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April 11, 2018

Is US aid tied to human rights?


April 11, 2018

Respect for human rights has remained – at least on paper – a key element of US foreign aid policy. Whether Republicans or Democrats, successive US presidents have vowed to reward countries whose governments have maintained a strong domestic human rights record.

In his epoch-making inaugural address in 1949, the then US president Harry Truman mentioned the word ‘democracy’ nine times while the terms ‘freedom’ and ‘liberty’ appeared 17 times. This is also the speech that is credited with the beginning of modern development aid and Truman’s Point Four Programme. “We must embark on a bold new [programme] for making the benefits of our scientific advances and industrial progress available for the improvement and growth of underdeveloped areas,” Truman stated.

In the same way, “USAID has [for over 50 years] been providing technical leadership and strategic support in promoting sustainable democracy... rule of law… respect for human rights...[as well as] more transparent and accountable governance”.

America was perhaps the leading bilateral donor to have come up with congressional legislation in the 1970s, which clearly tied the disbursement of US military and non-military aid to respect for human rights. Through such legislation, America has made it mandatory for US aid recipients to halt any violation of internationally-recognised human rights. If any government is found guilty, US aid will be terminated.

There were several events and processes that played a significant role in persuading Congress to introduce a legislation linking US aid to respect for human rights in developing countries. It is argued that “congressional interest in human rights was activated by the civil rights movement in the 1960s, the backlash against the Vietnam War and a reaction to the Nixon administration’s unscrupulous foreign policy behaviour”. The intents of Congress and the American people was that US foreign policy should reflect ethical and moral principles.

In addition to the civil rights movement and the repercussions of America’s involvement in Vietnam, the human rights discourse in US foreign policy was the result of disillusionment with the deceitful character of the Nixon-Kissinger-Ford foreign policy. Spurred by these events, the US amended the Foreign Assistance Act (FAA) 1961 to clearly link the allocation of foreign aid with respect for human rights in aid-receiving countries.

A major congressional amendment dealing with the provision of aid and human rights is Section 116 of the FAA. The amendment, which became a law in 1974, states that: “no assistance may be provided to the government of any country which engages in a consistent pattern of gross violations of internationally recognized human rights”.

It was further clarified that the violation of human rights comprise “torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment; prolonged detention without charges, causing the disappearance of persons by the abduction…or other flagrant denial of the right to life, liberty, and the security of person”.

The legislation adds that the ultimate decision regarding the termination, restriction or continuation of aid will be taken in light of a joint resolution by Congress. It is often argued that the US took credible steps in the form of this amendment to cutoff the provision of US taxpayers’ money to human rights violators. The underlying purpose for this provision was to make it clear to governments who sought US economic aid to conform to internationally-espoused principles of human rights.

However, this has rarely been the case as the US has mostly neglected to implement such policies in letter and spirit and has often given more aid to countries that have flouted human rights.

Since the authorisation of this congressional amendment, considerable research has been conducted on the relationship between the aid that the US provides to different countries and the extent to which such aid has been linked with the human rights records of aid-receiving governments. The main focus is to explore whether America has actually followed congressional legislation in foreign aid allocations or not. Existing research indicates that due to its foreign policy compulsions, the US has seldom implemented the legislation to cutoff aid to countries where there are well-documented human rights abuses.

A study that focused on the distribution of annual US economic and military assistance to 23 Latin American countries in the 1970s found that human rights did not play a significant role as “during the mid-1970s [US] aid was clearly distributed disproportionately to countries with repressive governments”. The study concludes that when it comes to America’s foreign policy goals – including its security, geo-strategic, political and trade interests – the ideals of freedom, liberty and respect for human rights were not important factors in the provision of aid. Instead of pushing countries to adopt a democratic behaviour and improve their image and performance in relation to respect for human rights, the US was primarily concerned with safeguarding its foreign policy goals in the backdrop of the cold war.

Latin American countries were not the only exceptions. The provision of US economic as well as military assistance to 10 Latin American and 10 Asian and Middle Eastern countries (including Pakistan, India, Indonesia, Thailand, Egypt and Israel) during the regimes of former US presidents Nixon (1968-1974) and Ford (1974-9176) tells the same story.

In this research, the focus was on various issues, such as executions, forced disappearances, tortures and political imprisonments. The study illustrates that these were the same yardsticks mentioned by Congress in framing laws dealing with foreign aid and human rights abuses. The findings of this study did not bring any new results. It was the same case here as US aid had little or no connection with the performance of human rights of a country receiving US assistance.

According to the study, “under presidents Nixon and Ford, foreign assistance was directly related to levels of human rights violations, ie more aid flowed to regimes with higher levels of violation”. Similarly, during the tenures of presidents Carter (1976-1980) and Reagan (1981-1988), it was noted that there was mostly “a positive relationship between aid and human rights violations: the more abusive a state was, the more aid it received”. Research has shown that “at no point during either administration does it appear... that human rights concerns significantly influenced the distribution of [US] foreign assistance, whether it [involved] military or economic aid”.

In view of this, it has been argued that while “most Americans have been socialised to believe that the [US] is a consistent proponent of human rights in the international system”, the actual practice is quite contrary to this belief. As a result, the provision of US foreign aid has rarely been influenced by human rights either during or after the cold war. In clear violation of the congressional legislation, the US provided aid to governments that were involved in gross human rights abuses that affected their own citizens.

Therefore, countries that are vital to US foreign policy ambitions continue to “receive aid regardless of their human rights records”. These countries include Egypt, Israel and so many other governments. In the cruel world of realpolitik sans the ideals of liberty and human dignity, the US has mostly embraced military dictators in all parts of the world and has rewarded human rights violators to pursue its own foreign policy goals. For example, the regimes of Marcos (1965-1986) in the Philippines; General Zia (1977-1988) in Pakistan; General Suharto (1967-1998) in Indonesia; Hosni Mubarak (1981-2011) in Egypt; and the Somoza family in Nicaragua remained the darlings of Washington even though they were known for committing human rights abuses.

The founding fathers of America, who inspired lofty ideals among their own countrymen, must be turning in their graves since their country has become so self-centred in the narrow pursuit of national interests that it rarely speaks out against the atrocities committed against the people of Palestine, Kashmir and Myanmar.

The writer is a postdoctoral research fellow at the German Development Institute at Bonn, Germany.

Email: [email protected]

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