Leahy Laws Bar Military Aid to Human Rights Violators

02.04.14 | 3 min read | Text by Steven Aftergood

By law, the United States is not supposed to provide certain forms of military assistance to foreign security forces that have committed gross violations of human rights.

The underlying laws, which were introduced by Sen. Patrick Leahy in the 1990s and which are known as the Leahy laws, are described in a new report from the Congressional Research Service entitled ‘Leahy Law’ Human Rights Provisions and Security Assistance: Issue Overview, January 29, 2014.

The report notes that “the Leahy laws have been the subject of long-standing debate. Policy makers, practitioners, and advocacy groups continue to deliberate overarching questions regarding their utility and desirability, as well as specific questions regarding their appropriate scope and problems in implementation.”

“For many, the Leahy laws are important U.S. foreign policy tools not only because of their potential to promote human rights but because they may help safeguard the U.S. image abroad by distancing the United States from corrupt or brutal security forces.”

“Some, however, raise concerns that these laws limit the Administration’s flexibility to balance competing national interests and may constrain the United States’ ability to respond to national security needs.”

The contrasting views on the subject stem from uncertainty about the practical consequences of the laws’ implementation, the CRS report said.

“Central to this debate are overarching questions that are difficult to answer given the lack of systematic study of Leahy law results. Have these laws indeed been effective in promoting human rights? To what extent have these laws impeded or advanced other key U.S. objectives, such as countering terrorism, preventing violence, or stabilizing territory? Do the laws lead other nations to choose competitors for foreign influence as the source of military materiel and training? Will the United States be able to control down-range effects as it outsources military training through third-party nations? Competing perceptions of these overarching issues underlie perspectives on specific proposals for congressional action.”

“This report provides background on the Leahy laws, including a brief history of their legislative development; an overview guide to the standards and processes used to ‘vet’ — that is, review and clear — foreign military and other security forces for gross violations of human rights; and a brief review of salient issues regarding the provisions of the laws and their implementation.”

In any event, “the Leahy laws apply only to security assistance funding authorized by the FAA [Foreign Assistance Act] and AECA [Arms Export Control Act] or programs funded through DOD appropriations. They do not apply to other security assistance that may be provided by U.S. government agencies through other provisions of law.”  In particular, they would not restrict security assistance through the exercise of CIA covert action.

The Obama Administration maintains that a goal of U.S. security assistance abroad is to “Promote universal values, such as good governance, transparent and accountable oversight of security forces, rule of law, transparency, accountability, delivery of fair and effective justice, and respect for human rights,” according to a White House Fact Sheet on the April 2013 Presidential Policy Directive (PPD) 23.

“Defense trade is an important part of America’s relations with a number of allies and partners, and the United States takes seriously the implications of any transfer of conventional arms to foreign partners,” wrote Acting Assistant Secretary of State Tom Kelly in a blog post yesterday.

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Other new reports from the Congressional Research Service that Congress has withheld from online public disclosure include the following.

U.S. Naturalization Policy, January 16, 2014

Financial Assets and Conflict of Interest Regulation in the Executive Branch, January 17, 2014

Recent Trends in Consumer Retail Payment Services Delivered by Depository Institutions, January 16, 2014

Status of the WTO Brazil-U.S. Cotton Case, December 12, 2013

Tribal Jurisdiction over Nonmembers: A Legal Overview, November 26, 2013