Rex Tillerson accused of violating federal law on child soldiers

When Rex Tillerson released the 2017 report in June, he had justified his decision to omit the three by pointing to the countries' efforts to crack down on the crimes.
When Rex Tillerson released the 2017 report in June, he had justified his decision to omit the three by pointing to the countries' efforts to crack down on the crimes.PHOTO: REUTERS

WASHINGTON (NYTIMES) - US State Department officials have accused Secretary of State Rex Tillerson of violating federal law by excluding Myanmar, Iraq and Afghanistan from an annual list of countries that use or fund child soldiers, officials said on Tuesday (Nov 22).

Tillerson omitted the three countries from an annual list of offenders, which prohibits them from receiving aid and weapons from the United States, over a unanimous recommendation from internal lawyers and regional bureau heads, according to an internal "dissent" memo first obtained by Reuters.

Excluding the countries from the list makes it easier for the United States to provide military aid.

The officials' unusual use of the State Department's dissent channel highlights the degree of disapproval regarding the exclusions and the demand for stronger accountability surrounding human rights abuses. The secretary is not obligated to follow any recommendations.

"Beyond contravening US law, this decision risks marring the credibility of a broad range of State Department reports and analyses and has weakened one of the US government's primary diplomatic tools to deter governmental armed forces and government-supported armed groups from recruiting and using children in combat and support roles around the world," reads the July 28 memo addressed to Brian Hook, the department's director of policy planning.

The Trafficking in Persons Report, which annually identifies foreign countries that recruit, fund and use child soldiers, has been used as a diplomatic tool to deter the practice.

Unless the White House offers a waiver based on national interest, countries identified as offenders face restrictions on certain security assistance and commercial licensing of military equipment under the Child Soldiers Prevention Act.

The report is a method to disgrace countries into discontinuing the use of child soldiers.

"No one in the United States government likes the idea of the use of child soldiers. It is abhorrent, OK?" Heather Nauert, the State Department spokeswoman, said on Tuesday during a news briefing.

"Part of it has to do with the numbers in the reports," Nauert later explained, noting that advisory reports for some countries had detailed clear and excessive use of child soldiers, while other accounts were more difficult to corroborate. Asked whether one child soldier was one too many, she acknowledged, "That's a fair question."

When Tillerson released the 2017 report in June, he had justified his decision to omit the three by pointing to the countries' efforts to crack down on the crimes.

But dissenting officials argued that under the federal law, the criteria for exclusion from the list was not a matter of concerted effort or progress but rather of eradication. As a result, they argued, Tillerson's approach violated the law.

In the memo, the officials argued that the decision to exclude the countries "has risked sending a message to the authorities in all three countries - and to the international community - that minimal efforts are enough" and that the United States was "not interested in holding countries accountable" for abuses.

Before the 2017 list's release, the State Department's human rights office as well as the heads of regional bureaus overseeing embassies in the Middle East and Asia had joined the unanimous recommendation by internal lawyers.

In the July memo, the officials urged Tillerson to "heavily weight these consensus recommendations" and consult subject-matter experts before releasing future reports.