July 12, 2022

Van Hollen, Jacobs Introduce Legislation to Expand Human Rights Vetting for Security Cooperation Programs

Upholding Human Rights Abroad Act would close a loophole in human rights vetting in Pentagon security cooperation programs

Today, Senator Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) and Congresswoman Sara Jacobs (D-Calif.-53) introduced the Upholding Human Rights Abroad Act, legislation to close loopholes in the Leahy Laws, conduct needed oversight of Pentagon security cooperation programs, and ensure that the United States does not provide security assistance to human rights violators under two key Department of Defense funding authorities. The lawmakers’ Upholding Human Rights Abroad Act would also increase transparency and expand reporting requirements to bolster oversight.

While U.S. law prohibits the provision of security assistance to recipients that have been found to have committed gross violations of human rights – known as the Leahy Law – concerning loopholes remain. Specifically, two security cooperation programs under the Department of Defense – “Section 127 echo” and “Section 1202” – are not subject to human rights vetting. The Upholding Human Rights Abroad Act closes this loophole.   

“No matter what part of the world we are operating in, the U.S. should conduct our missions in ways that protect and support human rights,” said Senator Van Hollen. “But for too long, legal loopholes have allowed the Department of Defense to bypass proper vetting, reporting, and oversight protocols when providing other nations or groups with certain types of military assistance. I’m proud to introduce this legislation with Congresswoman Jacobs to close these gaps in order to promote human rights abroad and give Americans confidence that their tax dollars are strengthening our national security, not supporting bad actors.” 

“Upholding human rights in our security assistance is essential to U.S. leadership on the world stage,”said Congresswoman Jacobs. “I am proud to introduce the Upholding Human Rights Abroad Act with Senator Van Hollen. Human rights vetting is an essential part of how we engage with other countries, but over the last several years Section 127e and Section 1202 have skirted these vetting requirements and, in some cases, been used with partners who have consistently violated human rights. United States support for unvetted human rights abusers is not only deeply immoral and irresponsible, it is also counterproductive, leading to more unrest, instability, and terrorist activity.” 

“The purpose of the Leahy Law is to prevent U.S. assistance from supporting units of foreign security forces that violate human rights,” said Senator Leahy. “Yet the Pentagon has not applied this standard to certain security cooperation programs with foreign forces. The Pentagon should have closed this loophole on its own initiative. The Upholding Human Rights Abroad Act will ensure that the Leahy Law is applied uniformly, so foreign partners are vetted and those who violate human rights are excluded from these programs.” 

Senator Van Hollen is a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and Chair of the Africa and Global Health Policy Subcommittee. Congresswoman Jacobs is a member of the House Armed Services Committee and the House Foreign Affairs Committee. This legislation is co-led by Senators Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) and Richard Durbin (D-Ill.) in the Senate and Congressmen Tom Malinowski (D-N.J.-7), Joaquin Castro (D-Texas-20), and Jason Crow (D-Colo.-06) in the House.

"Secretive security cooperation programs like so-called 127e and 1202 run serious risks of US support for violations of human rights and international humanitarian law. Yet for too long, the Pentagon has exempted these programs from legally required human rights due diligence and vetting. This critical legislation would close that loophole and help ensure that US funding and assistance does not support grave abuses in the name of national security,” said Annie Shiel, Senior Advisor for the United States, Center for Civilians in Conflict (CIVIC)

“As a matter of both moral values and national security, the United States must avoid supporting foreign forces that abuse human rights and violate international humanitarian law.  This legislation will close an important loophole by ensuring that the Pentagon considers a foreign military’s human rights record before providing weapons and training to combat terrorism,” said Diana Ohlbaum, Legislative Director for Foreign Policy, Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL).

"The Upholding Human Rights Abroad Act is an important step toward ensuring that the United States is not using taxpayer dollars to fund or support gross violations of human rights in other countries under the guise of U.S. 'national security',” said Daphne Eviatar, Director, Security with Human Rights, Amnesty International USA.

The US government has the responsibility to vet recipients of its security assistance for serious human rights abuses,” said Sarah Yager, Washington Director at Human Rights Watch. “If enacted, the Upholding Human Rights Abroad Act would fill dangerous and longtime gaps in the monumental Leahy Laws, which govern US vetting of security assistance recipients. The act would strengthen protections to ensure the United States is not partnering with those implicated in violations of human rights and international humanitarian law.”

“For far too long, overly broad laws have allowed US troops to be deployed to conflicts and security cooperation missions around the globe without sufficient congressional oversight. Advancing US security means working with partners who are committed to upholding US values -- not violating human rights and undermining democracy. And we need far better oversight over programs like 127e that can lead to US servicemembers getting caught in hostilities and losing their lives, as four warriors did in the ambush in Tongo Tongo, Niger, five years ago. The Upholding Human Rights Abroad Act is an important step in reestablishing Congress’s oversight role and upholding US values in our national security policies, and we are proud to support it," said Mary Kaszynski, Director of Government Relations, VoteVets. 

Upholding Human Rights Abroad Bill TextSection by Section

U.S. law permits the Secretary of Defense to expend up to $100 million per year to provide support to partners who facilitate or support authorized U.S. special operations forces to combat terrorism. According to open-source reporting, this authority has been used to conduct operations in Somalia, Libya, Kenya, Tunisia, Cameroon, Mali, Mauritania, and Niger – all of which have had serious concerns raised in the State Department’s Country Reports on Human Rights Practices for years.

The Upholding Human Rights Abroad Act would close this loophole in the Leahy Law so that we are not providing funding or support to recipients that have committed human rights violations or violations of international humanitarian law.

Specifically, the Upholding Human Rights Abroad Act would:

  • Require the Department of Defense to create processes and report on steps taken to ensure recipients of both Section 127e and Section 1202 programs have not committed gross violations of human rights
  • Require the Department of Defense to conduct Leahy human rights vetting for both Section 127e and Section 1202 potential recipients
  • Expand reporting requirements to include an assessment of how Section 127e and Section 1202 programs advance U.S. national security priorities and aligns with other U.S. Government efforts in the countries of recipients
  • Consistent with Section 1202, clarify that Section 127e does not authorize the introduction of US armed forces into hostilities, U.S. Special Operations that are not otherwise authorized, or activities that are inconsistent with the laws of armed conflict

This legislation is supported by: Center for Civilians in Conflict, Friends Committee on National Legislation, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International USA, VoteVets, Project on Middle East Democracy (POMED), National Religious Campaign Against Torture, Center for International Policy, Government Information Watch, Center for Constitutional Rights, Brennan Center for Justice, Oxfam America, DAWN, SaferWorld, InterAction, Women’s Action for New Directions, American Friends Service Committee, Win Without War, and the NYU School of Law Global Justice Clinic.* 

*Disclaimer: This communication does not purport to represent the institutional views, if any, of New York University.