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Tillerson accused of allowing foreign nations to use child soldiers without punishment

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was accused by some State Department officials of violating a child soldiers law by not sanctioning foreign nations who use child soldiers. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Secretary of State Rex Tillerson has been accused by members of his own department of allowing foreign militaries to use child soldiers with no consequences.

What exactly is he accused of doing wrong?

The State Department keeps a list of nations who use child soldiers.

In a “dissent” memo obtained by Reuters, State Department officials accused Tillerson of violating the Child Soldiers Prevention Act by excluding Iraq, Myanmar and Afghanistan in June, even though the department acknowledged that those countries used child soldiers.

Read the memo here.

What happens to nations on that list?

The child soldiers law,  passed in 2008, prohibits countries on the list from receiving aid, training and weapons from the United States.

Nations on the list can receive waivers based on situations in the “national interest” of the U.S. That’s what happened in 2016, when the Obama administration granted waivers to Iraq and Myanmar, as well as Nigeria and Somalia.

Obama was criticized by human rights organizations for being too free with those waivers.

If nations get waivers, what’s the big deal?

The dissenting officials say that sidestepping the law altogether is even a step further than Obama granting waivers.

“Human Rights Watch frequently criticized President Barack Obama for giving too many countries waivers, but the law has made a real difference,” wrote Jo Becker, director for the Human Rights Watch children’s rights division.

Heads of the State Department’s regional bureaus overseeing Middle Eastern and Asian embassies unanimously recommended the excluded nations be included on the list, according to documents.

What can be said in defense of Tillerson?

Brian Hook, one of Tillerson’s advisers, said that it is necessary to distinguish between governments “making little or no effort to correct their child soldier violations … and those which are making sincere — if as yet incomplete — efforts.”

Because the executive branch of government has wide latitude in matters of foreign policy, there is not likely to be any legal repercussion to Tillerson's decisions. The child soldiers law appears to give the secretary of state the discretion to remove nations from the list.

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