In a move criticized by human rights organizations, the Obama administration has decided to exempt Yemen and three other countries that use child soldiers from U.S. penalties under the 2008 Child Soldiers Prevention Act.
In a memorandum to Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, President Barack Obama said he had determined that "it is in the national interest of the United States" to waive application of the law to Chad, the Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sudan and Yemen. He instructed Clinton to submit the decision to the Congress with a written justification for the move.
Obama's memo, released by the White House on Monday, did not include the justification. Administration officials have said, however, that cutting off military aid to those four countries as required by the law would do more harm than good. And they have said that continuing close cooperation with them can be a more effective way of changing their practices.
Jo Becker, children's rights director at Human Rights Watch, said Obama had supported the legislation when he was in the Senate.
"This is a ground breaking law," she said. "This is the first year it has taken effect and he's undercutting it."
The law was signed by President George W. Bush shortly before he left office but did not take effect until this year.
Becker said the U.S. has legitimate national interests in the countries given the waiver, but that the administration could have made use of a provision in the law that permits targeted cuts in military assistance, while continuing aid aimed at professionalizing armies.
State Department spokesman P.J. Crowley said the countries who received the waiver deserve more time to correct their practices.
"In each of these countries we are working with the governments to stop the recruitment of child soldiers or demobilize those who may already be in the ranks," Crowley said. "These countries have put the right policies in place but are struggling to effectively implement them. These waivers allow the United States to continue to conduct valuable training programs."