The United States has moved to halt its military aid to Rwanda because of the country’s support for M23, a rebel group believed to use child soldiers in the neighboring Democratic Republic of the Congo, the State Department said. But some countries with child soldiers in their own militaries were exempt from the sanctions, and human rights activists say this sends a mixed message.
The action on Rwanda is part of U.S. sanctions targeting the use of child soldiers that also apply to the Central African Republic, Myanmar, Sudan and Syria, the State Department said Thursday. It was not immediately clear whether those nations receive U.S. military assistance.
"Our goal is to work with countries who have been listed to ensure that any involvement in child soldiers — any involvement in the recruitment of child soldiers — stop," said U.S. Assistant Secretary of State for African Affairs Linda Thomas-Greenfield.
State Department spokeswoman Marie Harf said Rwanda was sanctioned because of its "support for the M23, a rebel group which continues to actively recruit and abduct children" and to threaten the stability of the Democratic Republic of the Congo.
However, three other countries whose militaries are known to recruit and use child soldiers — Chad, South Sudan and Yemen — received waivers from the U.S. sanctions, another State Department official said, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The Democratic Republic of the Congo and Somalia received partial waivers, the official said, adding that the Obama administration has decided such exemptions "would be in the national interest of the United States."
Human rights activists are concerned that the partial waivers and exemptions send an inconsistent message.
"When some countries continue to get military assistance even while they continue to use child soldiers, it gives those countries little incentive to change their practices. We have consistently pushed the administration to apply at least partial sanctions on governments that continue to recruit and use child soldiers, including Chad, Yemen and South Sudan," Jo Becker, children's rights advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, told Al Jazeera.
"We have seen real progress and welcome the move to withhold assistance from Rwanda, CAR, and partial assistance from DRC and Somalia," she said. "This is a real improvement and shows that the U.S. is willing to use its leverage to help end the use of child soldiers. However, it is still letting too many countries off the hook."
By law, the U.S. State Department, as part of its annual report on human trafficking, must keep track of nations whose governments recruit and use children as soldiers. The 10 countries affected by Thursday's actions were all cited in the State Department's latest findings, issued in June.
Rwanda will not receive U.S. International Military Education and Training funds, which help train foreign militaries, nor will it get U.S. Foreign Military Financing, which funds the sale of U.S. military material and services, Harf said.
Brig. Gen. Joseph Nzabamwita, spokesman for the Rwanda Defense Forces, said his country should not be held responsible for events outside its control.
"It is surprising that Rwanda would be liable for matters that are neither on its territory nor in its practices," he said. "As a long-term partner of the Rwanda Defense Forces, the United States has ample evidence that our forces have never tolerated the use of children in combat.
"Rwanda's commitment to a sustainable solution that seeks to bring an end to the DRC conflict and its consequences, including the use of child soldiers, remains unchanged," he said.
"The collaboration between the government of Rwanda and the United States remains strong, particularly in the field of peacekeeping, and Rwanda will continue to hold its forces to the highest standards of professionalism and discipline," he added.
Harf said she was not aware that Syria was receiving any U.S. military assistance. She also said she did not believe Myanmar receives such aid, and would check on whether Sudan did.
Those countries can be denied some types of U.S. funds for military assistance unless the White House grants a waiver. A 2008 law also allows U.S. officials to block licenses needed for those nations to buy military equipment.
It was not immediately clear how much U.S. funding would be blocked because of Thursday's action.
M23 is a Tutsi-dominated rebel group of former Congolese soldiers that began taking over parts of eastern Congo last year, accusing the government of failing to honor a 2009 peace deal.
United Nations investigators and the Congolese government have accused Rwanda of sponsoring the rebellion, a charge Rwanda denies.
"Any support of those rebel groups is seen as contributing to conflict in the region," Thomas-Greenfield told reporters, adding that U.S. officials will continue to discuss the issue with the Rwandan government.
The United States will still support peacekeeping efforts in Rwanda, the other official added.
Al Jazeera and Reuters. Amel Ahmed contributed to this report.