It's October, which means it's time for the annual brouhaha over President Obama giving a partial waiver to the DRC for the sanctions that are required by US law to be imposed against countries that have child soldiers serving in their military forces. And, like clockwork, human rights advocates raised objections to this decision, arguing that the US should cut all assistance to DRC and to the other countries that received waivers, Libya, South Sudan, and Yemen. The partial waiver for DRC allows the US government to continue selling some arms to the DRC and to continue some military training programs in the country despite the fact that the FARDC clearly still has child soldiers within its ranks. Many have expressed outrage over the decision, which marks the third year in a row of waivers for some of the worst violators of international norms regarding the use of child soldiers.
I'm not in a position to comment on the use of child soldiers in Libya, South Sudan, or Yemen, nor do I know enough to know if the Obama administration has effectively leveraged its power to stop the use of child soldiers there, so my comments here are limited to the DRC. Here's the thing: this is a situation in which all the policy options are bad. When you work in the DRC, you don't get to exist in the world of ideals. Choices always have to be made, and they aren't always pretty. The dilemma in the Congo is this: while everyone agrees that the use of child soldiers is a horrible, inexcusable human rights violation, it is far from clear that disengaging from the Congolese government on military issues will end those abuses.
In fact, pulling out AFRICOM trainers - whose work in DRC largely focuses on professionalizing the FARDC national army (which, let's remember, is undisciplined to the point that they generally can't walk in straight lines during parades), including training soldiers to not violate the human rights of the civilians they ostensibly serve - would likely produce the opposite effect. AFRICOM's work in Congo is far from the sinister caricature some make it out to be; US soldiers in the mission spend most of their time teaching Congolese troops basic skills, like how to aim weapons at targets and actually hit them (as opposed to sporadically killing random civilians with uncontrolled gunfire. Longtime TiA readers will remember the delightful spring of 2007 when the Kinshasa fight between the FARDC and forces loyal to Jean-Pierre Bemba resulted in ordnance landing across the river in Brazzaville, 2 miles off-target.). In other words, American military training is badly needed in the Congolese army.
But does the government deserve this training, given its lack of movement toward protecting children from being coerced into military service? Perhaps not, but there are a few complicating factors. For one, pulling out of Congolese military affairs takes away an important leverage point for changing norms of behavior within the Congolese military forces. American military training in the DRC includes a focus on protecting human rights, with special emphasis on not raping civilians. And there is evidence that the US has effectively used this leverage to push the DRC government toward taking action on the child soldiers problem:
"Jo Becker, advocacy director for the children's rights division at Human Rights Watch, told The Cable that where the United States has used some pressure, such as in the DRC, where there was a partial cutoff of military aid last year, there was a positive effect. 'After years of foot-dragging, Congo is close to signing a U.N. action plan to end its use of child soldiers.'"This is a positive step, and it likely would not have happened had the US not effectively leveraged its power to pressure the Congolese government to change through partnership within the system.
That said, no one should pretend that a UN action plan will end the use of child soldiers. The real problem with the FARDC is that it is not fully under the control of the authorities in Kinshasa. Some military units and brigades act as autonomous actors; they don't take orders from anyone and are not really part of a "national army" in any meaningful sense of the term. Even if Kabila commits to removing child soldiers from the ranks of the FARDC that he does control, this will not ultimately end the use of child soldiers by other leaders in the FARDC ranks, nor will he be able to meaningfully guarantee that children will not be recruited/forced to fight in the future. Until Congo's governance crisis is solved, the abuse of children through military service is likely to continue. This makes it even more important that American military engagement with the country remains active and involved through the smart leveraging of pressure rather than wholesale sanctions. It may not be ideal, but pragmatic incrementalism will work better than idealistic sanctions in these circumstances.