US diplomats accuse their chief of breaking child soldiers law

Officials say exclusion of three countries from list risks marring credibility

WASHINGTON A group of about a dozen United States 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.

A confidential State Department "dissent" memo not previously reported said Mr 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 South-east Asia.

Documents also show that Mr 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.

"Beyond contravening US law, this decision risks marring the credibility of a broad range of State Department reports and analyses and has weakened one of the US government's primary diplomatic tools to deter governmental armed forces and government-supported armed groups from recruiting and using children in combat and support roles around the world," said the July 28 memo.

Reuters reported in June that Mr 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 Mr Tillerson.

"The Secretary thoroughly reviewed all of the information presented to him and made a determination about whether the facts presented justified a listing pursuant to the law," a State Department spokesman said when asked about the officials' allegation.

In a written response to the dissent memo on Sept 1, Tillerson adviser Brian Hook acknowledged that the three countries did use child soldiers.

He said, however, it was necessary to distinguish between governments "making little or no effort to correct their child soldier violations... and those which are making sincere - if as yet incomplete - efforts".

Mr Hook made clear that the US' top diplomat used what he sees as his discretion to interpret the law. - REUTERS