from Africa in Transition

The Leahy Amendment and Training Foreign Militaries

June 26, 2013

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A story in the June 21 New York Times, “Military Says Law Barring U.S. Aid to Right Violators Hurts Training Mission,” calls attention to a U.S. legal provision that prohibits U.S. training of foreign security forces that violate human rights. The Times reports that U.S. military leaders are complaining that the Leahy Amendment is restricting their ability to train foreign troops “to fight militants and drug traffickers.” The United Nations and other regional organizations are increasingly dependent on African peacekeepers, especially with respect to African conflicts, as the ongoing crisis in Mali demonstrates.

What is the Leahy Amendment and how does it work? The Leahy Amendment is a 1997 attachment to a foreign aid bill. It was sponsored by Senator Patrick J. Leahy, Democrat of Vermont. It prohibits the training or equipping of foreign units that commit “gross human rights violations.” The amendment was revised two years ago to require the suspension of aid to an entire unit even if only a few of its members were implicated in human rights violations. The vetting of units is the responsibility of the Department of State. Under most circumstances, the initial investigations are conducted by the U.S. embassy in the relevant country.

The process can take months, not least because of a shortage of embassy and State Department resources, itself the result of chronic under-funding of the diplomatic function for at least a generation. As the Times points out, how a stigmatized unit rehabilitates itself according to the amendment’s terms is unclear.

Senator Leahy is quoted in the Times as saying, “this is a law that works, if it is enforced. We can help reform foreign security forces, but they need to show they are serious about accountability. If not, we are wasting American taxpayers’ money and risk prolonging the abusive conduct that we seek to prevent.”

So, there is a conundrum: the Leahy Amendment precludes U.S. training, which usually has a significant human rights component and an emphasis on military subordination to civilian authority, for those units that presumably have the greatest need of it. On the other hand, it is an open question whether U.S. training can have a transformative effect on foreign militaries, especially as it too is under-resourced, given its goals. After all, Captain Amadou Sanogo, the leader of the 2012 coup that overthrew the ostensibly democratic government in Mali, had three rounds of U.S. military training in the United States.

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