Deconstructing the Leahy Law: Fact vs Fiction

July 9, 2013

Photo Credit: Amnesty International
Photo Credit: Amnesty International

This post was written in collaboration with Nate Smith, of the AIUSA Military, Security and Police (MSP) Coordination group.

There are some misconceptions currently floating around about the U.S. government’s Leahy Law and we want to set the record straight on a few things. The Leahy Law is a powerful yet often-overlooked tool to help prevent the U.S. government from directly arming human rights violators in the ranks of foreign security forces and to help the U.S. avoid complicity in the commission of human rights violations.

So how can you distill fact from fiction? Allow us to deconstruct some of the facts, fictions and misconceptions about the Leahy Law. And expect more in the coming weeks about this important law, and other instruments available to the U.S. and global community to prevent arming human rights perpetrators.

What is the Leahy Law? The Leahy Law (also known as the Leahy Amendment) prohibits most types of U.S. foreign aid and Defense Department training programs from going to foreign security, military and police units credibly alleged to have committed human rights violations. If the foreign government brings the responsible members of the unit to justice, U.S. foreign aid can be resumed. The Leahy Law is named after Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), a Congressional human rights champion and the chief sponsor of the law.

Fact: The Leahy Law is law, not a policy guideline. It originated in 1996 from efforts to control U.S. military aid to Colombia during the period in time when Plan Colombia was materializing and Amnesty International and many other organizations had been documenting egregious violations committed by the Colombian military and police. It is different from other human rights legislation because it does not require a decision to cut off aid to an entire country – which the U.S. government is often reluctant to do – rather it tackles the challenge by prohibiting aid solely from the offending units.

Fiction: The Leahy Law solves the human rights problems of foreign military and police units. Interestingly, the Leahy Law places the burden on both the U.S. government and human rights organizations to document and compile information regarding alleged abuses – but the law and associated vetting process is not perfect, nor will it alone solve the human rights problems of foreign security units.

Take for example, the vetting process itself. The U.S. government currently utilizes Google key word searches as a first step in its online investigation (and for those who aren’t familiar with this type of search, it does not pick up information in PDFs – so a tip for fellow human rights organizations: make sure your reports are also available in HTML/text).  Additional staff dedicated solely to the vetting process have, however, recently been added to the State Department’s payroll – indicating that this process may be strengthening.

The Leahy Law is by no means a silver bullet- take for example the gap in oversight of arms sales which the recently adopted (and. we hope, soon to be signed and ratified by the U.S.) Arms Trade Treaty promises to fill. The Arms Trade Treaty (ATT) requires that arms exporters conduct an assessment of the risk that the arms could be used in committing human rights violations, and to take measures to mitigate that risk or halt the transfer if the risk reaches a certain level.

Even this type of historic, multilateral agreement cannot stop all human rights abuses, though. While the government’s obligation to respect, protect and fulfill human rights requires a comprehensive approach, measures such as enacting the Leahy Law and ratifying the ATT are critical, and as such require political will and the determination of the people to hold the government to account.

Misconception: Changes in the law two years ago aimed at strengthening its enforcement have complicated U.S. military leaders’ ability to train and equip foreign security forces. The recent revisions to the law strengthen the ability of the U.S. government to ensure that the U.S. is not complicit in arming perpetrators of human rights violations and further encourages accountability.

Often, identifying individual perpetrators amongst the ranks is difficult in repressive or insecure environs – victims and their families, facing opaque judicial systems, can be intimidated into silence. This is why the U.S. government now bans entire units from receiving foreign assistance.

So while the changes in the law add additional safeguards which may be perceived by military officials as unnecessary barriers in their ability to expeditiously train foreign forces, the safeguards further ensure the U.S. is not arming perpetrators. Military leaders should therefore embrace, not criticize the recent amendments, as ultimately, they help to ensure the U.S. is not complicit in the commission of future abuses by training foreign combatant with a poor human rights record.

Fact: The Leahy Law has had an impact. The Leahy Law has saved lives since its passage and it provides an incentive to countries whose security forces’ possess poor human rights records to clean up their act. U.S. policymakers should be looking for ways to make this law and others like it stronger, and in doing so, strengthen the United States’ security and standing abroad.

The truth is, there is no human rights panacea – it’s an ongoing struggle, waged by those who believe in basic rights protections for everyone. The Leahy Law is one critical tool in that struggle. Its effectiveness is measured in human rights violations prevented –  for those to outweigh the U.S. military’s professed inconveniences, the voices of those who fight for human right must be heard.