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What the Leahy Law Means for Human Rights

The “Leahy Law” is a U.S. human rights law named for its primary sponsor, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.). First approved by Congress in 1997, it prohibits the United States from providing equipment and training to a foreign military unit or individual suspected of committing “gross human rights violations.” Such violations include extrajudicial killing, rape, torture, and forced disappearances.

The State Department must vet any foreign military unit to ensure it has a clean human rights record before it can receive U.S. assistance. The vetting process covers official history of abuse and independent reporting by legitimate NGOs.

If a unit, or individual member of a unit, is suspected of committing gross violations, assistance cannot be provided until the recipient government addresses the abuses. This could take a variety of forms, including a legitimate investigation of the violations, disciplinary action, or prosecution.

The Open Society Foundations are encouraging the Obama administration to dedicate adequate resources to speed the vetting process and improve the law’s effectiveness.

Why does this law matter?

If a foreign security force unit were to receive U.S. support and then commit atrocities like mass rape or become involved in the disappearance of political activists, the U.S. government would be seen as complicit in the crime, undermining our moral authority and our values, and even endangering locally based U.S. troops and citizens.

Stopping aid from going to a “dirty” unit is only part of the law’s function. It also encourages countries to monitor and professionalize their armed forces. Awareness that human rights violations will disqualify a unit or individual for assistance is key to the law’s effectiveness.

If assistance is suspended, can it ever be resumed?

Assistance can be restored if a government “is taking effective steps to bring the responsible members of the security forces unit to justice,” according to the law, Section 620M of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961. Meanwhile, the United States can continue to provide assistance to other security force units in that country that have not been implicated in gross human rights violations.

Where has the Leahy Law been applied?

WikiLeaks cables show that the U.S. State Department has implemented the law all over the world. We know that the United States has suspended units in Colombia, Indonesia, Pakistan, and Bangladesh, among others. But for diplomatic and other reasons, the State Department generally does not publicize its decisions to suspend aid to a particular foreign unit.

What are some criticisms of the law?

U.S. Navy Admiral William H. McRaven, head of the Special Operations Command, has said that the Leahy Law constrains the U.S. military from training foreign units that he believes the United States needs to train—for example, local security forces fighting Boko Haram militants in Nigeria. But according to the State Department, in 2011, less than one percent of some 200,000 units or individuals that were vetted were denied assistance because of human right concerns.

Admiral McRaven also has said that the process for clearing units is too slow. The average turnaround time right now is 10 days, and many countries have an expedited clearance process. The State Department’s Bureau for Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor, which conducts the background vetting, has a budget of $2.75 million to vet $15 billion worth of security assistance in 2014.

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