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Military trainees at defense universities later committed serious human rights abuses

Multiple agencies with little accountability

The reports to Congress specifically delineate those participants in the International Military Education and Training (IMET) program tagged in the State Department’s annual human rights reporting effort as having problematic behavior. As the main program that brings foreigners to the United States to attend U.S. military schools at Washington’s expense, IMET is now offered to select military and police officers in more than 120 countries worldwide. A much larger portion of the military’s foreign trainees is instructed in their own countries or at regional foreign centers.

Under a provision of the defense funding bill for fiscal year 2017 that Congress approved and Obama signed in December, the Trump administration will be required to certify that future security assistance “includes a comprehensive curriculum on human rights and the law of armed conflict.” But it does not specify what this should consist of.

The IMET training costs more than $100 million annually and in 2014 trained roughly 4,000 foreign military officers, amounting to 7 percent of the more than 56,000 foreign officers trained by the Defense Department yearly.

The IMET program, in turn, is part of a larger U.S. government effort to build up foreign police and military forces at a total cost of $250 billion since the September 2001 terror attacks. That larger effort is managed by roughly 46 government offices with little coordination and weak oversight, according to multiple critics. While the work is mostly funded by the Pentagon, the State Department is supposed to lead it, and to vet potential trainees.

“These dysfunctions include shortcomings in personnel and bureaucratic structure … a mismatch in planning cultures and budgeting timelines; a lack of policy prioritization and coherence [and] insufficient clarity, transparency, and monitoring and evaluation,” according to the Open Society Foundation’s Rose Jackson, who served as chief of staff in the State Department’s Bureau of Democracy, Human Rights and Labor from 2013 until last April and recently completed a comprehensive study of the issue.

The IMET program was started in 1976 to foster closer relations with foreign militaries, but one of its three stated goals is to teach foreign military officers “basic issues involving internationally recognized human rights,” according to the Foreign Assistance Act.

That goal has been sketchily met, experts say. Most of the IMET courses concern war strategy, technical skills and management, and the participants read military history and are taught how to react in a crisis. The Defense Department says that human rights topics are woven into these courses. At the defense International Studies institute in Newport, Rhode Island, the naval school in Monterey, and the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation in Georgia, for instance, IMET students take courses on international law, military ethics, and civil-military relations as part of yearlong master’s degree programs.

At most of the other service colleges, however, the officers instead participate in field trips to American cities, courthouses and nonprofit organizations meant only generally to expose the IMET students to American values, according to the State Department’s annual “Foreign Military Training” report and interviews with independent experts and international program directors at Defense Department service colleges.

While most of the 17 officers listed in the State Department disclosures took courses on command and strategy, the reports list only one as having completed a rule of law course.

Their experience was typical, not unusual, according to researchers at the Security Assistance Monitor, a unit of the Center for International Policy that tracks U.S. spending related to foreign militaries. In an analysis completed last year based on public reports, the unit concluded that only 11.7 percent of IMET-funded students in 2014 took courses focused on human rights or the rule of law.

A Pentagon spokesman, Navy Cmdr. Patrick L. Evans, said in an email to CPI that the department “is committed to providing comprehensive training” to foreign personnel on military budgeting, civilian control mechanisms, military justice systems, and following codes of conduct that meet international human rights standards.

But Shannon Green, a former senior director for global engagement at the National Security Council during the Obama administration who now directs the Human Rights Initiative at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said “the human rights training component is merely a check the box exercise.” She said she formed this conclusion after interviewing Pentagon officials about how to improve U.S. security assistance.

Colby Goodman, who directs the Security Assistance Monitor and oversaw its IMET research, said the U.S. military should not only give human rights a higher priority but take a broad view of how to instill it. Its courses, he said, should emphasize the importance of combating corruption and creating robust oversight mechanisms, while tailoring training to specific human rights gaps in countries where the officers are serving.

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