What Happens When U.S.-Backed Regimes Are Accused of Abuse


September 9, 2014

The U.S. has been vocal about its efforts to reign in aggressive Nigerian security forces in their pursuit of the homegrown terrorist group Boko Haram.  Secretary of State John Kerry has called publicly for investigations. President Barack Obama reportedly raised the issue directly with President Goodluck Jonathan. Jonathan, in a letter obtained by the Nigerian press, told Obama later that he had instructed his forces to obey the rule of law and avoid operations that might harm civilians.

The U.S. government is prohibited from funding groups or units when credible allegations of human-rights abuses have been made against them. That’s one of the reasons the U.S. doesn’t provide as much aid as it might to Nigeria, even amid the international outcry when Boko Haram kidnapped nearly 300 schoolgirls, officials have said. This year, the U.S. gave the country $5 million in military aid.

“We cannot ignore that Nigeria can be an incredibly challenging partner to work with,” Alice Friend, the DOD’s top Africa official, told the Senate foreign relations committee in May. “As we have advised the Nigerians, consistent with U.S. law and policy, we review security force units who may receive assistance, and we do not provide assistance when we have credible information that they have committed gross violations of human rights,” she continued.

But Nigeria is hardly the only African country the U.S. assists whose security forces have been accused of committing abuses in the fight against terrorism. In East Africa, where the U.S. invests more aid than anywhere else in sub-Saharan Africa, the key players been accused of serious human-rights violations for years, often in their fight against the Somali militant group al Shabaab, which has pledged allegiance to Al Qaeda. Despite its sometimes vocal criticism of these countries, the U.S. continues to provide considerable funding. This year alone, the U.S. gave $77 million in military aid to East African nations.

The Leahy Laws

The U.S. is prohibited from funding a unit of a foreign country’s security forces if there is “credible information” that it committed “a gross violation of human rights,” according to two provisions known together as the Leahy laws. State Department funding, including for training or equipment, must be held back until it can be determined that the foreign government is working to address the problem; and DOD funding until the foreign government has taken “all necessary steps” to correct the problem, unless it receives a waiver under “extraordinary circumstances.”

Embassies are responsible for vetting security forces the U.S. might arm or train. But there’s no apparent guideline for how to conduct the checks, and not all embassies have the staff or funding to do so comprehensively, according to a January analysis by the Congressional Research Service (CRS).

That means the laws are applied with little consistency. For example, the State Department’s Inspector General’s Office found that in 2012, the Nairobi embassy was vetting candidates by checking their names against a dated human rights report. Even then, there was no way to ensure that the candidates who were cleared were the ones who actually received the training.

Almost all of the names submitted for vetting are approved, the CRS report found. Denials are issued about 1 percent of the time — or less.

Another factor in how quickly the U.S. suspends or denies funding may be how important a particular country or mission is to U.S. interests, said Leslie Lefkow, Human Rights Watch’s deputy director for Africa, who has helped document abuse allegations in East Africa.

“Will they say that they can only act when they have precise names of all the perpetrators? Or the fact that the unit as such has committed not just one but a pattern of cases — should that be enough to trigger suspension to the whole unit?” she said. “This is where we see sometimes differences, depending on the embassy, the country, the broader relationship. What level of information is deemed sufficient to act?”

The government is working to improve its information-gathering process, setting up an online portal to better collect anonymous, confidential reports on human-rights abuses, which is scheduled to go online this year, according to the CRS report.

A State Department official told FRONTLINE in an email that the U.S. condemns human rights abuses by security forces and does “all we can” to verify such reports. “Each situation has its own unique elements,” said the official, who spoke only on background. “Not all allegations are proven true, but for those that are, we cut further assistance to such individuals or units until the perpetrators are held accountable.”

The official said such allegations also undermine their counterterrorism efforts. “As we have sadly seen in too many instances around the world, heavy-handed and indiscriminate actions against vulnerable communities can fuel new grievances and enable terrorist groups to gain new recruits and facilitators.”

The Fight Against al Shabaab

Once a local fundamentalist group, al Shabaab has become a regional threat that ruthlessly targets civilians in Somalia and increasingly, neighboring countries. It set off deadly twin explosions at a restaurant and bar in Uganda in 2010, killing more than 70 people. In Kenya last year, Shabaab militants stormed an upscale shopping mall in the Kenyan capital, Nairobi, killing more than 60 others.  This summer, they massacred roughly 60 people in two Kenyan coastal towns near the Somali border.

East African security forces have been ruthless in their response.

For several years, Kenyan security forces, elements of both the military and police, have been accused of rape, torture, beatings and arbitrary detention of ethnic Somalis — who are often widely stereotyped as al Shabaab supporters — by human-rights groups. The U.S. has bolstered its military aid to the country since last year, providing nearly $40 million overall in 2014.

In August, Human Rights Watch released a report that Kenya’s anti-terrorism police unit, to whom the U.S. provided $9 million in funding in 2012 alone, may have engaged in torture and targeted extrajudicial killings of terrorism suspects. Sometimes, the unit said the suspects were killed in a firefight, though there was no evidence of a shoot out. In one case, a man who had been under investigation by the unit went missing. His badly mutilated body was found one month later, in a sewage ditch.

The State Department told FRONTLINE it takes the allegations “very seriously” and urged Kenyan authorities to investigate. It also said it has suspended training for “individuals from some units in Kenya” found to have committed abuses, but didn’t elaborate further.

Ethiopia has a long history of military confrontations with neighboring Somalia, and with it, a record of human-rights abuses. In 2010, the U.N. cited the government’s “routine use of torture” by members of the security forces, not only against suspected terrorists but also political dissidents and students.

In recent military operations within Somalia, Amnesty International noted in 2013 reports of extrajudicial killings, torture and arbitrary detention by Ethiopian troops and allied militias. Although U.S. military funding for Ethiopia has declined significantly since 2010, it still receives some support. This year, the U.S. gave the government $1.5 million in military aid for combating terrorism, training and other programs.

Ugandan and Burundian forces, fighting under the banner of the African Union mission in Somalia, or AMISOM, have received more than $500 million from the U.S. in training, equipment and advisory support to battle al Shabaab. The mission has been accused of indiscriminate bombings of civilians in Mogadishu, the Somali capital, and otherwise failing to protect civilians in the battle zone. It’s difficult to estimate the death toll, but one Somali group counted more than 5,000 deaths in Mogadishu alone from 2009 to 2011.

Since then, new allegations of abuse have surfaced.

On Monday, Human Rights Watch reported that AMISOM troops have sexually abused and exploited Somali women and girls brought to two bases in Mogadishu since 2013. The group interviewed 21 women and girls who said they had been raped or sexually exploited by Ugandan or Burundian troops, in some cases when they had come to the base seeking medicine for ill family members, or food.

AMISOM’s ambassador said in a written response to the report that an adviser had concluded that more in-depth investigations were required, but that to date, none of the allegations of rape had been found to be credible.

The State Department, in a statement, said it was “deeply concerned” by the reports and called for the countries involved to investigate. “We plan to carefully evaluate the implications of these reports and the response of troop-contributing countries for future collaboration and training,” it said.

Sarah Childress

Sarah Childress, Former Series Senior Editor, FRONTLINE

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