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Reality Check

August 4, 2021

Reality Check #9: Ensure US security sector assistance serves US interests and values

By Aude Darnal and Evan Cooper

Key points

  • US security sector assistance (SSA) is frequently positioned as helping to promote democracy and the rule of law, but too often SSA goes to security forces that undermine these ideals without advancing other US interests.
  • The United States has continued to assist security forces that commit abuses against the people they are supposed to be serving, contradicting its espoused mission to promote human rights and democracy.
  • Congress should proactively oversee SSA and withdraw military-centered assistance when security forces are found to be either committing human-rights violations or posing a serious threat of doing so in the future.
  • SSA should be part of a larger suite of assistance programs that focus on advancing the rule of law, strengthening civilian control of security forces, and building stronger civil societies that can ensure democratic oversight of the security sector.

What’s the issue?

Following the assassination of Haiti’s president, Jovenel Moïse, on July 7, the Pentagon announced that it had previously provided military training to some of the suspected assassins while they were serving in the Colombian military. Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), who authored the main law governing US SSA, known commonly as the Leahy law, responded to the news by saying that “while we want our training of foreign armies to build professionalism and respect for human rights, the training is only as good as the institution itself.” But this is not an issue confined to Colombia. While US security assistance to stable and developed allies does not usually suffer from this problem, Washington often assists security forces in fragile countries that commit human-rights abuses, which goes against US interests and its purported values.

At the root of the problem is that SSA is frequently used by the executive branch to deepen ties with partner governments with little guidance on its long-term purpose and few repercussions when it is misused or ineffective in achieving US goals. The Leahy law stipulates interlocking rules for the provision of SSA by the Departments of State (DoS) and Defense (DoD). The second clause of the law contains an exception that defers most oversight to the executive branch. Senator Leahy’s website states that while the law is intended to make “clear that when credible evidence of human rights violations exists, the violator or the responsible unit must be barred from receiving training or equipment . . . [i]t also provides the necessary flexibility to allow the US to advance its foreign policy objectives in these countries.”

As written and operationalized, the law assigns most of the responsibility for judging the consequences of SSA to the executive branch, which tends to focus SSA efforts on core diplomatic or military goals. As Dan Mahanty, a former director at DoS’s Office of Security and Human Rights, explained, “The United States almost always has competing short-term interests that do not readily align with the prospects of institutional reform of the security sector, which are often long-term projects which face low odds.” Yet the DoS’s Office of Security Assistance states that training is provided to expose foreign security forces to “democratic values and respect for internationally recognized standards of human rights.” When these short-term and long-term goals conflict, the former often prevail.

The DoS espouses lofty goals for its SSA. Meanwhile, DoD—the predominant distributor of SSA—focuses on providing equipment, funding, and training to build the tactical capacities of fragile countries’ forces, which frequently have a history of engaging in abuse. Despite the limited quantitative literature on the overall impact of SSA, one study found a correlation between US-provided military training and the likelihood of coups in recipient countries. A 2018 RAND study of US SSA in Africa summarized the balance of outcomes, stating that “whatever ‘success stories’ might exist are relatively modest in their impact on political violence, obscured by much larger amounts of inefficient spending, or offset by counterproductive outcomes in other cases.” Despite the unpredictable effects of SSA on forces’ future behavior, the expectation persists that assistance will enhance their professionalism. However, supporting fragile institutions risks empowering forces that commit abuses—ultimately hindering stability by fostering environments ripe for violent nonstate groups to thrive.

Providing equipment, training, and funding to security forces in the hope that they will address security threats like armed nonstate groups and crises caused by governance challenges is a strategy that has failed to produce replicable successes. Despite many hundreds of millions of dollars in SSA funding provided to the likes of Afghanistan, Nigeria, and Yemen, these countries remain torn by complex conflicts and their populations continue to suffer abuses from their security forces.

Why does it matter?

Since the Leahy law was passed in 1997, the United States has trained and assisted a number of security forces that have gone on to commit human-rights abuses and undermine democratic consolidation. For example, Amnesty International reported that between 2002 and 2003, the United States had provided small arms ammunition and vehicles to an elite Guinean commando unit, and administered professional and organizational training in the following years. That unit was later implicated in committing gross violations of human rights (GVHR) during a brutal crackdown on a political opposition rally on September 28, 2009 in Conakry. Investigators reported more than forty cases of rape and sexual violence, upwards of 150 civilian deaths, and 1,500 wounded. Nonetheless, Washington continued to deliver security assistance to the country: according to the Congressional Research Service, less than nine months later, in June 2010, DoS trained a new presidential security detail, funded by approximately $1.5 million in peacekeeping-operations funds, despite evidence that officers of the presidential guard were among the perpetrators of human-rights abuses in 2009. Although assistance targeted different individuals than those involved in the massacre, multiple reports of violence by the same unit—and others—have surfaced. This suggests that the current method of “unit-by-unit examination of human rights records” that proponents like the Open Society Foundations’ Stephen Rickard have championed as “a formula for success in those countries” can, in fact, lead to failure and abuses. US assistance to Guinean forces has continued in subsequent years under International Military Education and Training (IMET) and Foreign Military Financing (FMF) programs. Despite these investments, Guinean security forces are still regularly accused of perpetrating violence against civilians, demonstrating that a culture of abuse remains present in institutions following US support.

In 2019, DoS decided to withhold part of planned military aid to Cameroon, pointing to human-rights concerns, but some SSA continued. Africa Command (AFRICOM) Commander Gen. Thomas Waldhauser explained before Congress that the BIR [Rapid Intervention Battalion, Cameroon’s elite military force] “[has] been a good partner with us counterterrorism-wise,” but allowed that “you can’t neglect . . . alleged atrocities.” In other words, even when US government officials acknowledge that a recipient of SSA has committed atrocities, they often justify maintaining the relationship as worthwhile for counterterrorism purposes.

Congress should assert its oversight power over the executive branch when SSA undermines long-term US interests.

The past decade of US policy towards Mali further illustrates the flaws of the United States’ approach to SSA. The leader of a coup against the Malian government in 2012 had received US military training, but support continued to security forces there under the justification that it was needed for regional stability. Eight years later, Col. Assimi Goita, who had also received US-led training and worked for several years alongside US Special Operations Forces fighting extremists in West Africa, would lead another coup in the country. Despite evidence that SSA often has a counterproductive impact on stability and counterterrorism goals, DoS and DoD continue to execute these programs under the justification of advancing US interests.

These examples highlight how several US administrations have taken advantage of loopholes in the Leahy law, continuing to provide SSA while ignoring evidence of recipient security institutions’ failures to foster peace and respect human rights. Thus, contrary to its stated objective, and in the absence of serious due diligence, SSA too often undermines US interests and fosters instability by contributing to civilian grievances, which armed nonstate groups exploit to gain support for their cause. Congressional oversight is critical for checking executive power when SSA programs are undermining longer-term US interests.

Congress has previously halted SSA in the face of clear evidence of GVHR. The case of Myanmar demonstrates how Congress can proactively prevent US complicity in human-rights abuses. In 2017, following the abuses of the Rohingya people in Myanmar, DoS invoked the Leahy law and stipulated that all forces involved in operations in Rakhine state, where the abuses took place, would not be eligible for US assistance. That was as far as DoS could go under the law, but Congress stepped in and passed the Asia Reassurance Initiative Act of 2018, which among other things barred IMET assistance and military financing to Myanmar from 2019 to 2023. The Myanmar military, the Tatmadaw, later massacred protesters and overthrew the elected government. Had the Obama and Trump administrations followed recommendations to provide SSA to the Tatmadaw, or had Congress passed a proposed bipartisan bill to do so, Washington would have at least been implicated in, and might have exacerbated, the abuses that later occurred.

What is the solution?

The United States should not disregard the failures and shortcomings of its current SSA strategy because it fears losing influence in recipient countries while rivals increase theirs—an argument that has already been debunked. Instead, it should engage in a bolder type of security engagement that relies more on civilian participation, which will help to bolster the reform of security institutions.

1 Prioritize innovative assistance and institutional reform. SSA is often seen as a tool to increase US influence in partner countries, despite the dearth of evidence indicating that it has had that effect. A 2016 RAND analysis found that while SSA from the United States has somewhat reduced global levels of fragility, security assistance to weak and autocratic states has had no impact on stability in those countries. Considering this, SSA meant to help address security crises and support democracy and human rights should be part of a larger suite of assistance programs that focus on advancing the rule of law, strengthening civilian control of security forces, and building stronger civil societies that can ensure democratic oversight of the security sector. DoS already provides limited funding for community-level civilian initiatives that monitor and provide nontraditional security responses to early indicators of conflicts. These initiatives may involve mediation, dispute-resolution mechanisms, or dialogue channels with state authorities—measures that aim to de-escalate tensions and prevent them from turning into a full-blown conflict. Government officials should promote these nontraditional approaches to security, which favor greater civilian participation and address the root causes of crises.

2 Assert congressional authority. The Leahy law has sometimes produced beneficial results, but, as currently written, it allows SSA to be administered without effective oversight. Stronger enforcement is needed. Congress should invest more in effectively monitoring SSA programs and require more detailed and precise reporting from the DoS, DoD, and other agencies involved in providing SSA. The objective of this reporting should be to demonstrate outcomes and impact that align with program goals. In general, the US government should dedicate more resources to developing expertise in SSA program development and in recipient countries’ contexts, enhancing monitoring and evaluation, and building intra- and inter-agency coordination. All levels involved in administering SSA should commit to better vetting of recipients and design assistance programs that are less likely to lead to abuses and are more likely to achieve core SSA goals.

3 Adopt a “do-no-harm” approach to SSA. SSA programs should be conflict-sensitive, integrating the do-no-harm principle to ensure that US assistance does not exacerbate or prolong a conflict. The principle—which is widely acknowledged as a major component of peacebuilding, humanitarian assistance, and development aid—can be an additional safeguard for SSA. Under this approach, DoS and DoD would strive to anticipate the potential negative impacts of security programs on a country’s political, social, and military systems and take mitigation measures to avoid such outcomes during the design phase. This also requires taking into consideration the existing dysfunctions of the target institutions. For its part, Congress should exert its oversight through the do-no-harm lens when assessing new SSA programs before appropriating funds. This would ensure accountability and prevent potentially harmful initiatives from being implemented.

4 Commit to grassroots programming over the long term. In addition to following the do-no-harm principle and approaching security at a community level, programs should be based on sound analysis and have well-defined objectives supported by realistic theories of change. This requires that US agencies rely more extensively on institutional and civilian experts in target countries. These individuals can provide a sound understanding of context, including the history of the relevant security institutions and how to best support them. Additionally, DoS should change its budgetary approach, moving from single-year budgeting to multi-year programming, to facilitate a sustained commitment to aid recipients and foster institutional change.

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