A group of about a dozen US State Department officials have taken the unusual step of formally accusing Secretary of State Rex Tillerson of violating a federal law designed to stop foreign militaries from enlisting child soldiers, according to internal documents reviewed by Reuters.
A confidential State Department “dissent” memo said Tillerson breached the Child Soldiers Prevention Act when he decided in June to exclude Iraq, Myanmar, and Afghanistan from a US list of offenders in the use of child soldiers. This was despite the department publicly acknowledging that children were being conscripted in those countries.
Keeping the countries off the annual list makes it easier to provide them with US military assistance. Iraq and Afghanistan are close allies in the fight against Islamist militants, while Myanmar is an emerging ally to offset China’s influence in Southeast Asia.
Documents reviewed by Reuters also show Tillerson’s decision was at odds with a unanimous recommendation by the heads of the State Department’s regional bureaus overseeing embassies in the Middle East and Asia, the US envoy on Afghanistan and Pakistan, the department’s human rights office and its own in-house lawyers.
State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert, questioned at length by reporters on the issue at her daily briefing, strongly defended Tillerson's decision as valid and in "technical compliance with the law in the way he read it."
"No one in the United States government likes the idea of the use of child soldiers," she said. "It's abhorrent.”
Asked at a photo opportunity with the visiting Peruvian foreign minister about his decision, Tillerson sidestepped any direct response to the dissenting officials' complaint.
Reuters reported in June that Tillerson had disregarded internal recommendations on Iraq, Myanmar and Afghanistan. The new documents reveal the scale of the opposition in the State Department, including the rare use of what is known as the “dissent channel,” which allows officials to object to policies without fear of reprisals.
The views expressed by the US officials illustrate ongoing tensions between career diplomats and the former chief of Exxon Mobil Corp appointed by President Donald Trump to pursue an “America First” approach to diplomacy.
The child soldiers law passed in 2008 states that the US government must be satisfied that no children under the age of 18 “are recruited, conscripted or otherwise compelled to serve as child soldiers" for a country to be removed from the list. The statute extends specifically to government militaries and government-supported armed groups like militias.
The list currently includes the DR Congo, Nigeria, Somalia, South Sudan, Mali, Sudan, Syria and Yemen.