The U.S. State Department was watching closely two years ago when Cambodian troops were called for evictions in two of coastal Kampot province's villages. According to accounts by human-rights workers and reporting by the U.S. embassy in Phnom Penh, naval infantry sealed off one village and refused to allow in food when residents resisted the dismantling of their homes, 100 of which had been burned down by forestry officials to make way for soldier housing. Though military officials denied this, the State Department reported that several inhabitants were arrested and badly beaten by troops who denied them immediate medical care. Hundreds of families were evicted and some were carted off in military cargo trucks supplied by the U.S.
Ugly as that scene may have been, in June of this year the same unit, the 31st Naval Infantry Brigade of the Royal Cambodian Armed Forces, which according to Human Rights Watch has a history of human-rights abuses including the summary executions of political enemies in 1997, participated in a week of training staged in Cambodia by the U.S. Two platoons of U.S. Marines taught the Cambodians, among other things, about military operations in urban terrain, detainee handling and martial arts.
Since 1997, federal law has barred U.S. forces from offering assistance to foreign military units if there is evidence that they have gone unpunished after committing human-rights violations. But the question of how Washington should interpret that law is far from settled. The U.S. has been frequently accused of violating or undermining this law around the world in its eagerness to pursue security cooperation in Africa, South America and Asia.
In Cambodia, human-rights workers say service personnel from problematic Cambodian units have regularly participated in U.S. military training programs, which began in Cambodia five years ago. But the U.S. embassy says it thoroughly screens all Cambodian personnel who receive U.S.-sponsored military training and assistance. "The U.S. government provides training to Cambodian security forces to advance our goals of creating a more professional force and to advance U.S. objectives in areas such as counterterrorism and peacekeeping operations," says embassy spokesman Mark Wenig. "Every individual who is trained is thoroughly vetted both in Phnom Penh and Washington in accordance with U.S. law and department regulations."
However the embassy declined to discuss individual instances of vetting and did not answer specific questions about how it interprets the legal requirement, known as the Leahy Amendment after its sponsor, Vermont Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy, that all foreign units receiving aid must be vetted.
But State Department records released under the Freedom of Information Act appear to give credence to a long-standing complaint from congressional staff and human-rights workers: that, to get around the frustrations of the military vetting law, American embassies around the world sometimes vet individual foreign soldiers and sailors, but not the units they are drawn from. By law, assistance is barred "to any unit" of a foreign military suspected of abuses, but State Department records show that U.S. foreign-service officers in Cambodia may have read unit as meaning individual soldiers.
Former ambassador Joseph Mussomeli told all embassy staff in a 2007 management notice, which was released under the Freedom of Information Act, that the embassy was responsible for vetting of "units and/or individuals." In unclassified cables last year, the U.S. embassy in Phnom Penh notified the offices of the U.S. Secretaries of State and Defense, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the commander of U.S. forces in the Pacific that it had vetted 61 individuals, not units, from the Cambodian navy for training events staged between August and November of that year. The embassy "has reviewed its files and finds that as of this date it possessed no credible information of gross violations of rights by the above individuals," said each of the three cables, which were also released under the Freedom of Information Act.
According to Tim Rieser, a foreign-policy aide to Senator Leahy who drafted the foreign-military vetting statute, the practice of vetting individuals instead of units is both "inconsistent with the letter and intent of the law" and the subject of a long-standing disagreement with the State Department. "If the unit is ineligible, then the members of that unit are ineligible unless the foreign government is taking effective measures to bring the individuals responsible for violating human rights to justice," he says.
Human-rights advocates agree. According to Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director at Human Rights Watch, the Leahy Amendment has not been applied in Cambodia, where "members of units we have tracked for years which continue to conduct gross human-rights violations with impunity continue to turn up in U.S. training programs."
In addition to the Cambodian marines trained in June, Human Rights Watch's concerns extend in particular to the country's 911th Airborne Brigade, which was also implicated in the "torture and execution" of rival military commanders in 1997 and the violent suppression of political rallies the following year, and Cambodia's 70th Infantry Brigade, the new National Counterterrorism Task Force commanded by Brigadier General Hun Manet, son of Prime Minister Hun Sen. The counterterrorism task force, which human-rights workers say is composed of individual soldiers drawn from problematic units, was trained by U.S. Marines in hand-to-hand combat and marksmanship in 2007.
Colonel Yin Chumnith, deputy commander of the 911th Airborne Brigade, says that during U.S. combat training in 2006 and 2007, one American service member had acknowledged legal concerns about the military's human-rights record in Cambodia but said that military cooperation was also important: "It is a government policy, but the soldiers need to cooperate with each other," he recalls the American as having said. "From my personal point of view, we are government troops who are trained to protect the government," says Chumnith. "So we always protect the government and we don't care about the allegations."
According to Bonnie Glaser, an expert on China and security policy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, U.S. officials may fear that shunning foreign militaries on human-rights grounds would cause the U.S. to miss out on opportunities to gain influence and, ironically, to promote better human-rights practices in the process. But in July, U.S. officials sent a very strong signal of how they intended to proceed when they lifted a 10-year ban on military contact with Indonesia's special forces, known as Kopassus, which have been accused by human-rights workers of assassinations, disappearances and torture across Indonesia. "It seems to be a bellwether of how we're going to behave in the future," says Glaser. "If you're looking at U.S. interests in the region, you have to ask yourself if you want to opt out of a country because you're standing up for human rights ... There is only so much influence you can have by standing outside and upholding the principled point of view," she says. "These are very tough calls to make."
With reporting by Phann Ana / Phnom Penh