US list to drop Iraq, Myanmar as worst offenders on child soldiers

WASHINGTON (Reuters) - Secretary of State Rex Tillerson plans to remove Iraq and Myanmar from a U.S. list of the world's worst offenders in the use of child soldiers, U.S. officials said, a step that could prompt accusations the Trump administration is prioritizing security and diplomatic interests ahead of human rights.

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Exxon Mobil Corporation Chairman and Chief Executive Rex Tillerson speaks at a news conference following the Exxon Mobil annual shareholders meeting in Dallas, Texas May 30, 2007. Tillerson told reporters on Wednesday that the construction of the Mackenzie pipeline project in Canada was not viable at current cost levels.

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Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (R) and Exxon CEO Rex Tillerson look on at a signing ceremony in the Black Sea resort of Sochi August 30, 2011. Exxon and Russia's Rosneft signed a deal on Tuesday to develop oil and gas reserves in the Russian Arctic, opening up one of the last unconquered drilling frontiers to the global industry No.1.

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Executives from six major oil companies are sworn in to testify at a U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee on the "Consolidation in the Oil and Gas Industry: Raising Prices?" on Capitol Hill in Washington March 14, 2006. The executives are (L-R) Rex Tillerson, Chairman and CEO of ExxonMobil Corp., James Mulva, Chairman and CEO of ConocoPhillips, David O'Reilly, Chairman and CEO of Chevron Corp., Bill Klesse, CEO of Valero Energy Corp., John Hofmeister, President of Shell Oil Company and Ross Pillari, President and CEO of BP America Inc.

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ExxonMobil Chairman and CEO Rex Tillerson speaks during the IHS CERAWeek 2015 energy conference in Houston, Texas April 21, 2015.

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Chairman, President and CEO of Exxon Mobil Corporation Rex Tillerson watches a tee shot on the 13th hole during the first round of the Pebble Beach National Pro-Am golf tournament at the Monterey Peninsula Country Club course in Pebble Beach, California, February 6, 2014.

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Rex Tillerson, chairman and CEO of ExxonMobil; John Watson, chairman and CEO of Chevron Corp.; James Mulva, chairman and CEO of ConocoPhillips; Marvin Odum, president of Shell Oil Co.; and Lamar McKay, president and chairman of BP America Inc.; are sworn in during the House Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Energy and Environment hearing on their safety practices as oil continues to leak into the Gulf of Mexico after the Deepwater Horizon oil rig - operated by BP - exploded last month.

(Photo by Scott J. Ferrell/Congressional Quarterly/Getty Images)

ExxonMobil Chairman and CEO Rex Tillerson speaks during the IHS CERAWeek 2015 energy conference in Houston, Texas April 21, 2015.

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WASHINGTON, DC - May 12: James Mulva, chairman and CEO of ConocoPhillips; and Rex Tillerson, chairman and CEO of Exxon Mobil Corp.; during the Senate Finance hearing on oil and gas tax incentives.

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Chairman and CEO of Exxon Mobil Corporation Rex W. Tillerson and Norway Prime Minister Jens Stoltenberg attends the United Nations Foundation's global leadership dinner at The Pierre Hotel on November 8, 2011 in New York City.

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Rex Tillerson, chief executive officer of Exxon Mobil Corp., left, speaks with Daniel Yergin, vice chairman of IHS Cambridge Energy Research Associates Inc., during the 2015 IHS CERAWeek conference in Houston, Texas, U.S., on Tuesday, April 21, 2015. CERAWeek 2015, in its 34th year, will provide new insights and critically-important dialogue with decision-makers in the oil and gas, electric power, coal, renewables, and nuclear sectors from around the world.

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Renda St. Clair and Rex Tillerson attend the reopening celebration at Ford's Theatre on February 11, 2009 in Washington, DC.

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Rex Tillerson, chairman and CEO of ExxonMobil, listens during a meeting at the Department of the Interior September 22, 2010 in Washington, DC. Secretary of the Interior Kenneth L. Salazar hosted Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, Gulf Oil Spill National Incident Commander Adm. Thad Allen (Ret.), representatives from the private sector and others to discus strengthening the containment abilities to deep water oil and gas well blowouts like the recent BP Deepwater Horizon oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico.

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The planned removal was made over the objections of experts in the State Department's Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, which typically shapes U.S. policy on the issue, said one official with knowledge of the internal discussions.

Tillerson also rejected an internal State Department proposal to add Afghanistan to the list, two U.S. officials said. One official said the decisions appeared to have been made following pressure from the Pentagon to avoid complicating assistance to the Iraqi and Afghan militaries, close U.S. allies in the fight against Islamist militants. Both officials spoke on condition of anonymity.

Foreign militaries on the list can face sanctions including a prohibition on receiving U.S. military aid, training and U.S.-made weapons unless the White House issues a waiver.

Human rights officials expressed surprise at the delisting, which was expected to be announced on Tuesday, the officials said, as part of the State Department's annual Trafficking in Persons (TIP) Report.

A State Department official said the TIP report's contents were being kept under wraps until its release and the department "does not discuss details of internal deliberations."

The Pentagon did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Officials said that although the report had been finalized there was always the possibility of last-minute changes.

Human Rights Watch said removing Myanmar, formerly known as Burma, from the list would be a "completely premature and disastrous action that will effectively betray more children to continued servitude and rights abuses."

The decision would also put the Trump administration at odds with the United Nations, which continues to list the Myanmar military, along with seven ethnic armed groups, on its list of entities using and recruiting child soldiers.

"What's particularly astonishing is this move ignores that the U.N. in Burma says that it is still receiving new cases of children being recruited" by the Myanmar military, said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch.

COUNTERING CHINA?

Rights groups have long accused Myanmar of using child soldiers. Bordering both China and India, Myanmar is also of growing strategic importance to the United States at a time of increasing encroachment in the region by China, which has sought closer relations with its neighbor.

Iraq, which has received more than $2 billion in U.S. arms and training over the last three years, was added to the State Department's "Child Soldier Prevention Act List" in 2016. However, the flow of U.S. assistance has continued.

Former President Barack Obama handed out full or partial waivers regularly, including last year to Iraq, Myanmar, Nigeria, South Sudan and others out of 10 countries on the list.

Last year's State Department report said some militias of Iraq's Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF), an umbrella group of mostly Shi'ite Muslim factions with ties to the Iraqi government and backed by Iran, "recruited and used child soldiers."

The report said that despite the PMF being funded by the government, Baghdad struggled to control all of its factions.

"The government did not hold anyone accountable for child recruitment and use by the PMF and PMF-affiliated militias."

Human Rights Watch said in January that it had learned that militias had been recruiting child soldiers from one Iraqi refugee camp since last spring.

Under the Child Soldiers Protection Act of 2008, the United States is barred from providing military assistance, training or weapons to countries where "armed forces or government-supported armed groups" recruit and use child soldiers, unless the president issues a "national interest" waiver.

The broader TIP report, the first of Trump's presidency, is sure to be closely scrutinized for further signs that under his "America First" approach there will be little pressure brought to bear on friendly governments, especially strategically important ones, for human rights violations at home.

The Obama administration, while more vocal about political repression around the world, also faced criticism from human rights groups and some U.S. lawmakers that decisions on annual human trafficking rankings had become increasingly politicized.

(Reporting By Matt Spetalnick and Jason Szep; additional reporting by Antoni Slodkowski in Yangon and Phil Stewart in Washington)

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