WASHINGTON, July 29, 2013 — As it continues to proclaim its commitment to human rights and democracy abroad, the Obama administration is openly trying to circumvent U.S. laws prohibiting military support for foreign security forces that routinely commit human rights violations.
Earlier this month, the Obama administration announced its decision to directly send weapons to the rebel fighters in Syria; a departure from standing policies that authorized direct military training of select rebels and the delivery of arms from countries like Saudi Arabia and Qatar via the CIA.
The president claims the arms will only be delivered to “vetted” rebel groups, avoiding the hundreds of other rebel factions said by United Nations investigators to have committed war crimes. But it’s virtually impossible to funnel weapons into a chaotic civil war without them getting into the wrong hands.
Milton Bearden, a 30-year CIA veteran who oversaw the $3 billion covert program to arm the Afghan mujahideen against the Soviets told Foreign Policy that the Obama administration should beware. “If you [arm the rebels], don’t try to convince yourself that you’re in control,” he said.
Bearden explained that “once you begin arming any rebellion that involves fractious parties in the same rebellion against a common enemy, you’ve got to understand that the materials you give to the group of your choice will be sold, traded, bartered to most of the other players.”
This makes it difficult for the Obama administration to abide by the spirit of the Leahy Law, given that many of Syria’s rebel groups have engaged in torture, extra-judicial killings, and mutilation of the dead. The leading rebel groups have close ties to al-Qaeda groups.
Enacted in 1997, the so-called Leahy Amendment, named after its author Senator Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., makes it illegal for the U.S. to arm or train foreign militaries credibly accused of human rights violations. While the law hasn’t stopped all U.S. support for atrocities, it is an eminently reasonable measure that now the Obama administration wants to do away with.
Adm. William McRaven, who heads the Special Operations Command, told The New York Times recently that the law “has restricted us in a number of countries across the globe in our ability to train units that we think need to be trained.”
The U.S. has a long history of supporting extreme brutality, even genocide, through unsavory proxy militias. And now, as the Obama administration is increasing its support for fighters in places like Syria, Honduras and Nigeria, Washington is looking to revive that storied pastime.
The Kennedy administration, for example, supported a military coup to overthrow the democratically elected government of Brazil. Once the military regime was established, it unleashed a campaign of repression, torture, and mass killings, actions for which they were rewarded with increased U.S. support.
Similar stories came out of the Nixon administration, which was connected to military coups and the subsequent plagues of state terrorism in Chile and Argentina. Henry Kissinger, secretary of state at the time, famously told the Argentinian military junta to finish up its “dirty war,” in which tens of thousands of civilians were ultimately killed, before Congress had a chance to cut military aid.
The Carter administration was the first to lend American support for criminal militias in El Salvador, a policy that was quickly ramped up by President Reagan. In just one minor glimpse of the U.S.-backed terror, in 1981 Salvadoran forces massacred more than 900 innocent peasants after torturing and raping many of the women.
In a rare break from the Reagan administration’s persistent denials of any human rights violations by U.S.-backed forces, the U.S. ambassador to El Salvador, Deane Hinton said in 1982 that since 1979 “as many as 30,000 Salvadorans have been murdered - not killed in battle, murdered.”
A Senate inquiry in 1984 found that “significant political violence – including death squad activities – has been associated with elements of the Salvadoran security establishment.”
Reagan also ramped up another Carter administration policy of arming and training death squads in Nicaragua. The Contra rebels, receiving enthusiastic U.S. support, were accused of kidnapping and torturing civilians, executing civilians caught in combat, assassinating health care workers, mass rape, and systematically burning civilian homes. And that was just for starters.
One Sandinista militiaman fighting the Contras at the time described their brutality in detail to the Guardian: “Rosa had her breasts cut off. Then they cut into her chest and took out her heart. The men had their arms broken, their testicles cut off. They were killed by slitting their throats and pulling the tongue out through the slit.”
The Gipper was so committed to the Contra rebels in Nicaragua that he secretly sold weapons to Iran and used the proceeds to fund the Contras, despite congressional legislation prohibiting such support.
It was with this history in mind that Senator Leahy pushed through legislation barring the U.S. from providing training or equipment to foreign forces that commit “gross human rights violations.”
The law isn’t perfect: it does not apply to drug enforcement and non-Defense Department counterterrorism assistance. These technicalities have allowed the government to consistently violate the spirit of the law and support foreign troops that commit atrocities, as Clinton did in Colombia under the pretext of fighting the drug war.
President Obama, wary of his predecessor’s legacy of military quagmires in Iraq and Afghanistan, has been increasing support for these kinds of unscrupulous proxies.
Washington’s support for Honduran security forces has skyrocketed since the coup there in 2009. U.S. troops have been working closely with Honduran police in training and weapons procurement, even as reports of extra-judicial killings, disappearances and other human rights abuses have increased.
The Associated Press reported in March that, “in the last three years, Honduran prosecutors have received as many as 150 formal complaints about death squad-style killings” by forces under the command of Juan Carlos Bonilla, a police chief with a record of human rights violations.
“Since early 2010,” writes Dana Frank in a piece at Foreign Affairs, ”there have been more than 10,000 complaints of human rights abuses by [U.S. funded and trained] state security forces,” and “in many ways, Washington is responsible for this dismal turn.”
And it doesn’t end with the war on drugs. In northern Africa, the Obama administration is trying to fight a proxy war to curb the growing al-Qaeda presence in the region (which was triggered in part by the NATO war in Libya that collapsed the Gadhafi regime and flooded the area with foreign jihadists). The U.S. is trying to step up support for thousands of Nigerian soldiers, but the Leahy law is getting in the way.
Any nation that purports to have the slightest respect for democracy and human rights ought to have the decency to refrain from using taxpayer money to arm and train foreign militias that commit war crimes. The Obama administration’s eagerness to do away with such restrictions speaks volumes about what values it actually holds dear.
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