“Leahy Law” Human Rights Provisions and Security Assistance


Congressional interest in the laws and processes involved in conditioning U.S. assistance to foreign security forces on human rights grounds has grown in recent years, especially as U.S. Administrations have increased emphasis on expanding U.S. partnerships and building partnership capacity with foreign military and other security forces. Congress has played an especially prominent role in initiating, amending, supporting with resources, and overseeing implementation of long-standing laws on human rights provisions affecting U.S. security assistance.

First sponsored in the late 1990s by Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), the “Leahy laws” (sometimes referred to as the “Leahy amendments”) are currently manifest in two places. One is Section 620M of the Foreign Assistance Act of 1961 (FAA), as amended, which prohibits the furnishing of assistance authorized by the FAA and the Arms Export Control Act to any foreign security force unit where there is credible information that the unit has committed a gross violation of human rights. The second is a recurring provision in annual defense appropriations, newly expanded by the FY2014 Department of Defense (DOD) appropriations bill as contained in the Consolidated Appropriations Act, 2014 (P.L. 113-76), to align its scope with that of the FAA provision. (Prior DOD appropriations measures had applied the prohibition to support for any training program, as defined by DOD, but not to other forms of DOD assistance.) As they currently stand, the FAA and DOD provisions are similar but not identical. Over the years, they have been subject to changes to more closely align their language, most recently with the expansion of scope enacted in the FY2014 DOD appropriations law. Nevertheless, some differences remain.

Implementation of Leahy vetting involves a complex process in the State Department and U.S. embassies overseas that determines which foreign security individuals and units are eligible to receive U.S. assistance or training. Beginning in 2010, the State Department has utilized a computerized system called the International Vetting and Security Tracking (INVEST) system, which has facilitated a major increase in the number of individuals and units vetted (some 160,000 in FY2012). Congress supports Leahy vetting operations through a directed allocation of funds in State Department appropriations.

The Leahy laws touch upon many issues of interest to Congress. These range from current vetting practices and implementation (involving human rights standards, relations and policy objectives with specific countries, remediation mechanisms, and inter-office and inter-agency coordination, among other issues), to legislative efforts to increase alignment between the Foreign Assistance Act and DOD restrictions, to levels and forms of resources dedicated to conduct vetting. More broadly, overarching policy questions persist about the utility and desirability of applying the Leahy laws, and whether there is sometimes a conflict between promoting respect for human rights and furthering other national interests.

Acts Defined as Gross Violations of Human Rights

FAA Section 502B(d)(1) (22 U.S.C. 2340(d)(I) states, “the term ‘gross violations of internationally recognized human rights’ includes torture or cruel, inhuman, or degrading treatment or punishment, prolonged detention without charges and trial, causing the disappearance of persons by the abduction and clandestine detention of those persons, and other flagrant denial of the right to life, liberty, or the security of person.” According to the State Department, extrajudicial killings are encompassed by this definition, and Leahy vetting also screens for politically motivated rape.

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