US Launches Promising Human Rights Reporting Tool

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The Harry S. Truman Building, headquarters for the US State Department, in Washington, DC, March 9, 2009. 
© 2009 AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite

The United States Department of State is empowering ordinary people around the world to report human rights abuses by foreign security forces.

On September 30, the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights, and Labor launched a new reporting tool, the Human Rights Reporting Gateway, that gives the public a way to alert the US government of gross violations of human rights. The State Department hopes the information uploaded will help its staffers determine which foreign security forces should not receive US assistance.

The vetting process that this information will feed into is required by the Leahy Laws, which prohibit the US government from providing funding to assist specific units of foreign security forces where there is “credible information implicating that unit in the commission of gross violations of human rights.” Until now, vetting included the review of classified and open-source materials. Now, people affected by such abuses, academics, and human rights researchers can contribute to the process.

The Leahy Laws, which were created by Senator Patrick Leahy in the 1990s and apply to the State and Defense Departments, have strengthened oversight of US security assistance and aimed to incentivize respect for human rights. This new tool gives those vetting another source of information on gross violations, including torture, extrajudicial killing, enforced disappearance, rape by specified foreign security forces, and “other forms of cruel, inhumane, or degrading treatment or punishment.”

The public may use the Reporting Gateway to submit information on these violations. The website has a six-month pilot period, after which the State Department will evaluate and adjust it.

The Gateway addresses some but not all gaps in the Leahy Laws. For example, the vetting does not apply to other foreign government actors that may be committing abuses but are not “security forces.” And loopholes in the law remain, such as the 127e authority, which allows the US military to use foreign security forces as proxies in counterterrorism efforts with no checks on those forces’ human rights record. That provision allowed a Cameroonian military unit known for rights violations to serve as proxy for the US in a counterterrorism program through 2019.

Despite its flaws, the Leahy Laws have for many years provided a means to prevent some US security assistance from ending up in the hands of abusive military units. This new tool should make the vetting process more robust and accurate.

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