State Department’s Human Rights Reports and Their Failures

Jordan Cohen

In March 2023, the State Department released their annual “Country Reports on Human Rights Practices.” While these reports do provide useful information about individual countries’ human rights practices that allow for better policy research, analysis, and implementation, they do little to stop human rights abusers from receiving U.S. aid. Considering a recipient’s human rights record before sending military assistance is important as states who violate human rights tend to go to war more frequently, face risks of political instability, and are the most likely to disperse U.S. weapons to terrorists and other international criminals. Thus, the limited impact of these State Department reports on who receives military aid hurts U.S. security interests.

The main way that the U.S. government regulates military aid is through the ”Leahy Laws.” These laws attempt to prevent U.S. security assistance from going to units who will use it to abuse human rights or use the weapons in ways inconsistent with U.S. foreign policy goals. The laws were passed in the wake of multiple reports that revealed that then President Bill Clinton was arming Colombian police forces who used U.S. weapons to violate human rights. These violations mobilized enough public opposition to give then‐​Senator Patrick Leahy the support and political cover to pass this legislation.

The overall point of the Leahy Laws is to prohibit Washington from sending military assistance to individual military and police units in foreign countries if there is “credible” evidence that a member of that “unit” committed “gross violations of human rights.” The Leahy Laws also dictate how frequently the State and Defense Departments must evaluate units, stop assistance to violators, and determine when aid can be resumed. Unfortunately, this language also means that countries that abuse human rights can still receive weapons, as long as the banned units are not the recipient.

The Leahy Laws do not do enough to prevent human rights violations because they are simply not designed to end weapons transfers to human rights abusers. Rather, these laws serve to provide the political and bureaucratic cover that ensures the well‐​known human rights abusing units do not receive weapons and training, while also allowing arms transfers to continue to countries where those units are located.

There are several reasons that explain why the State Department’s Country Reports on Human Rights Practices do not inform the Leahy Laws. The first is that the Leahy Laws require vetting of units, not countries. When former Senator Patrick Leahy (D‑VT) introduced the laws to a Republican‐​led Congress in the mid‐​1990s, he had to appease congressional Republicans who wanted to continue aiding the Colombian police in their war on drugs. Unfortunately, this means that Leahy vetting can only stop military aid to individual units, not entire countries. Consequently, U.S. weapons can end up in dangerous hands if vetting is not properly conducted, even if there are widespread problems within a country’s military or police forces.

Moreover, the vetting process itself is difficult as some units do not grossly violate human rights until they receive U.S. weapons; access to assess units is provided by the government; documents confirming a specific unit’s human rights violations are often difficult – if not impossible – to receive; Leahy vetting does not apply to civilian harm from conflict; and finally, until December 2022, the U.S. government could not specify which units received the aid. In other words, Leahy vetting remains an imperfect and flawed way to prevent human rights abusers from receiving U.S. weapons.

One clear example is the Philippines. In this year’s Country Report on Human Rights Practices for the Philippines, the State Department notes that there were “credible reports” of the Filipino police forces conducting “unlawful or arbitrary killings,” “forced disappearances,” “torture,” “unlawful recruitment of child soldiers,” and “lack of investigation of and accountability for gender‐​based violence.” Given the endemic nature of these problems, one would assume that there would be restrictions on U.S. security assistance to the Philippines, yet the country received over $54 million in security sector assistance in 2022 alone and recently negotiated a ten‐​year plan for more.

Thus, it is no surprise that countries like the Philippines simultaneously receive significant criticism in the State Department’s human rights reports and massive amounts of military assistance. To a certain degree, the system works. The problem is that the “working system” encourages the United States to send military equipment to human rights abusers.

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