For two decades, ensuring the U.S. isn’t complicit in gross human rights abuses by foreign police and military forces has rested in significant part on the shoulders of a law devised by Senator Patrick Leahy that bars U.S. foreign aid to individuals or institutions that commit violations. This week, Leahy exhorted more than 130 representatives of government, non-profit groups, international organizations, academia and research institutions gathered at USIP to consider the next step: how U.S. assistance can be used more effectively for both accountability and prevention.


“In one sense, the law is punitive, as it should be,” Leahy told the participants on March 26 at the start of a two-day workshop (see full text of his remarks below). “But the Law’s larger purpose is to build professional, disciplined, transparent and accountable security forces who are sustainable and effective partners for the United States.” 

Co-hosted by USIP and the State Department, the “Workshop on Leveraging U.S. Security Assistance in Support of Accountability for and Prevention of Human Rights Abuses” aimed to reframe the Leahy Law not simply as a mandate to withhold U.S. foreign assistance, but also as an essential force for creating a regime of accountability for and prevention of human rights violation by foreign security forces.

A series of panels on the first day included a cross-section of people inside and outside of government who work to uphold human rights standards. The role of police, military forces and judicial systems in securing and defending those standards is fundamental in any community or country.

Panel discussions involving government officials, practitioners, academics and non-profit organizations explored how to prevent abuses and ensure accountability through military assistance, police and prison reform, security sector partnerships, and mechanisms for internal and public accountability.  Participants particularly focused on identifying networks of like-minded practitioners and models of programs that can be tailored to address circumstances in which a partner government might request U.S. assistance in redressing or preventing violations.  

The discussions underscored the point that the concept of human rights is not simply a practice or issue area, but a norm that is essential to achieving security. Panelists urged participants to consider human rights as a foundation for all security assistance to police and military forces, rather than as a stand-alone topic.

U.S. government participants drilled down on the second day to consider concretely how insights and approaches from the first day could apply in realistic cases. Groups identified effective practices, resources that could be applied and opportunities for action. The resulting recommendations provide a foundation for longer-term institution-building and reform, as well as for short-term measures that could help reform implicated security units.

"More and more people recognize that it is less about pointing fingers than about building partnerships …They recognize that the alternative is indefensible.” – Senator Leahy

As the keynote speaker, Leahy provided his first-hand account of the law’s mandate for U.S foreign assistance officials in the face of gross violations of human rights by foreign security forces. “I have long recognized that the Leahy Law is not an easy law to apply,” said the Vermont senator, who is the top Democrat on the Judiciary Committee and the Appropriations Subcommittee on State, Foreign Operations, and Related Agencies. He challenged the participants to contribute innovative ideas to achieve the broader vision of the law: a system of human rights prevention and accountability among security forces considered to be partners with the United States.

The following are Senator Leahy’s remarks, after introductory comments.

Remarks of Senator Patrick Leahy

Twenty-one years ago when I wrote what has since become known as the Leahy Law, I don’t think anyone expected that it would attract so much attention – not just in this country but around the world.  

Back then, as many of you know, there were provisions in the Foreign Assistance Act that cut off aid to countries when there was a “consistent pattern of gross violations of human rights.” 

But those laws were never invoked.  It was clear to me then, as I read report after report of horrific crimes by Central American soldiers and police who were trained and equipped by the United States, that we needed a different approach. 

We needed an approach that works.

Central America was not an aberration.  The security forces of many countries, including some of our friends and allies – from Indonesia to Egypt to Nigeria – have long committed abuses with impunity.

The Leahy Law is narrowly focused, and it has two distinct but complimentary purposes:

  • To shield our country from complicity in gross violations of human rights; and
  • To encourage and assist foreign governments in bringing to justice members of their security forces when those crimes occur.

It is, I believe, a minimum standard.  Consider the alternative: 

  • To provide training and weapons funded by American taxpayers, to foreign military and police forces who commit the worst crimes, even though nothing is being done about it.

Even critics of the Leahy Law acknowledge that is not acceptable.

That said, I have long recognized that the Leahy Law is not an easy law to apply. 

Every country is at a different stage of development. The composition and conduct of foreign security forces are a reflection of history and culture.  Our national interests vary widely, whether in the Middle East, Africa or this hemisphere. 

Whether we should engage with foreign forces, and how best to do so, are not simple questions.  

For example, some have suggested that a better approach is to provide human rights training to those who have committed war crimes or other atrocities – to teach them how to behave. 

As a former prosecutor I have to ask:  “really?” 

Is that what we should do for murderers, rapists, and torturers?  Teach them about the Geneva Conventions and continue to give them aid?  No. 

People who commit such crimes – whoever they are – should be prosecuted and punished. 

That is how you build professional, accountable military and police forces.  Not by treating them as if they are above the law, but by showing that they have to answer to the law.   

  • The 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.  

It makes clear that foreign military and police commanders who order gross violations of human rights by their subordinates – or who know about and fail to prevent, or try to cover them up – will not receive U.S. support.  

  • The Leahy Law makes clear that those who act for reasons of political expedience, or because justice systems are slow or inefficient – and torture or summarily execute prisoners – will not receive U.S. support.

So yes, in one sense the law is punitive, as it should be. 

But the Law’s larger purpose is to build professional, disciplined, transparent, and accountable security forces who are sustainable and effective partners for the United States. 

We know that countering violent extremism, and building public support for combating the traffic in illegal drugs, human trafficking, or other transnational crime, is not just about shooting and arresting people. 

  • It requires security forces that enjoy the public’s trust, confidence and support that come from respecting the rule of law.  
  • It means security forces that adhere to appropriate limits on state power, by accepting oversight and accountability.
  • It means senior military and police officials with integrity who set an example through strong leadership and professionalism.
  • And it means giving local communities and civil society a voice in the oversight of the security forces that protect and serve them.

We still have plenty to learn ourselves. 

  • Abuses by police officers in communities in the United States, and the Senate report on torture, are reminders of what can happen when we deviate from our own values and commitments. 
  • We recently saw repulsive photographs of Iraqi security forces and militias committing some of the same reprehensible crimes as ISIL, using U.S. weapons.
  • And we’ve learned that high ranking foreign military officers hired to teach at the National Defense University were credibly linked to atrocities in their home countries.

We know we cannot deploy our military to every crisis in the world.  We have to rely on partners – old ones and new ones – to counter threats and protect American interests. 

But when we partner with a government and its security forces we automatically become involved in the internal politics of those countries.  The way those forces act and are perceived by their own people reflects – positively or negatively – on us.  

When our partners 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. 

Now, some have complained that once the Leahy Law is applied, there is no way for a tainted unit of a foreign security force to redeem itself and become eligible again for U.S. assistance.

They either have not read the law, or they would prefer to avoid the painstaking – but essential – work of accountability.   

The Leahy Law explicitly provides an incentive – the resumption of U.S. assistance – if steps are being taken to bring the responsible individuals to justice. 

  • Disciplinary procedures and justice systems distinguish professional soldiers and police from those who destroy innocent lives and ruin reputations.  
  • Accountability builds the public trust and support that security forces need to respond effectively to terrorism, other violent crimes, and conflict. 
  • Governments that recognize this and are willing to hold their military and police forces accountable deserve our support.
  • In fact the Leahy Law requires the Secretary of State to assist governments that take such steps.

Twenty-one years later and thanks in part to several of you here, the Leahy Law is being applied more effectively today than when I first wrote it.  It remains a work in progress, and your discussions here are part of that process. 

But I am confident that the Law is here to stay, because more and more people recognize that it is less about pointing fingers than about building partnerships.

They recognize that the alternative is indefensible – supporting abusive security forces that violate their laws and international law with impunity. 

  • That is not acceptable to the American people;
  • It is not acceptable to the people of those countries whose soldiers and police have a responsibility to protect them; and
  • It should not be acceptable to our partners.

Thank you for being here, and thank you for your help in making the Leahy Law what it needs to be.

Linwood Ham, the author of the introduction to this text of Sen. Leahy’s speech, is USIP’s director of intergovernmental affairs.

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