Defense Experts Highlight Effectiveness of Human Rights Conditioning


Challenging a longtime U.S. military critique of security assistance, some defense experts are saying suspending U.S. military aid to foreign security forces because of their poor human rights record has often caused an improvement in the force’s behavior. This point, which was raised at a House Armed Services Committee hearing in October, appears to contradict military views that suspending aid for such reasons is counterproductive.

For years, U.S. defense experts have seen cutting off U.S. military aid to certain repressive foreign security forces as ineffective because it harms U.S. national security imperatives and eliminates opportunities to provide them with human rights training to improve their record. At a meeting in Nigeria this year, former U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates indicated that U.S. requirements to suspend military aid to abusive forces in Nigeria have frustrated efforts to address terrorism.

Commenting on restricting military aid to Nigeria, U.S. Vice Admiral Charles Leidig said “the conundrum it presents us is that the nations whose militaries have had human rights violations perhaps are the ones that need U.S. engagement the most.” Other U.S. officials have pointed to instances in which human rights training helped. After providing military training to professionalize Croatian security forces with a poor human rights record in the mid-1990s, for instance, U.S. military personnel claimed the training helped improve their actions after a new government took power. 

Nigeria Security Assistance

According to a RAND Corporation study, however, suspending military aid for human rights or other reasons does “not have the devastating consequences” that opponents might expect. The study highlights that, in some cases, U.S. punitive funding cuts of military aid have improved foreign partner behavior. Out of ten cases of punitive funding cuts the study examined over the past 20 years, it determined that three “resulted in significant improvement.”

The study did not disclose the names of the countries they reviewed. Research does point to Indonesia in the early 2000s as a potential example of when suspension of security assistance resulted in an improvement of military force behavior. In 1999, the U.S. suspended all aid to the Indonesian armed forces, due to reports of gross human rights abuses in East Timor, Aceh, and other regions. Following this suspension, and after the resignation of President Suhatro, basic freedoms in the country proceeded to expand rapidly, contributing “to a vibrant if chaotic democracy.”  

The suspension of military aid to Egypt is likely an example of when funding cuts didn’t result in improved human rights behavior, perhaps because of the way in which the United States went about it. After the July 2013 military coup, President Obama didn’t formally suspend a portion of U.S. military aid until several months later. This delay was explained by many as an attempt to maintain good relations with the new government while also slowly prodding it towards democratization.  It was also relatively clear that the suspension would only be temporary, undercutting the real threat of cutting the funding.

The RAND study also found that when the United States cuts military aid to foreign security force, their military capabilities are negatively affected.  However, it indicated that the blow to a state’s security capacity is perhaps less damaging than previously thought, for two possible reasons. Firstly, in some cases, it takes time for a government to lose military capability, as donated equipment and weapons can remain fully functional for decades. Secondly, the United States does not always cuts all types of aid to a foreign force.

For instance, some military aid to Nigeria was cut in 2014 on account of Nigeria’s abysmal human rights record and rampant corruption. Yet, the Obama Administration still allocated $4.4 million in security assistance to Nigerian forces in FY 2015. This was even before Nigerians elected a new President, Muhammadu Buhari, who pledged investigations into military abuses and a reform of the Nigeria security sector.

Human rights groups have also fired back at officials who argue that the United States must sometimes assist repressive security forces in order to address terrorism. Advocates have cited that Nigerian security force abuses against civilians have unintentionally aided Boko Haram’s cause and recruitment efforts. By supporting such forces, U.S. security assistance to Nigeria can in fact prove counterproductive to fighting terrorism.

As the RAND Corporation is a widely respected voice in defense analysis, this new study may signal a new openness within the defense community for suspending military aid because of concerns for human rights violations. The findings could also support those within Congress and the Obama Administration who are pushing to maintain the Leahy Law, which restricts U.S. military aid to specific units on the basis of credible evidence of gross human rights violations, in its current form.

Without more details about the ten cases reviewed in the RAND study, however, it’s difficult to study why aid conditioning worked in some countries and not others. There is also reporting that using a Millennium Challenge Corporation method of requiring countries to meet certain standards before receiving aid is more effective approach. More investigations would also be helpful to determining when and in what form it makes sense for the United States to furnish human rights training to repressive forces.

As the broader U.S. policy community continues to debate the best approaches to engaging with and improving the human rights record of security forces in countries such as Bahrain, Nigeria, Pakistan, and Uganda, the RAND findings bring some helpful insight. The extent to which aid conditioning will be practiced, however, is uncertain. With increased pressure to use foreign security forces to help address terrorist threats, the actual curbing of such aid will likely continue to be hotly debated.

Alexis Kedo is an Intern at Security Assistance Monitor where she focuses on African security issues. Colby Goodman is the Acting Director at Security Assistance Monitor and focuses on a range of U.S. military aid and arms sales policy and research issues.