U.S. Assistance to Latin America: A Civil Society Perspective—Some Guidelines for Rights-Respecting Aid

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Rep. Sam Farr’s Latin America on the Rise Briefing Series, February 23, 2016
Remarks by Lisa Haugaard, Latin America Working Group


Thank you so much to Rep. Sam Farr for hosting this briefing. I’m going to answer the broad questions posed by this briefing from my personal perspective of having worked with civil society organizations in Latin America and the United States for several decades. My remarks focus not so much on the full scale of U.S. assistance as on the substantial multi-year aid packages such as to Central America, Colombia and Mexico.

Civil society organizations don’t want U.S. taxpayer dollars to be wasted, misused or used to undercut rights in their countries. They would often prefer to have nothing than to have aid that is badly directed or undermines rights. Civil society organizations do want to see accountable, transparent, rights-respecting and rights-promoting aid.

When Latin American civil society organizations consider U.S. aid and the impact on their societies, they are not just looking at USAID programs. They are looking at the full scope of U.S. assistance and its political as well as economic and social impact, including military, police and intelligence aid, counternarcotics programs, assistance to the justice system, Millennium Challenge, and the Inter-American Foundation, as well as the policies that accompany aid programs.

Here are some of the guidelines that many civil society groups often say they would like countries granting aid to follow. These guidelines may seem obvious but they are not so easy to live up to.

  • One. Aid should not be wasted through corruption by recipient governments. Nor should aid disappear in a series of expensive contracting arrangements. Aid should reach the beneficiaries.
  • Two. Aid should be as transparent as possible, not just to U.S. stakeholders but to civil society in the country it is being spent. You can’t monitor or oversee aid without knowing what it is. Assistance to Latin America is still far too hard to track, even by Congress and certainly by civil society in the countries in which it is spent. Defense Department assistance and, in the State and Foreign Operations budget, CARSI and International Narcotics and Law Enforcement programs win the prize for being especially inscrutable.
  • Three. Aid should strengthen civilian authorities and not encourage militarization of societies by promoting inappropriate roles for the military. Aid should promote peace and conflict resolution. For civil society organizations, U.S. assistance to Latin America still is too focused on security assistance and harsh counternarcotics strategies, even if it has evolved with time.
  • Four. Aid should promote equitable, environmentally and socially responsible development. It should not promote unequal development or development that is not consulted with the communities it affects. Today, an increasing driver of human rights violations in Latin America is conflict over resource extraction and large-scale economic development projects, including mining, logging, tourism and dams. U.S. aid, whether economic or security assistance, and U.S. policy overall must not contribute to these human rights violations and to unequal, unconsulted development. It must also strengthen, not undermine, basic labor rights which are often not respected in Latin America.
  • Five. Aid should strengthen diverse range of civil society organizations, both through funding and by promoting the active participation of civil society. U.S. aid programs and policies should encourage recipient governments to do a better job of consulting with civil society organizations and the U.S. government should also consult with civil society organizations on its aid programs. This consultation must include not only USAID grantees but a broader range of civil society organizations. There’s a model for this kind of consultation in USAID’s human rights program in Colombia, which consults annually with a range of civil society organizations in Colombia and with civil society stakeholders in the United States. This has helped to create strong, independent human rights programming in Colombia. This kind of consultation on U.S. assistance can be done, and it should be done now in Central America in particular.
  • Six. Aid should strengthen, not undercut human rights.

This is a tall order. How can aid strengthen human rights? To just mention a few ways, including human rights conditions on security assistance is a crucial mechanism for protecting human rights. The Leahy Law should be actively applied to vet candidates for all security aid and training and to encourage investigation and prosecution of severe human rights abuses. In addition, specific country human rights conditions can play an important role in countries experiencing severe human rights problems in Latin America.

These human rights conditions empower Congress to monitor and influence aid to countries with severe human rights and corruption challenges. And they provide ways for civil society organizations, human rights and humanitarian agencies to inform the State Department about trends they are seeing on the ground. In Mexico and Colombia, the human rights conditions or requirements helped to strengthen civilian justice systems and move in the direction of trying in civilian courts gross human rights violations allegedly committed by members of the military, such as extrajudicial executions, rape and torture. In Honduras, the Leahy Law and country-specific human rights conditions helped to encourage removal of corrupt and abusive police leaders—though this remains a very serious problem. In Colombia, the country human rights conditions helped to dramatically reduce extrajudicial executions by members of the military – the so-called “false positives,” in which over 4,300 mainly young men were allegedly killed by soldiers largely to up their body counts. Without both the Leahy Law and country-specific human rights conditions, U.S. security aid would likely have been responsible for a greater number of severe human rights violations and Congress, and U.S. and Latin American human rights groups, would not have had the power and access to help stop or reduce these violations.

Second, aid and policy should empower and protect human rights defenders—the broad range of human rights defenders, including women’s rights leaders, labor leaders, Afro-Latino and indigenous community leaders, LGBT activists, faith leaders, journalists covering human rights topics, environmental and land rights activists. Not just USAID programs, all assistance and policy must have this overarching goal. To give one rather stark example from recent history, it’s not good enough just to have an excellent USAID program that funds dynamic human rights groups if a military intelligence agency receiving substantial U.S. assistance is spying on human rights groups and journalists.

Third, any assistance for police should focus on accountability mechanisms – internal controls such as effective Inspector Generals’ offices and external controls such as citizen review boards. U.S. counternarcotics aid often focuses on creating special vetted units to get around the problem posed by corrupt units, but this often doesn’t work and does not address the overall problems besetting law enforcement.

Fourth, measures for success for U.S. aid for security forces and the justice sector should be reduction of abuses and reduction of impunity for abuses. It should not be the number of human rights trainings for security forces or courses for prosecutors, even if these can be helpful, or any other list of activities and programs. It must keep an eye on the prize—the reduction of impunity.

Those are some broad guidelines for U.S. assistance for Latin America. I’d like to conclude with a few specific recommendations for this year from the humanitarian agencies, faith, human rights and other nongovernmental organizations with which the Latin America Working Group partners.

On aid to Colombia. The United States funded the conflict in Colombia. While two weeks ago our two governments celebrated the “success of Plan Colombia,” to us and many of our civil society partners, U.S. assistance fueled the conflict and escalated human rights abuses; during the time period of Plan Colombia, four million people were internally displaced. Extrajudicial executions escalated during the high water mark of U.S. assistance.

The United States is now morally obligated, and it would also be sensible and wise, to fund the peace. We’re supportive of the Colombian government’s efforts to negotiate peace with the FARC guerrillas, and would also like to see negotiations proceed with the last major remaining guerrilla group, the ELN. While the final agreement will not be perfect, it will offer an opportunity to wind down a conflict that has cost 220,000 lives, over 80 percent of whom were civilians.

We recommend a substantial aid package, doubling the President’s request for Economic Support Funds for Colombia, and tailoring the aid to ensure strong peace accord implementation. We urge USAID to expand its civil society programming in Colombia, including for efforts for truth, justice, and reconciliation, and for specific civil society efforts to verify, monitor and encourage peace accord implementation. We urge expansion of USAID programs for Afro-Colombian and indigenous communities and the human rights program. We encourage all assistance channels, including via International Narcotics and Law Enforcement, to align programs with the peace accord framework. Military aid should be cut, not increased at this moment, and a new and more limited role for the military should be encouraged. Human rights conditions attached to all security assistance remain essential, as does funding for an enhanced presence of the Colombia office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. We strongly support the expanded effort proposed by the U.S. and Colombian governments to remove land mines.

For Mexico, human rights conditions are imperative given the grave human rights situation and rampant impunity. Strengthened human rights requirements are needed to encourage the Mexican government to investigate and prosecute human rights violations, reduce the prevalence of torture and bring justice to families of the disappeared. No support should be provided for a military role in law enforcement. Assistance for important state-level judicial reforms should continue. This year, we are also concerned that U.S. assistance to migration authorities in Mexico could contribute to human rights violations against migrants and refugees. If such aid is provided, at a minimum it must include safeguards against abuse and corruption and be fully transparent about the aid provided to increase Mexico’s migration enforcement operations, especially along its southern border region.

For Central America, we believe assistance should focus on building the social fabric of communities to reduce and prevent violence. It should not encourage mano dura, hardline strategies or involvement of military in policing that may seem like a short term-fix but that ultimately will not reduce violence and will lead to additional human rights abuses. U.S. programs that encourage or indeed fail to discourage use of military in law enforcement also undercut hard-won civil society efforts in Central America to bring militaries under civilian control and appropriately reduce their internal roles.

Gang violence and organized crime in the Northern Triangle is deeply harming communities and driving migration. However, abuses by official security forces, both police and military, are also of paramount concern. In Honduras, in El Salvador and in Guatemala, members of the police and military are committing serious abuses, including extrajudicial executions, beatings, sexual violence, murders of and abuses against members of the LGBT community, especially transgender persons, and indiscriminate targeting of youth in gang-affected neighborhoods. In Honduras and Guatemala, threats and abuses against human rights defenders and repression of social protests are particularly serious issues.

We urge continued assistance to important UN human rights mechanisms, including CICIG in Guatemala and the offices of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights in Honduras and Guatemala. In Guatemala and Honduras, inspiring social movements against corruption developed in response to massive government corruption scandals. U.S. aid and policy should be careful to include and consult with social movement leaders in anti-corruption efforts.

Many U.S. faith and humanitarian agencies working in Central America do not see the situation right now as just a migration flow. It is a refugee crisis. Children and teenagers, traveling unaccompanied or with family members, are not risking the terrible dangers of the journey through Mexico into the United States only to seek economic opportunity, escape poverty or achieve family reunification. Many are fleeing for their lives.

For that reason, we are surprised that we have not seen the administration propose assistance to adequately address the short- and medium-term humanitarian protection needs of Central Americans who are internally displaced or become refugees. We urge the Congress to include funding for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) in Central America and Mexico to increase access to durable solutions for Northern Triangle refugees, strengthen asylum protections and build the capacity of countries of origin to prevent future displacement and protect those already displaced. We also urge USAID to focus on protection mechanisms for vulnerable populations, including Northern Triangle governments’ child protection systems, women’s shelters, and assistance to crime victims and witness protection systems.

Finally, assistance to Latin American nations to address the public health impact of the Zika virus is of paramount importance this year.

Thank you for the opportunity to weigh in on this vital topic.