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'Leahy Law,' Nigeria Crisis Focus of House Hearing

Press Release

Location: Washington, DC

Helping the Nigerian government in its fight against the notorious terror group called Boko Haram was the topic of a House hearing held Thursdayby U.S. Rep. Chris Smith (NJ-04), chairman of the Africa and global human rights subcommittee.

"Boko Haram has significantly accelerated its acts of mass murder and abduction in Nigeria, requiring a more robust and effective response from the Government of Nigeria and friends like the United States," said Smith, who has traveled to Nigeria twice in the past year. "If individuals or elements of a larger force are guilty of human rights violations, entire battalions or regiments can be tainted unless the guilty are identified and separated out from those forces that are innocent of such crimes. The Leahy laws allow for the re-creation of "clean' units. On the surface, it would seem that such a policy is clear and possible to implement. Unfortunately, it seems not to be so simple in practice.

"I believe the so-called Leahy laws are necessary components of a prudent human rights policy, and today's hearing is intended to find out whether there are legitimate obstacles to their implementation," Smith said. "Where they exist, we seek to identify these obstacles and eliminate them." Click here to read the chairman's opening statement.

Since the 1990s, a requirement to providing training, better known as the Leahy laws, is intended to prevent the United States government from assisting foreign military/security forces involved in human rights violations. The Leahy laws cover material assistance, including equipment, and training and requires investigation of allegations of human rights violations by military and security forces, including police. These investigations, performed mostly by the Department of State, require details on not only individuals, but also military units. Delays or inability to obtain such information as name and date and place of birth can indefinitely stall an investigation.

The hearing, entitled "Human Rights Vetting: Nigeria and Beyond," featured five witnesses (click on the name to read the witnesses written testimony): Col. Peter Aubrey, U.S. Army (RET), Former Director, Security Cooperation for United States Army, Africa, and the Defense and Army Attaché to the Federal Republic of the Nigeria, and current President of Strategic Opportunities International; Lauren Ploch Blanchard, Specialist in African Affairs at the Congressional Research Service, and analyst on African political, military and diplomatic affairs, and on U.S. policy in the region; Elisa Massimino, President and Chief Executive Officer, Human Rights First; Stephen Rickard, Director, Washington Office, Open Society Foundations, founder of the Freedom Investment Project to encourage U.S. support for international justice, former director of the Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Center for Human Rights and Washington director for Amnesty International USA; Sarah Margon, Washington Director Human Rights Watch.

Smith held a hearing on Nigeria in November 2013 featuring the U.S. Assistant Secretary of State and head of the Bureau of African Affairs. The congressman visited the country in September 2013 and June 2014, and is the sponsor of the ""Boko Haram Terrorist Designation Act of 2013,''H.Res. 3209. The State Department agreed to make the declaration at the November 13, 2013, House hearing chaired by Smith.

"We cannot engage and professionalize a force if it has committed or has been accused of committing actions we find objectionable. Of course, that means that we will not have the opportunity to insert ourselves in professionalization efforts for the force in question or help eradicate that behavior or action we find objectionable or rapidly help in moments of crisis," said Aubrey. "Despite its noble intent, there is a negative side to these provisions. Cumbersome, time consuming validation and vetting of local national forces ensure that a rapid response to emergency training requirements will not occur."

Blanchard said Nigeria provides an example of the challenges U.S. policymakers face in building foreign counterterrorism capacities. "By many accounts, developing countries like Nigeria that are struggling with terrorist threats may desperately need the specialized skills and support that U.S. security assistance is designed to provide," she said.

Massimino noted Smith came to Congress at about the same time that Human Rights First was established, and both been working together ever since. She stressed that human rights should remain among the highest of priorities in U.S. foreign policy. She said human rights vetting requirements like the Leahy Laws--are critical to U.S. leadership.

"No one in the Congress--and very few outside of it--can match your passion and persistence," Massimino said. "You are a constant reminder to your colleagues that respect for human rights is not only the right thing to do; it's the smart thing, too."

Rickard said that he viewed the Leahy Laws as "common sense laws" that prohibit the United States Government from arming or providing military training to security force and police units abroad who have been credibly alleged to have committed gross human rights violations.

"The Leahy Laws don't actually prohibit the U.S. from working with even these units -- the ones that have committed murder and torture, Rickard said. "It only says that the U.S. cannot arm or train them until the foreign government takes steps to clean up the unit."

Margon said the Leahy Law is a key tool to address security force abuse in Nigeria -- and elsewhere.

"I am very pleased this subcommittee is taking a closer look at human rights vetting, otherwise known as the "Leahy Law,' and its application," Margon said. "Simply put, the Leahy Law is an important means to ensure that the US does not become complicit in grave human rights abuses abroad and that it upholds its international legal obligations. In and of itself, this would be a laudable goal. But it also makes sense within the larger foreign policy context since militaries that commit abuses can also exacerbate long-standing grievances, escalate atrocities, foment political instability, and provide abusive armed opposition groups and terrorist organizations with a very powerful recruiting tool."

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