Home > Local News > Is U.S. Training Cambodian Troops Linked to Abuses?

Is U.S. Training Cambodian Troops Linked to Abuses?

A U.S. Army sergeant, left, talks to Cambodian troops during a U.S.-led military exercise outside Phnom Penh in June 2007 Tang Chhin Sothy / AFP / Getty Images


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. (See pictures of Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge.)
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. (Read about corruption in Asia.)
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

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