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April 11, 2008

Serious Abuses No Bar to US Military Aid

by William Fisher

Washington is providing military aid to six of the countries cited in the US State Department's latest series of human rights reports for recruiting and using child soldiers. They are Afghanistan, Chad, the Democratic Republic of Congo, Sri Lanka, Sudan and Uganda.

A new study by the Washington-based Center for Defense Information (CDI) charges that, while child soldiers are often recruited and deployed by rebel groups over which the government has little control, in other cases the recruitment is being carried out by directly by governments and government-supported paramilitaries.

For example, the CDI reports that in Chad, government security forces recruited and retained child soldiers and compelled forced labor by adults and children. It says that human rights abuses included killings and use of child soldiers, adding that government and other armed groups continued to use child soldiers.

In the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), the CDI reports that government military units and armed groups continued to recruit and maintain child soldiers in their ranks. It notes that military authorities took no action against commanders who employed child soldiers, and says that while the government reached agreements with militias for the demobilization of child soldiers, the groups did not generally respect the agreements.

In Sudan, the CDI report says, "There were numerous serious abuses, including forced military conscription of underage men and recruitment of child soldiers."

Recruitment of child soldiers also remained a serious problem in Sudan's Darfur region. While much of the recruitment was carried out by a variety of anti-government rebel groups, the CDI says there are credible reports that government and government-aligned militias also conscripted children to serve as soldiers.

The State Department and CDI reports come at a time when the George W. Bush administration is sharply increasing its use of military aid as a reward for countries that cooperate with its war on terrorism, despite concerns about human rights and political instability.

The CDI found large increases in government and commercial US arms sales in recent years to 25 countries in the Middle East, Asia and Africa that have become allies against Islamist militancy since the Sep. 11, 2001 attacks.

The nonpartisan think tank said half the countries were identified by the State Department in 2006 as having serious, grave or significant human rights problems.

The center's analysis of US data showed government-to-government US arms sales to some 25 countries rocketed to 3.9 billion dollars in 2006 from about 400 million dollars a year earlier. The 2006 figure accounted for about 22 percent of the total 18 billion dollars in US foreign military sales last year.

"The trend is continuing in a steep upward climb," said Rachel Stohl, a co-author of the CDI study.

The center also criticized the Bush administration for its increasing use of new military assistance accounts, which it said allow the Pentagon to bypass legal restrictions on training or arming human rights abusers.

"The United States is sending unprecedented levels of military assistance to countries that it simultaneously criticizes for lack of respect for human rights and, in some cases, for questionable democratic processes," the center said.

"While these countries are currently considered important to US efforts in the 'war on terror' now, political and military instability makes their continued allegiance to the United States questionable."

Military aid increases were due in part to the lifting of sanctions and restrictions against certain countries immediately after Sep. 11, 2001, according to the center. Direct commercial sales, in which US weapons manufacturers strike deals overseen by the State Department, stood at over 3.0 billion dollars for the same countries during the period from 2002 through 2006. That was up from 72 million dollars for the five years preceding the Sep. 11 attacks.

At the same time, the nonprofit, nonpartisan Center for Public Integrity (CPI) charges that foreign lobbyists are exploiting the country's post-9/11 fear to obtain billions of dollars in US military aid – and a substantial part of it is being sent to countries that routinely violate human rights, participate in "extraordinary renditions," and recruit and deploy child soldiers.

These are among the conclusions of a yearlong study by a CPI team of seasoned reporters – known as the Consortium of Investigative Journalists (ICIJ).

The ICIJ report, released last year and titled "Collateral Damage," concludes that "the influence of foreign lobbying on the US government, as well as a shortsighted emphasis on counterterrorism objectives over broader human rights concerns, have generated staggering costs to the US and its allies in money spent and political capital burned."

"Deals to provide military aid to what are perceived as often corrupt and brutal governments have set back efforts to advance human rights and the rule of law," the ICIJ report says.

Since 1950, the US government has provided over 91 billion dollars to militaries around the world from a single fund. There are a number of additional funds, so the total is substantially higher. Most of the money comes from the Defense and State Departments.

Joanne Mariner, director of the Terrorism and Counterterrorism Program for Human Rights Watch, told IPS, "We're concerned that US military aid is, in some cases, showered on repressive governments. In our view aid should be more carefully conditioned to ensure that abuses are not carried out with American funding."

In their investigation, 10 ICIJ reporters on four continents explored US counterterrorism policy since the 2001 attacks. They found that post-9/11 US political pressure, Washington lobbying and aid dollars have reshaped policies towards countries ranging from Djibouti in the Horn of Africa, to Pakistan and Thailand in Asia, Poland and Romania in Europe, to Colombia in South America.

The ICIJ report notes that many of the recipients of this aid are countries believed to be guilty of human rights abuses. For example, it charges that countries receiving military aid from the US have participated in "extraordinary renditions" – kidnapping suspected terrorists or transferring prisoners to countries known to practice torture and other inhuman and degrading practices.

Reliable data shows that airplanes chartered by the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) made at least 76 stopovers in Azerbaijan, 72 in Jordan, 61 in Egypt, 52 in Turkmenistan, 46 in Uzbekistan, 40 in Iraq, 40 in Morocco, 38 in Afghanistan, and 14 in Libya. Most of these countries are recipients of US military assistance.

For example, in Uzbekistan, "Torture and ill-treatment" remain "widespread" and continue to occur with "impunity," according to a highly critical assessment by the United Nations Committee Against Torture. Uzbekistan currently receives well over 100 million dollars in US military aid.

Since the 9/11 attacks, Pakistan has become one of the largest recipients of US military aid – reportedly more than 10 billion dollars.

The Human Rights Commission of Pakistan (HRCP) contends that torture is used extensively by both police and prison officials. It notes that no officials have been punished for engaging in such excesses. HRCP further alleges that instances of illegal detention occur on a relatively regular basis and that most of them go unreported.

The ICIJ report also says that Indonesia used the charitable foundation of a former Indonesian president to hire lobbyists to pressure Congress to keep US funds flowing. Its report says the Indonesian government ran a concerted lobbying effort of Congress after the 9/11 attacks using "high-powered influence peddlers", including former Republican Senator and 1996 presidential candidate Bob Dole.

(Inter Press Service)

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  • William Fisher writes for Inter Press Service.

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