Politics & National Security

Crossing Red Lines and US Credibility: What About Our Human Rights Rules?

By Jeremy Ravinsky
Friday, April 1, 2016, 9:25 AM

A prominent feature of The Atlantic’s recent retrospective on President Obama’s foreign policy decisions was whether the president’s refusal to follow through on threats of military action against Syria’s Assad regime after it used chemical weapons against civilians damaged US credibility.

Many in Washington’s foreign policy circles criticize the president’s decision. But far fewer seem troubled by the consequences to US credibility when our security partners violate, with impunity, the human rights standards on which military aid is supposedly conditioned. The US government’s unwillingness to enforce those conditions weakens its position when dealing with foreign partners and poses a serious threat to national security.

Two laws impose conditions on US aid to foreign security forces: the Leahy Law and the Child Soldiers Prevention Act (CSPA). But neither is adequately enforced.

The Leahy Law prohibits providing aid to foreign units or individuals who have committed gross violations of human rights. Though the law has prevented U.S. taxpayer dollars from ending up in the hands of some of the most notorious rights abusers, its lack of adequate funding prevents it from fulfilling its intended purpose.

Congress allotted $7 million in 2016 to monitor and enforce conditions on the recipients of nearly $20 billion in military assistance. That $7 million dollars must cover personnel, information technology, training, and all other costs associated with vetting over 150,000 military and police units a year. Deficient funding and associated administrative delays hamper the Leahy law’s implementation, according to a Congressional Research Service report.

But despite implementation challenges, the Leahy Law has something no other law of its kinds does: it cannot be waived. The same cannot be said of the CSPA, which is supposed to bar foreign governments who actively recruit and use child soldiers from receiving US military aid. Every year countries are listed as using child soldiers, but thanks to frequent presidential waivers, most of those countries continue to receive aid.

Since Congress passed the CSPA in 2008, over $1 billion in military aid has been delivered to governments that use child soldiers. The long-term impact of children’s involvement in war is profound and poses substantial obstacles to building peace and stability. Somalia and Yemen are among those governments using child soldiers who were waived of sanctions, and in both nations chronic instability has fostered violent extremists groups such as Al Qaeda.

Insisting that the armies of US allies respect human rights presents less comparably acute concerns than removing a chemical weapons stockpile or punishing a ruthless dictator. But neglecting enforcement of our broader obligations harms governance and security in nations receiving US security assistance.

In Afghanistan, for example, United States aid has empowered local, rights-abusing warlords within the Afghan security forces, undermining public trust in government institutions. Years and billions of dollars invested in building Afghanistan’s military and police have resulted in the creation of illegitimate authorities who prey on their citizens and are incapable of providing security. In the resulting legitimacy vacuum, the Taliban has recaptured broad swaths of territory, and even ISIS has made in-roads into the country.

This outcome was, at least in part, related to neglecting rights conditions. US officials ignored abuses discovered by the US military that some of it local partners were enslaving and raping young boys, allowing these crimes to fester with impunity, and alienating citizens whose support is essential to successful counterterrorism efforts.

This cycle goes to the heart of why the flagrant neglect of human rights conditions weakens US credibility and our ability to protect ourselves.

Studies have shown that human rights abuses are a primary cause of terrorist recruitment. It is in the US national security interest to curb such abuses by governments and their security forces. But, after years of failing to enforce conditions on aid, the United States lacks sufficient credibility to demand that its partners respect human rights.

The legal conditions on receiving aid represent small red lines, which are crossed repeatedly without any consequence. They are perhaps less dramatic than chemical weapons red lines, but the consequences are nonetheless erosive to US global standing.

It is time to crack down on US allies and partners who abuse human rights. The first steps are to toughen and enforce our laws. The State Department must be adequately funded to enforce the Leahy Law to ensure that recipients of military aid are part of the solution to terrorism, not part of the problem. And the CSPA must be amended to more narrowly limit the ability of a president to waive the law to appease potential allies or partners.

Most importantly, the Pentagon—which administers most of these military assistance programs—must make rights protection a priority. Conditions on US aid will not serve their purpose if officials willfully neglect them.

Human rights abuses lead to more insecurity and terrorism. The government must do a better job of institutionalizing mechanisms to counter that. Otherwise, terrorism will continue to spread as US credibility on human rights crumbles.