Debating the Effectiveness of Human Rights Conditioning in Foreign Assistance

On October 22, Ambassador Kurt Volker, Director of the McCain Institute, led a debate, asking the question, “Should U.S. Foreign Assistance be Tied to Human Rights?” The focus of the event touched broadly on a range of U.S. assistance and sought to determine what role human rights considerations should play in cutting off or releasing that assistance.

The debate, featuring four experts, put Omer Ismail, Senior Adviser at the Enough Project and Dan Rundie of the Center for Strategic and International Studies on the pro side. They argued that the United States needed to condition its assistance to foreign countries based on their human rights record. On the con side, Andrew Natsios of Texas A&M (former USAID Administrator under George W. Bush) and Douglas Ollivant of Arizona State University (former NSC member) argued that U.S. laws are too “black and white” to apply in a complex environment.

Mr. Rundie began the debate stating that the United States “needs to lead with its values and should seek the participation of as many states as possible in the rule based order established by the United States.” Continuing, he contrasted this system with what a Chinese rule based order might look like, stating “China will do business with anybody … and represents realism at its worst.” Ollivant pointed out the fact that if the United States doesn’t sell arms to a country, other nations (China for instance) will provide them, cutting in on U.S. equities or interests.

Mr. Ismail agreed that the United States is ‘not the only game in town’ but emphasized the need to ‘win over the hearts and minds’ of individuals in other countries as it parcels out assistance. Speaking in general, Ismail claimed that U.S. assistance shouldn’t be used to “keep score, as a way to reward or punish nations” but should ultimately aim to benefit the American taxpayer through increased security.

Mr. Ollivant said that the Leahy Law and other human rights restrictions on U.S. military aid are commendable, but are often too ‘black and white’ to apply in a complex global environment. Ollivant used the example of Syria, posing the difficult choice: “what do you do [if you want to provide assistance to] a designated terrorist group providing genocide relief (referencing the role the PKK and Hezbollah have played)?”

At the same time, Mr. Ollivant was quick to point out that the U.S. government has been training foreign militaries with controversial results, such as the involvement of U.S. trained Salvadoran commandos implicated in the killing of nuns and priests in the 1980s.

Mr. Natsios argued in favor of continuing humanitarian and developmental aid despite human rights abuses perpetrated by the government since aid can frequently be channeled through NGOs and civil society organizations. Security assistance, however, in its various forms is routed through government forces and agencies.

Ollivant, however, expressed that U.S. security assistance trainees can learn some positive American values by sharing a personal anecdote about a Colombian soldier studying in the United States. Driving in a rural county in Georgia, the foreign officer was impressed when the young soldiers did not attempt to avoid a speeding ticket by leveraging their profession.

Mr. Ismail stated that “the interests of the country [the United States] should not be superseded by the expediency of politics” and went on to attribute the value of promoting democracy, human rights and freedom as important benefits of aid in the view of the American people. He then brought up the example of security assistance to Egypt, a country that the United States has been hesitant to place restrictions on. He speculated that the country could have followed the path of economically robust and democratic South Korea and Ghana had the United States been able to impose conditions early on.

Mr. Ollivant also lamented that the United States could not call ex-President Mohammed Morsi’s overthrow by U.S.-trained Abdel Fattah el-Sisi a coup because of the absence of political will to follow up with assistance reductions. That being said, he considered Egypt as another example of how U.S. human rights restrictions were too rigid, saying they don’t allow a lot of flexibility in how to condition the aid.

It became clear as the debate progressed that every participant agreed that humanitarian and medical aid warranted an exception to human rights conditioning in the majority of cases. There was less agreement on how to condition U.S. security assistance. As this debate continues, one option both sides may agree on is the new Pentagon version of the Leahy Law, which allows U.S. military aid to continue to flow to foreign security forces with a poor human rights record for humanitarian and national security emergencies.

Ted Lynch is an Intern at the Security Assistance Monitor where he focuses on U.S. security cooperation with Latin America.