WASHINGTON (Reuters) - In a highly unusual intervention, 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, disregarding the recommendations of State Department experts and senior U.S. diplomats, U.S. officials said.
The decision, confirmed by three U.S. officials, would break with longstanding protocol at the State Department over how to identify offending countries and could prompt accusations the Trump administration is prioritizing security and diplomatic interests ahead of human rights.
Tillerson overruled his own staff’s assessments on the use of child soldiers in both countries and rejected the recommendation of senior diplomats in Asia and the Middle East who wanted to keep Iraq and Myanmar on the list, said the officials, who have knowledge of the internal deliberations.
Tillerson also rejected an internal State Department proposal to add Afghanistan to the list, the three 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. The 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.
Under the Child Soldiers Prevention Act of 2008, the U.S. government must be satisfied that “no children are recruited, conscripted or otherwise compelled to serve as child soldiers” in order for a country to be removed from the list and U.S. military assistance to resume.
In the lead-up to Tuesday’s report, the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, which researches the issue and helps shape U.S. policy on it, along with its legal office and diplomatic bureaus in Asia and the Middle East concluded that the evidence merited keeping both countries on the list, the officials said.
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 also would 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.
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.
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.
Additional reporting by Antoni Slodkowski in Yangon and Phil Stewart in Washington; Editing by Grant McCool and Leslie Adler