Military Training Programs: A Need for Oversight and Human Rights Courses

Beginning the first week of June, the Senate is debating an “emergency” supplemental budget bill to fight terrorism–and part of that White House request should be rejected. President George W. Bush is asking for a sharp increase in foreign military aid–including an extra $1 billion for training programs and other forms of military assistance–and he also wants Congress to lift all aid restrictions based on human rights concerns.

The problem is that fighting the enlarged war on terrorism the way the Bush administration wants it done, a significant portion of the $1 billion earmarked for new military training and aid will go to many new allies with poor human rights records–thus we run the risk of creating the terrorists of tomorrow.

Over the past decade, military training has been one of the principal U.S. means to interact with foreign governments. By the end of the 1990s, U.S. military forces were training up to 100,000 foreign soldiers from more than 150 countries each year, in areas ranging from evasive driving and accounting to counterinsurgency and interrogation techniques, to name a few.

Since September 11th, the Bush administration has announced plans to greatly expand these programs. It is asking Congress to increase aid to countries such as Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Georgia, Ethiopia, the Philippines, Colombia, and Yemen–many of which are run by corrupt and undemocratic regimes or are engaged in internal or cross-border wars that have resulted in numerous civilian casualties.

In the 1990s, foreign military training programs were increasingly described by Pentagon officials as a cost-effective tool for forging and maintaining ties with mid-level military officers in foreign countries that we may want to work with in the future. Increased sales of U.S. arms after the Gulf War expanded these training programs because instruction on equipment maintenance and operation is an integral part of all weapons sales and grants. The “war on drugs” also prompted a surge in training, particularly in Latin America.

Sensitive to public and congressional criticism, the Pentagon justified these programs, at least in part, as strengthening democratization efforts by teaching foreign militaries adherence to internationally recognized principles of human rights. Yet few of the major military training programs, even before September 11th, had any discernible focus on human rights.

For example, in the past eight years the budget for the best-known program, the International Military Education and Training program (IMET), has increased four-fold. Although the State Department insists each year that IMET is partly designed to improve respect for human rights, its 2002 Human Rights Report cited the poor human rights records of security forces in 51 of the countries slated to receive IMET training this year–38% of the total country list.

Many of the 150 U.S.-based institutions providing training to foreign military officers also suffer from a lack of attention to human rights. When Mexican or Turkish or Sri Lankan soldiers are trained in interrogation techniques at the U.S. Army Intelligence School at Fort Huachuca, Arizona, or learn counterinsurgency skills at the Special Warfare Center at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, there is no required teaching module on human rights and humanitarian law.

But that’s just part of the picture. Much of the training that takes place today is done by U.S. Army Special Operations Forces units that go abroad to provide training as part of the Pentagon’s efforts to build stronger ties with foreign militaries. Officials in Washington insist that this training also includes discussion of human rights issues. Yet when I called the four regional U.S. military command centers to ask about the human rights curricula they were using, only one region–Southcom, which covers Latin America except Mexico and the Caribbean–could provide any evidence that they included even a minimal reference to human rights in their training programs.

Certainly, these programs are designed to advance U.S. national interests in global security and stability, not promote human rights. But Congress should ensure effective public oversight of all training programs and resist President Bush’s request to drop human rights considerations as a pre-condition to military aid. Using taxpayer dollars to arm and train governments that repress and torture their people in the name of fighting terrorism will not serve our long-term national interest.

Instead, as we have learned so many times from backing dictatorships, it will only lead to more desperate and angry people around the world willing to identify the U.S. government, and by extension the American people, as the cause of their suffering. And, as in the past, make them ready to act on that desperation and anger.