 23:29 GMT
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's own staff issued a 'dissent memo' regarding his decision about countries that recruit and use child soldiers
US Secretary of State Rex Tillerson's own staff issued a 'dissent memo' regarding his decision about countries that recruit and use child soldiers (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

State Department officials have accused Secretary of State Rex Tillerson of breaking US law stopping the recruitment of child soldiers by foreign militaries.

According to Reuters, State Department employees issued a confidential “dissent memo” to the country’s top diplomat about Iraq, Burma, and Afghanistan being included on a list of countries where it has been proven that child soldiers are used.

The memo said Mr Tillerson would be violating the Child Soldiers Prevention Act (CSPA) should those countries be left off of that particular list in the annual Trafficking in Persons Report - and that is exactly what he did in June.

Rachel Stohl, who directs the Conventional Defence program at Washington DC think tank Stimson Center told The Independent previously that “the use of child soldiers is the worst form of child trafficking...but we see it happen when a conflict [continues] for a long time; there is a limited supply of adult soldiers”.

As Ms Stohl explained, the CSPA legislation “doesn’t make the distinction between those that are using child soldiers and those that are trying to take steps to stop their use”.

The report lists countries in “tiers,” with Tier 1 countries defined as meeting the minimum standards of the US in terms of combating human trafficking and forced labour.

Mary Katherine Burke, a Washington DC-based human rights lawyer who advocates for victims of human trafficking, previously told The Independent in June that “tiers are always political tools to encourage countries to continue to improve their position on trafficking. It does not necessarily reflect the reality on the ground.”

Rex Tillerson evades answering whether he called Trump a moron

Per the dissent memo, Mr Tillerson defied staff who had “sufficient facts demonstrating that all three governments either had governmental armed forces or supported armed groups that recruited and used child soldiers in 2016.”

The list has not included countries where the child soldier problem is not under the purview of the government. For instance in Rwanda, the problem has been identified with the M23 gang.

In particular, Burma - who Ms Stohl said is an “egregious violator” - was upgraded from Tier 3 to the Tier 2 Watch List of nations that deserve special scrutiny.

The “power is in the listing,” she said. The “tool” of listing works to get countries to address the problem for their children, as the world has seen with Chad.

“Keeping the countries off the annual list makes it easier to provide them with US military assistance. Iraq and Afghanistan are close allies in the fight against Islamist militants, while Myanmar is an emerging ally to offset China’s influence in Southeast Asia,” as Reuters reported.

But, being on the list does not preclude a country from receiving military or other assistance as was the case with Burma.

The President ultimately has discretion to grant waivers depending on a variety of factors including national security, whether the country is taking tangible steps to make enforce laws outlawing recruitment and use of child soldiers, and other political reasons.

Last year, Burma was granted a “symbolic waiver” in 2016 by former President Barack Obama.

Burma has a Tier 3 designation, which can trigger sanctions on military and other foreign aid as well as weapons sales.

It was an attempt to foster democracy in the country and develop more open US relations, according to Ms Stohl, since the country did not receive any military assistance from the US anyway.

Jo Becker, the children’s rights Advocacy Director at Human Rights Watch, told The Independent that the organisation had “repeatedly criticised Obama for using the presidential discretion” that allows countries to be on the list but continue to receive US military assistance and some aid.

“But at that point, there was not unanimity at State,” said Ms Becker.

She noted that the “very powerful” dissent memo showed there is unanimity at the State Department regarding the decision to take Iraq, Burma, and Afghanistan off the list earlier this year.

Ms Becker said it was a “good question” to wonder why Mr Tillerson would “take the extra step” and not just exercise the use of waivers and leave the countries on the child soldiers list as the previous administration had done.

She said she is “encouraged” by seeing members of Congress like Senator Ben Cardin supporting the cause of eliminating child soldier use, but would like to see Congress use its oversight power over the State Department to be exercised by calling Mr Tillerson to testify and answer to the dissent memo.

Mr Cardin, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, wrote in a letter to Mr Tillerson late last week that there were “serious concerns that the State Department may not be complying” with CSPA and that the former Exxon CEO’s actions in June “sent a powerful message to these countries that they were receiving a pass on their unconscionable actions.”

Overall, Ms Becker thinks the dissent memo “makes a strong point” that Mr Tillerson cannot “undermine” diplomacy while leading the State Department, particularly when it comes to the safety of children.

Join our commenting forum

Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies


Thank you for registering

Please refresh the page or navigate to another page on the site to be automatically logged inPlease refresh your browser to be logged in