WASHINGTON – This week, U.S. Senator Ben Cardin (D-Md.), Chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) sent a letter to Secretary of Defense Lloyd Austin expressing their concern that the Department of Defense (DoD) is providing assistance for human rights abusers and coup governments to participate in U.S. military exercises, while ignoring the requirements of U.S. statute – the “Leahy Law” – to ensure military forces receiving such assistance are not themselves human rights abusers.

Every year, DoD conducts joint military training exercises with foreign government military forces, and frequently provides funding support to those countries to defray the expenses of attending these military exercises. Many of these countries are subject to coup-related assistance restrictions or are gross human rights violators, such as Myanmar, Azerbaijan, and Sudan. DoD does not consider such training exercises, or support to defray expenses of attendance, to be “assistance” under the Leahy Law, when both clearly are U.S. assistance.

In response to Chair Cardin and Senator Warren’s inquires and engagement, DoD has suspended training exercises with a group of select countries flagged by the Senators, but concerns remain regarding the use of taxpayer funds on other countries sanctioned for coups and human rights violations. Accordingly, Chair Cardin and Senator Warren are calling on DoD to subject statutory Leahy vetting to foreign security force units receiving assistance pursuant to Section 321.

“The Leahy Law is clear: if the United States provides assistance to foreign countries, recipient military units must be scrutinized for human rights abuses before receiving such assistance,” said Chair Cardin. “I am concerned that not only has the Department of Defense invited countries sanctioned for coups against their elected governments and nations with abysmal human rights records, but has also provided U.S. taxpayer dollars and support for them to attend – all without Leahy vetting. The Leahy Laws exist for a reason; to ensure that U.S. military assistance does not enable or reward human rights abusers. DoD cannot disregard or dismiss this responsibility.”

“Training operations shouldn’t be used as a backdoor to prop up militaries who wouldn’t pass our human rights vetting,” said Senator Warren. “It violates the law and our values to fund and support countries with egregious human rights records.”

As reported exclusively by Abigail Hauslohner of the Washington Post, a Pentagon spokesperson shared that “joint exercises whose ‘primary purpose’ is to enhance U.S. forces’ capability ‘are not considered assistance’ and do not require Leahy vetting. Cardin and Warren state in their letter to Austin that such a view ‘ignores’ the fact federal funds are underwriting the participation of problematic units in joint exercises, ‘as well as the obvious benefits to such foreign forces.’ Leahy vetting should apply, they contend.”

Click here to read Abigail Hauslohner’s Washington Post article.

Full text of the letter is available below.

Dear Secretary Austin:

We write to express our concern about the participation of and U.S. support for certain foreign security force units in military exercises with U.S. forces. First, the Department of Defense (DoD) has invited units from several countries with significant human rights and rule of law concerns—some of which are subject to U.S. coup-related sanctions—to participate in U.S. military training exercises and thereby receive the benefit of training with U.S. forces. Second, DoD does not conduct Leahy vetting of such foreign security force units, even when DoD uses U.S. taxpayer dollars to enable the participation of those units in the exercises.

As outlined in an annual notification to Congress, the U.S. military exercises that occurred in FY2023 and are planned for Fiscal Year 2024 have included countries with egregious human rights records, such as Mali, Sudan, Burkina Faso, Azerbaijan, and even Myanmar. Further, the Department’s notification states that these countries are considered “participating friendly foreign countries” and therefore entitled to thousands of dollars of U.S. assistance under 10 U.S.C § 321 to assist them with expenses to facilitate their participation in these exercises.

As you know, when U.S. appropriated funds are provided to foreign security forces, such assistance triggers a statutory requirement under Title 22 and Title 10 to conduct Leahy vetting, or human rights vetting, of such units. Specifically, 10 U.S.C § 362 includes the following requirement (bold emphasis added):

(a) In General.—

(1) Of the amounts made available to the Department of Defense, none may be used for any training, equipment, or other assistance for a unit of a foreign security force if the Secretary of Defense has credible information that the unit has committed a gross violation of human rights.

(2) The Secretary of Defense shall, in consultation with the Secretary of State, ensure that prior to a decision to provide any training, equipment, or other assistance to a unit of a foreign security force full consideration is given to any credible information available to the Department of State relating to human rights violations by such unit. 

The statute clearly prohibits any training or other assistance to a foreign security force unit if there is credible information that such unit has committed a gross violation of human rights. However, while DoD acknowledges that Leahy vetting must be conducted for the provision of other U.S.-funded assistance to foreign security force units, such as the capacity-building program authorized by 10 U.S.C § 333, according to DoD officials, such vetting is not done for foreign security force units participating in U.S. military exercises.

The Department of Defense contends that Leahy vetting of foreign security units is not required for military exercises with U.S. forces because it does not involve the provision of training or other assistance to foreign security forces, because they are primarily for the benefit of U.S. personnel. This view ignores that U.S. federal funds are being used to facilitate those units’ participation in these exercises, as well as the obvious benefits to such foreign forces.

We therefore request that DoD not invite foreign security force units to U.S. military exercises from the aforementioned countries, or countries in which the duly elected government has been deposed by coup d’etat. We further request that foreign security force units receiving assistance pursuant to Section 321 are subject to Leahy vetting, as required by law.

We look forward to your response to these requests.

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