Under US law, is an RCAF soldier a ‘Unit’ unto himself?
When the US renewed military ties with Cambodia five years ago, it knew well that there were some elements in the armed forces here it could not deal with.
Though Cambodian officials have long denied such accusations, American investigators tentatively pinned some of the blame for a 1997 political massacre on Prime Minister Hun Sen’s autonomous military bodyguards; human rights workers say soldiers were involved in a summary executions during the CPP’s military triumph over Funcinpec that year and the violent suppression of demonstrations during the elections of 2008.
By law, US aid cannot go to foreign military units if the US government believes they have enjoyed impunity after committing violations of human rights. It is the responsibility of the US Embassy here to vet the Cambodian military to be sure this law is observed when the US provides military assistance.
Yet human rights workers say that even though such alleged abuses have not ended in the years since 1997, and even though criminal prosecutions have not been undertaken, members of questionable units continue to appear in US military training programs and to receive US defense articles.
Formerly an army unit, the 31st RCAF Naval Infantry, which is also alleged to have been involved in the 1997 violence and was used in the forceful 2008 eviction of a Kampot province village in which residents were reportedly denied food, received training from the US Marines in June.
US State Department records released to The Daily under the Freedom of Information Act appear to lend support to a long-standing complaint from US Congressional staff and human rights workers: that like US embassies elsewhere, American foreign service officers posted to Phnom Penh sometimes vet individual Cambodian service personnel without vetting the units they are drawn from.
Under a law first enacted in 1997 and called the Leahy Amendment after its sponsor, US Senator Patrick Leahy, a Democrat of Vermont, US assistance is barred “to any unit” of a foreign military believed to have committed human rights abuses.
Yet the US State Department sometimes seems content to read “individual soldier” for “unit.”
In a notice to all US government employees at the US Embassy, former Ambassador Joseph Mussomeli said in September 2007 that the embassy’s human rights officer was responsible for coordinating the vetting of “units and/or individuals” proposed for training.
“If credible information is found that an individual or unit is responsible for gross violations of human rights, that individual or unit must be denied clearance to participate” in training or assistance paid for with US foreign aid funds, Mr Mussomeli wrote.
“The individual or unit’s name must be struck from the list to be sent to Washington for clearance.”
Such procedures would appear to be consistent with US standard operating procedures in place elsewhere the world. Records posted on the Internet by the US Defense Department show that a similar choice, between units or individuals, has been applied to African, Central European and Asian militaries that receive US training for peacekeeping missions.
In response to The Daily’s information request, which was submitted a year ago, the State Department in September released few records from the vetting processes conducted in Phnom Penh.
But those it did release did not discuss the vetting of RCAF units, only individuals.
In three unclassified cables to the offices of the US secretaries of State and Defense, as well as the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and the commander of US forces in the Pacific, the US Embassy said it had performed human rights vetting for training events at Ream Naval Base in Preah Sihanouk province that were held between August and November of last year.
The cables make no mention of vetting units and only discuss 61 different individuals from the Cambodian Navy ranging in rank from ensign to commodore: “US Embassy Phnom Penh has reviewed its files and finds that as of this date it possesses no credible information of gross violations of human rights by the above individuals,” standard language in each cable said.
The US Embassy this week declined to discuss specific instances of vetting, and questions about whether it vets individuals rather than units went unanswered.
“The US government provides training to Cambodian security forces to advance our goals of creating a more professional force and to advance US objectives in areas such as counterterrorism and peacekeeping operations,” embassy spokesman Mark Wenig wrote in an e-mail.
“Every individual who is trained is thoroughly vetted both in Phnom Penh and Washington in accordance with US law and Department regulations,” he said.
Colonel Yin Chumnith, deputy commander of the 911th RCAF Airborne Infantry Brigade, yesterday rejected Human Rights Watch charges that his unit had been implicated “in the torture and execution of Funcinpec military commanders” in 1997.
“From my personal point of view, we are government troops who are trained to protect the government. We are not rebelling. So we always protect the government, and we don’t care about the allegations,” said Col Chumnith.
However, he said that officers within his unit had received US military training in Hawaii, that he had personally attended a US Pacific Command training event in Malaysia and that 32 individual paratroopers from the 911th had at various times received training from Indonesia, India and the US.
Paratroopers from the 911th Airborne attended a three-month Pacific Command training event in Kompong Speu province between 2006 and 2007, where combat and the use of compasses were taught, he said.
“During the training, the US military also taught about this,” said Col Chumnith, referring to the US policy of denying aid to units that have abused human rights. However, he quoted a US service member as saying that military cooperation could be important enough to require contact: “It is a government policy, but the soldiers need to cooperate with each other.”
“The US were preparing to train my people but later on, maybe there was some minor problem or a special request from the government, Pacom changed their minds and trained a new, national special task force,” said Col Chumnith, referring to the US Pacific Command.
That new unit was the National Counterterrorism Task Force, commanded by Brigadier General Hun Manet, Prime Minister Hun Sen’s son, according to Col Chumnith.
Despite claims to the contrary by human rights activists, Col Chumnith denied that any paratroopers from his unit had been transferred to the counterterrorism task force.
According to Tim Rieser, who drafted the vetting legislation and is a foreign policy aide to Senator Leahy, the question of whether to vet individual foreign military personnel members, and not their units, is a long-standing sore point between US lawmakers at the US government.
If US embassies approve individual soldiers for US assistance even though the soldiers’ units have engaged in human rights violations, “Senator Leahy would view that as inconsistent with the letter and intent of the law.”
“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,” Mr Rieser wrote in an e-mail.
He also noted that former Ambassador Mussomeli’s notice to embassy staff contained an “exceptional cases” provision that did not appear to be consistent with the law.
The notice said that in unspecified exceptional cases, a request to provide training with US foreign aid funds to “individuals or units with derogatory information” may be forwarded to Washington for review.
While US law does allow for security cooperation with questionable foreign units in rare emergency situations, this provision has never been invoked, according to Mr Rieser.
“The Leahy Amendment does not provide such an exception for [foreign assistance-funded] training of units or individuals who have committed gross violations of human rights. So this would not be consistent with the law,” he said.
For Human Rights Watch, the US is either failing to observe the Leahy Amendment or is violating it in Cambodia.
“Members of units we have tracked for years—which continue to conduct gross human rights violations with impunity—continue to turn up in US training programs,” Sophie Richardson, Asia advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, wrote in an e-mail.
“The US either isn’t conducting thorough vetting or it is undermining Leahy by working with individuals from problematic units that haven’t been held accountable for gross human rights violations.”
The scope of The Daily’s information request to the State Department covered the four years leading up to 2009. However, the State Department released no vetting records for US training events occurring before 2009.
In a training event in November of 2007, the US Marines 31st Marine Expeditionary Unit provided “marksmanship and hand-to-hand combat” training to Cambodia’s National Counterterrorism Task Force, which human rights workers say includes elements of the 911th Airborne, despite Col Chumnith’s denials.
“The fact that some of 911’s members have now been transferred to the National Counterterrorism Task Force does not absolve them, or their former unit, from being held accountable for abuses they have carried out,” Ms Richardson said.
The US Embassy this week said it could not discuss individual instances of vetting. However, the US Government Accountability Office found in 2005 that, with no human rights vetting at all, the US had trained 4,000 Indonesian, 1,200 Filipino and 1,700 Thai police, including 32 individual members of a “notorious” Indonesian police unit previously barred due to human rights abuses.
In 2004 and 2005, according to GAO, 400 members of security forces in Morocco and Tunisia received US training even though no vetting files existed at the local US embassies. Of 468 files that did exist, 27 percent showed no signs that any vetting had occurred.
According to Bonnie Glaser, an expert on China and security policy at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, US officials may believe they can promote human rights better by engaging with militaries in Southeast Asia rather than shunning them.
The US was seen as largely absent from the region under former President George W Bush, years when China’s influence in the region began to grow.
However, Ms Glaser said the US government’s decision in July to lift a 10-year ban on training of Indonesia’s elite special forces known as Kopassus, accused by human rights organizations of killings and other human rights abuses across Indonesia, was strong signal of how the administration of US President Barack Obama intended to proceed.
Indonesian officials had hinted that they could turn to China if the ban was not lifted, according to The New York Times.
“It seems to be a bellwether of how we’re going to behave in the future,” Ms Glaser said by telephone from Washington, cautioning against viewing US policy in the region as “anti-Chinese” rather than an attempt to renew US relations with Southeast Asian nations.
“If you’re looking at US 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,” said Ms Glaser. “There is only so much influence you can have by standing outside and upholding the principled point of view.”
“These are very tough calls to make,” she said.