Senate Seeks to Secure Human Rights Conditions on DoD Foreign Aid

Despite criticism by the Pentagon about human rights restrictions getting in the way, the Senate Armed Services Committee moved forward on May 22 to permanently restrict U.S. security assistance to foreign units with gross human rights violations.  The restriction, often referred to as the “Leahy law” after its original sponsor Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), was included in the Committee’s approved National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2015 (S. 2410). The bill is now under consideration by the full Senate and won’t be final until both the Senate and the House of Representatives pass it later this year.

Since its introduction in 1998, the “Leahy law” established a norm in U.S. foreign policy that U.S. training and weapons should not aid specific foreign security force units that commit gross violations of human rights such as murder, rape, and abduction.  Although the law has been included in Defense Department appropriation bills every year, the Senate Armed Services Committee’s move will end the need to pass it each year by making the law permanent. Last year, the Defense Department provided $7.5 billion in military and police aid to foreign security forces.

Several U.S. military officials have reportedly raised concerns about Leahy law restrictions. According to a New York Times article last year, Adm. William H. McRaven, head of U.S. Special Operations Command, supports the spirit of the law, but said it has sometimes complicated efforts to provide assistance to several foreign security force units fighting terrorists. A top Pentagon official also reportedly said the Leahy law was a “troubling” limitation on DoD efforts to train Nigerian security forces.  But, Roll Call recently reported that the Pentagon official was instead expressing frustration with the poor human rights record of Nigerian security forces.

In particular, Adm. McRaven said he’s been frustrated with recent versions of the law as it requires the Pentagon to suspend assistance to an entire foreign security force unit even if a few of its members are alleged to have committed human rights violations. As foreign militaries and police are sometimes slow or fail to investigate and punish these members, Pentagon aid to these units can be delayed or stopped. McRaven also said the State Department can take too long to vet potential recipients of Pentagon assistance. The State Department, however, is now processing such requests in 10 days.

Speaking to an Al-Monitor journalist on June 5 about the restriction, Armed Services Chairman Senator Carl Levin (D-MI), said, “We want to obviously equip foreign units to go after terrorists,” but “we [also] want to train people to behave themselves relative to human rights.” Other Senators have said the risk of having America’s taxpayer dollars supporting security force units with egregious human rights violations is too great and that the restriction has been effective in pushing foreign forces to address and improve their human rights record.

U.S. civil society groups supporting the restriction have also said that the provision still allows the Pentagon to provide training and/or weapons to other foreign security force units in the same country. The Defense Department can also resume assistance to the suspended unit as soon as the perpetrators have been identified and disciplined.

Notably, the Senate Armed Service Committee’s approved “Leahy law” also includes some new exceptions.  For instance, even if the foreign security force unit has been implicated in human rights violations, the Pentagon could train the unit solely on human rights issues.  The new provision also appears to exempt Pentagon aid that is not designed primarily to build the capacity of a foreign security force such as certain logistics and cooperative assistance. 

Similar to past versions of the “Leahy law”, the Committee’s recently approved version allows the Secretary of Defense to waive the restriction if he or she determines that “extraordinary circumstances” exist.

If the full Senate maintains this language in this year’s National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), it will work with the House of Representatives to agree on a final bill for the President’s signature. When the House Armed Service Committee passed its version of the NDAA (H.R. 4435) on May 22, the “Leahy law” was not included.  However, the House Committee-passed version does require the Pentagon to report on the human rights vetting and verification procedures it uses to comply with the “Leahy law”.

While it’s likely the Senate and House will agree to some type of “Leahy law” provision in the final defense appropriations bill as it has for the past 16 years, it appears there is a strong chance this year Congress will make it permanent.  The final passage of the new provision will likely depend in part on the support of key House of Representative members.  If Congress does approve the provision, it will certainly strengthen the importance of restricting DoD security assistance to foreign security force units that have committed human rights violations. 

(Amanda Claypool, intern at the Project on Middle East Democracy, contributed research for this blog.)