Remarks of Senator Patrick Leahy United States Institute of Peace “Workshop on Leveraging U.S. Security Assistance to Prevent and Redress Human Rights Violations”

Thank you Nancy and Tom, and thanks to the U.S. Institute of Peace and the Department of State for hosting this discussion. 

I also want to recognize USIP for the important and active role it is playing in efforts to prevent and resolve conflicts overseas. 

There is really no other U.S. government entity that can bring together the Departments of State and Defense, USAID, and other Federal agencies, as well as nongovernmental organizations, to develop, coordinate, and implement strategies to prevent and resolve conflict. 

This workshop is just one example of this. 

I also want to publicly thank Laurie Schultz Heim, who is retiring after nine years as the congressional liaison for USIP.  I’ve known Laurie for a long time, when she was a top staff member for former Senator Jim Jeffords.  There is no question that – like countless Vermonters – this organization is better off thanks to Laurie. 

I want to begin with two examples, which I picked at random, of what brings us here today–        

In two weeks the Foreign Minister of Sri Lanka will visit Washington.  In fact, he plans to speak here at the U.S. Institute of Peace. 

Those of you who follow events in Sri Lanka know that in the war between the government and the LTTE, and particularly in the final months of that war, tens of thousands of civilians sheltering in camps and hospitals died from shelling by the Sri Lankan army.  In addition, many of those suspected of being members of the LTTE were rounded up by Sri Lankan soldiers and killed. 

The Sri Lankan Government is now faced with the question of how to respond to demands by the United Nations, the Sri Lankan people, and many governments including the United States, to punish those responsible for such crimes.

My second example is Nigeria, where Boko Haram is committing horrific atrocities against the local population.  The Nigerian military has mobilized against Boko Haram, but it has also been accused of raping and murdering civilians, in some instances reportedly shooting hundreds of innocent people. 

Both Sri Lanka and Nigeria are friends of the United States.  Both have new governments that we support.  We provide hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to Nigeria, and tens of millions of dollars in aid to Sri Lanka. 

When I first wrote the Leahy Law 20 years ago I had these types of examples in mind, although back then my focus was on Central America.

As we have seen, Central America was not an aberration.  Impunity for crimes by foreign security forces – even some UN peacekeeping troops – remains a widespread problem. 

The Leahy Law is designed to help prevent U.S. complicity in human rights abuses by foreign security forces, and encourage accountability when they occur.    

Consider the alternative:  providing training and weapons funded by American taxpayers to foreign security forces who commit heinous crimes, even though their governments are doing nothing about it.

The challenge is how to apply the law to achieve what to some may appear to be competing or even incompatible national interests, but which I believe to be complementary. 

It is a crime when Boko Haram commits rape and murder, but not when it is done by the Nigerian army? 

It was a crime when the Tamil Tigers recruited child soldiers and used suicide bombers, but not when the Sri Lankan army targeted civilians and executed prisoners? 

Of course is was.  And if we fail to recognize this we embolden those who would make a mockery of the principle that no one is above the law, and we do a grave disservice to the people of those countries. 

When we partner with foreign security forces we automatically become involved in the internal affairs of those countries.  The way those forces act and are perceived by their own people reflects – positively, or negatively – on us.  

When our partners, trained or equipped by us, commit abuses, we become complicit – or we are perceived to be complicit – in the predatory and abusive acts that erode the legitimacy of those forces.

I think most people understand this. 

The Leahy Law makes clear that the United States will not tolerate or support foreign partners who violate the personal integrity, dignity, or due process of their citizens.  People who order, commit, or cover up such crimes should be prosecuted and punished. 

The law also makes clear that those who use torture or shoot prisoners for reasons of political expediency, or because justice systems are slow or inefficient, will not receive U.S. support.

That is what the law requires when a foreign government rejects the need for accountability. 

But that is not the outcome we want.  We want to help build professional, disciplined, transparent, and accountable security forces who are suitable partners for the United States. 

We can do that not by treating them as if they are above the law – as we unfortunately sometimes have done – but by providing an incentive to answer to the law. 

Many of these units may seem brazen and capable in the short term, and it is understandable to want to partner with them.  But we need military partners that are both capable and legitimate – who respect the rule of law, defend the rights of citizens, and build stability in their countries. 

That is why the Leahy Law is not in conflict with the strategic, security focus on “building partner capacity” – whether in Nigeria, Sri Lanka, or anywhere else.  To the contrary – the law represents a convergence of universal values and national security interests.  

As a former prosecutor, I understand the importance of accountability.  If our partners want to stop extrajudicial killings, torture, rape, and forced disappearances, they need to send a clear signal that perpetrators will be held accountable.

We know that often requires significant reforms of judicial procedures and institutions.  And we know that building the capacity of civilian and military justice systems takes time.  

We are not prescribing how accountability should be administered in every case, nor do we have unrealistic expectations for countries where the rule of law barely exists today.  We are looking for the political will to stop impunity, provide the right incentives, and send a positive signal to the citizens of those countries.

Disciplinary procedures and credible justice systems distinguish professional soldiers and police from criminals.  

Accountability builds the public trust and support that security forces need to respond effectively to terrorism and other violent crimes.

That is why the Leahy Law puts so much emphasis on remediation.  We want to stress that U.S. officials – civilian and military – in Washington, at our embassies, and at the combatant commands, should look for opportunities to assist their foreign partners in remediating units of security forces that have violated human rights.

Frankly, this should have been happening a long time ago, because the Leahy Law has always provided for the restoration of U.S. aid if governments act to clean up abusive units.  The law explicitly requires the Secretary of State to assist governments that take such steps.

Yet, for many years the law was treated as a pie-in-the-sky idea the Congress wanted that should be ignored, rather than risk upsetting the sensitivities of foreign governments.

The law requires active diplomacy – “Leahy Law diplomacy.”  Civilian and military officials at foreign posts should regularly discuss with their partners when and why units have been deemed ineligible for U.S. aid through the vetting process, and what steps the foreign government can and should take to remediate.

I am encouraged that one year after the new remediation policy was developed by an interagency committee, there have been several cases where remediation has worked and there are other cases in the pipeline. 

I hope we see more of this.  And I think we will, because the goal of the law is to improve conduct. 

This workshop is an opportunity to discuss how our programs to help reform corrupt and abusive military, police, and judicial institutions – whether conducted by the Pentagon, the State Department, Justice Department, or USAID – are improving accountability. 

  • Are these programs working, and if not why not?
  • Where have we seen progress in strengthening respect for the rule of law?  Where are perpetrators of human rights abuses being punished? 
  • What tools can we offer to assist partner governments with investigations and prosecutions of specific cases of human rights abuses? 
  • Are we seeing results from the Pentagon’s human rights training, or is it wishful thinking if abuses continue to be tolerated by high ranking military officers who may have been promoted despite – or even because of – their own criminal history?
  • Can we make progress in a country like Egypt, one of the largest recipients of U.S. military aid, whose government is persecuting civic activists and journalists and ignoring abuses by its security forces?
  • Is there a correlation between corruption – a pervasive problem in many developing countries – and human rights abuses that deserves greater scrutiny? 

I look forward to hearing what comes out of today’s discussion.

I am also encouraged that, despite the occasional naysayer who wants to waive the Leahy Law or make exceptions when the facts do not support it, more and more people recognize that the law is less about making accusations than about defending human rights and building lasting partnerships we can be proud of.

They recognize that the alternative is indefensible – supporting abusive security forces that violate domestic and international law and whose governments tolerate or even encourage it.  

That is not acceptable to the United States and it should not be acceptable to our partners.

Thank you Nancy, Tom and all of you for helping make the Leahy Law what it needs to be.                     

# # # # #

Press Contact

Press Contact
David Carle: 202-224-3693