Trump admin keeps Saudi Arabia off child soldiers blacklist

Mike Pompeo overruled the advice of State Department officials who wanted to include Saudi Arabia on the list, three sources familiar with the matter said.
Image: Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks during the release of the Trafficking in Person Report at the State Department on June 20, 2019.
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo speaks during the release of the trafficking report at the State Department on June 20, 2019.Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP

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By Abigail Williams and Dan De Luce

WASHINGTON — The Trump administration on Thursday released a list of countries that recruit child soldiers but chose not to include Saudi Arabia, prompting sharp criticism from human rights groups.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo also made no mention of Saudi Arabia when he named countries that were failing to do enough to combat human trafficking, even though the State Department says the quality of the Saudi effort has declined.

Pompeo's comments came at the unveiling of the State Department's annual report on human trafficking, which includes a list of countries that use underage-troops on the battlefield and an assessment of how countries fight trafficking.

Human rights groups say the Saudi-led coalition waging war in Yemen has deployed Sudanese children in its fight against Houthi forces. The State Department list did include Sudan, while mentioning media reports alleging Saudi Arabia's possible role in the recruitment of child soldiers.

The report notes that Sudanese officers reportedly took bribes from families to permit minors to serve as combatants in Yemen and that Saudi Arabian officers "allegedly trained and commanded some Sudanese combatants." The term "child soldiers" is not used, instead describing the young combatants as "boys and girls" and "children aged 14-17 years old."

Pompeo overruled the advice of a number of officials inside the State Department who wanted to include Saudi Arabia on the blacklist, three sources familiar with the report told NBC News.

Reuters first reported on the decision to keep Saudi Arabia off the list.

The State Department declined to comment on Pompeo's role in shaping the list.

The top diplomat leading U.S. efforts to monitor and combat human trafficking, Ambassador-at-Large John Cotton Richmond, said the State Department "takes the issue of child soldiers incredibly seriously."

"We are aware of the of the reports that suggested the Saudi government may have supported the use of child soldiers in Yemen. ... But that reporting was insufficient to warrant a listing," Richmond told reporters Thursday.

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In introducing the report's findings, Pompeo, who was accompanied by President Donald Trump's daughter and adviser Ivanka Trump, said 25 million people were suffering from human trafficking around the world.

"Human trafficking is a stain, as well, on all of humanity. We detest it because it flagrantly violates the unalienable rights that belong to every human being," Pompeo told reporters.

Human rights advocates criticized the decision not to include Saudi Arabia on the child soldiers' list, accusing the Trump administration of refusing to hold Riyadh accountable for its conduct of the war in Yemen, as well as its handling of domestic dissent.

"This administration's unequivocal support for Saudi Arabia has meant turning a blind eye to civilian deaths in Yemen, dissidents detained and tortured in Saudi Arabia, and now the use of child soldiers," Andrea Prasow of Human Rights Watch said. "The message is clear that the Trump administration will stand behind political allies no matter how serious their human rights abuses."

Saudi Arabia has denied allegations that it uses child soldiers and has defended its human rights record. The Saudi Arabian embassy did not respond to a request for comment.

The Trump administration's move is the latest to spark anger in Congress, where lawmakers have accused the president of giving a blank check to the kingdom. Both Democrats and Republicans have blasted the administration for its response to the killing last year of Saudi writer and Washington Post columnist Jamal Khashoggi at the Saudi consulate in Istanbul, and for pushing through arms sales to Riyadh over the objections of senators.

"This is reprehensible," Democratic Sen. Bob Menendez of New Jersey tweeted. "Is there no limit to what the Trump Admin is willing to do to cover for #SaudiArabia's human rights abuses and violations of international norms?"

Menendez, the ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, is leading an effort Thursday to block $8.1 billion in weapons deals to Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates and Jordan that the White House recently expedited without seeking congressional approval, citing a national security "emergency" due to the threat posed by Iran.

Human rights advocates say Pompeo and the Trump administration have consistently failed to push back against Saudi Arabia. The secretary's approach is "our friends are the good guys, no matter how horrific the abuse," said one humanitarian worker who tracks Yemen and Saudi Arabia closely.

The annual human trafficking report is a State Department watchlist that ranks countries in three tiers based on their efforts to combat human trafficking. It also includes the blacklist of countries who are using child soldiers.

The report delivered a negative assessment on how Saudi Arabia was handling human trafficking cases, downgrading it from a tier 2 to a tier 3 status.

Said Ambassador-at-Large Richmond on Thursday, "As we considered all the factors regarding Saudi Arabia, the Secretary decided to place Saudi Arabia on Tier 3, the lowest tier."

That could subject Riyadh to restrictions on U.S. foreign assistance, but the president has the authority to waive those restrictions if it is deemed in the national interest of the United States.

On Thursday, Pompeo named China, Cuba, Iran, North Korea, Syria and Venezuela as some of the worst human trafficking offenders.

He did not highlight Saudi Arabia's status downgrade in his remarks.

The U.S. remained at the highest ranking in the report, tier one, for meeting "the minimum standards for the elimination of trafficking." The report did cite reports by rights advocates of "a lack of sustained effort to address labor trafficking compared to sex trafficking," and also cited instances of state and local officials detaining or prosecuting trafficking victims for criminal activity related to their trafficking victimization.