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Senator Leahy’s human rights legacy

The Vermont lawmaker’s impact on US foreign policy will endure long after his upcoming retirement.

Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, in his office in June.J. Scott Applewhite/Associated Press

It is rare for an individual member of Congress to change the conduct of American diplomacy. Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont, whose recently announced retirement next year will end one of the longest and most prolific careers in the chamber’s history, stands out in this regard. His legacy includes leveraging one of the United States’ most powerful national security tools — military assistance — to advance one of its noblest ideals: respect for human rights around the world.

The last remaining member of the “Watergate babies” elected in the wake of Richard Nixon’s resignation in 1974, Leahy began his Senate career in an era when international relations were dominated by realpolitik. Most American policymakers viewed other governments’ treatment of their own citizens as their own business. Though the Carter administration would later seek to elevate respect for human rights as a core principle of US diplomacy, the absence of a clear legal framework prevented the executive branch from applying a uniform standard for countries to receive US assistance over the ensuing two decades.

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This ambiguity explains the revelations in the 1990s that American military institutions had trained foreign forces implicated in gross human rights violations. The US Army’s School of the Americas at Fort Benning acquired the infamous moniker “School of the Assassins” for having trained elite units accused of committing atrocities in Latin America, including the 1980 assassination of Archbishop Oscar Romero in El Salvador. The public looked to Congress to take action.

Patrick Leahy answered the call.

By then Vermont’s senior senator and a member of the Senate Appropriations Committee, he used the power of the purse strings to mandate a fundamental change in how the departments of State and Defense carried out their missions. In 1997, he inserted a requirement into the Department of State’s budget that prohibited it from training individuals or units suspected of committing gross human rights violations. Initially applied exclusively to the training of counter-narcotics forces, the requirement was soon expanded to cover all security forces and made to apply to Defense as well as State.

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Under the Leahy Laws, the departments of State and Defense currently vet tens of thousands of foreign military, police, and other security service personnel every year to ensure that no information links them to gross human rights violations. At US embassies around the world, Foreign Service officers like me coordinate with military personnel to collect and analyze background information on candidates for training programs.

“Leahy vetting,” as it is known to those who oversee it, is not perfect. It can sometimes delay or preclude some individuals or units from receiving training, leading opponents of the legislation to charge that it stifles cooperation with strategically important countries. The vetting relies in part on open-source information, leading some advocacy groups to charge that it does not go far enough in preventing the US government from working with undemocratic regimes. Moreover, the Leahy Laws deal exclusively with the conduct of foreign security forces, prompting some critics to accuse the United States of holding other countries to a higher standard than it applies to itself.

Still, Senator Leahy’s reform of America’s national security apparatus stands as a remarkable achievement. He recognized that the United States possesses the power to persuade allies and partners to commit to safeguarding fundamental freedoms, and he used it to help make human rights inseparable from American diplomacy. It is a legacy that is likely to continue guiding US foreign policy for many years to come.

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Rennie A. Silva, a Foreign Service officer with the Department of State, is the human rights officer at the US Embassy in Vilnius, Lithuania. The views expressed in this article are his own and do not necessarily reflect those of the US government.