Getting the Leahy Law Right

How to Improve U.S. Funding of Foreign Forces

An Afghan National Army officer takes part in a training exercise at the Kabul Military Training Center in Afghanistan, October 7, 2015. Ahmad Masood / Reuters

The protection of human rights has long been a core component of global security. In advancing this principle, the United States has sought to limit security cooperation with foreign security forces that violate human rights and in 1997 passed legislation to prevent the State and Defense Departments from using taxpayer money to provide training and equipment to foreign security forces that commit gross violations of human rights. The Leahy laws, as they are known, contain two provisions: one restricts funds and an exception allows for the resumption of funds if a foreign government is taking measures to bring violators to justice.

Over time, in an effort to comply with the laws, the State and Defense Departments have suspended U.S. cooperation with foreign security forces when credible information of violations were found. But counter to the laws and their intent, once cooperation was terminated, there was no remediation mechanism through which foreign security forces could regain favorable status. It became common to say that once a unit was on the “withheld” list, it would remain there forever. Discussing individual cases with foreign governments was not always encouraged; it was sometimes expressly prohibited, to the detriment of foreign relations. In one particular instance, after a foreign government repeatedly attempted to obtain more information on why it had been defunded, it began canceling some joint military engagements with the United States. Human rights became more or less a forbidden topic of discussion with some countries, and the military-to-military and broader government-to-government relationships became strained. 

In the summer of 2013, a small group of U.S. military officers and Defense Department civilians decided to independently analyze the case files of some foreign military units whose funding had been halted. Their findings revealed considerable variance in how the Leahy laws were implemented. In some cases, the State and Defense Departments cut off funds to the wrong unit. In others, the information or sources that led to the allegation were questionable or unverifiable. And in still others, when

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