A group of children at the U.N. protection of Civilians site in Juba, South Sudan, play with a toy gun July 25, 2016 (Photo: AP)
President Barack Obama has issued waivers that continue millions of dollars in U.S. military assistance for troubled South Sudan and six other nations where child soldiers have been used, disappointing advocates who say his administration hasn't made curbing the use of children in combat a higher priority.
The waivers circumvent parts of the 2008 Child Soldiers Prevention Act, which is meant to block certain kinds of military assistance.
Waivers also have been granted to Somalia, Congo, Nigeria, Rwanda, Iraq and Myanmar. Aid to the countries varies dramatically. Iraq has received hundreds of millions in military support annually, while Myanmar received no military assistance in past years.
South Sudan's waiver stands out. The use of child soldiers is rampant in this East African country, where civil war erupted in late 2013 and fighting continues despite a peace deal.
The United Nations says around 16,000 child soldiers have been recruited since the civil war began.
One senior politician appointed by South Sudan President Salva Kiir led the recruitment of an entire village of boys as young as 12 using intimidation in August, according to an internal U.N. document obtained by The Associated Press. The AP also has spoken to teens who said they took up arms.
A U.N. official told the AP that both South Sudan's government and opposition have recruited "hundreds" of children in the past month as the country prepares for another fighting season, even after diplomats from the U.N. Security Council made the issue a high priority during their visit to the country in September. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to reporters.
Under the waiver, South Sudan could receive $30 million in fiscal year 2017 for peacekeeping support, according to the Washington-based Stimson Center policy research group.
The United States defended the use of the waivers.
"The United States can use the possibility of a waiver to provide an incentive for reform while continuing to work closely with those governments to end the use and recruitment of child soldiers," said Emily Horne, a spokeswoman for the White House's National Security Council.
The waivers Obama issued allowed military training and peacekeeping support to continue for South Sudan as well as Congo, Rwanda and Somalia, Horne said. She added that Obama has determined that the waivers for those four countries "would be in the national interest of the United States."
In Congo, the Obama administration previously was able to coerce the government to stop the use of child soldiers by threatening to shut off military training, Jo Becker, the advocacy director of Human Rights Watch's children's rights division, said in an interview.
But Obama could have been more aggressive in curbing child soldiers during his tenure, she said.
Human Rights Watch has said the waivers have allowed governments that use child soldiers to receive hundreds of millions of dollars in U.S. military aid.
"South Sudan really stands out in terms of the severity of the problem," Becker said, saying the administration's exemptions to the country could have been more targeted. The country's use of child soldiers has "clearly gotten worse" and has "been a complete disaster," she said.
South Sudan has received the waiver every year since 2012. The United States has called for "an immediate halt to the unlawful recruitment and use of child soldiers by government and opposition forces" in the country.
Of the 10 countries listed by the State Department this year as being implicated in the use of child soldiers, only Sudan, Syria and Yemen did not receive waivers. Becker said the three countries were unlikely candidates for large military assistance anyway.