US to drop Iraq, Myanmar from child soldiers list

Plan made against experts' advice seen as putting diplomacy, security over human rights

WASHINGTON • In a highly unusual intervention, Secretary of State Rex Tillerson plans to remove Iraq and Myanmar from a United States list of the world's worst offenders in the use of child soldiers, disregarding the recommendations of State Department experts and senior US diplomats, US officials said.

The decision, confirmed by three US officials, would break with longstanding protocol at the State Department over how to identify offending countries, and could prompt accusations the Trump administration is prioritising security and diplomatic interests ahead of human rights.

Mr Tillerson overruled his own staff's assessments on the use of child soldiers in both countries and rejected the recommendation of senior diplomats in Asia and the Middle East who wanted to keep Iraq and Myanmar on the list, said the officials, who have knowledge of the internal deliberations.

Mr Tillerson also rejected an internal State Department proposal to add Afghanistan to the list, the three US officials said.

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One official said the decisions appeared to have been made following pressure from the Pentagon to avoid complicating assistance to the Iraqi and Afghan militaries, who are close US allies in the fight against Islamist militants. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity.

Foreign militaries on the list can face sanctions, including a prohibition on receiving US military aid, training and US-made weapons unless the White House issues a waiver.

Human rights officials expressed surprise at the delisting, which was expected to be announced on Tuesday, the officials said, as part of the State Department's annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report.

A State Department official said the TIP report's contents were being kept under wraps until its release and the department "does not discuss details of internal deliberations". The Pentagon did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Under the Child Soldiers Prevention Act of 2008, the US government must be satisfied that "no children are recruited, conscripted or otherwise compelled to serve as child soldiers" in order for a country to be removed from the list and US military assistance to resume.

In the lead-up to Tuesday's report, the State Department's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labour, which researches the issue and helps shape US policy on it, along with its legal office and diplomatic bureaus in Asia and the Middle East concluded that the evidence merited keeping both countries on the list, the officials said.

Officials said that although the report had been finalised, there was always the possibility of last-minute changes.

Human Rights Watch said removing Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, from the list would be a "completely premature and disastrous action that will effectively betray more children to continued servitude and rights abuses".

The decision also would put the Trump administration at odds with the United Nations, which continues to list the Myanmar military, along with seven ethnic armed groups, on its list of entities using and recruiting child soldiers.

REUTERS

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on June 25, 2017, with the headline 'US to drop Iraq, Myanmar from child soldiers list'. Print Edition | Subscribe