Sen. Patrick Leahy’s Retirement Leaves a Hole in the Heart of Human Rights Advocacy

U.S. politicians constantly talk about human rights overseas. Leahy actually meant it.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., speaks during a Senate Appropriations Committee hearing on April 20, 2021, in Washington, D.C. Photo: Oliver Contreras/Getty Images

“It’s going to be the end of an era for sure,” says Alex Main, director of international policy at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, a progressive think tank in Washington, D.C. The end Main is referring to is that of the senatorial career of Democrat Patrick Leahy of Vermont, who was first elected in 1974 and announced Monday that he will not run for a ninth term in 2022.

The Leahy era was one in which the senator quietly, persistently, and cannily used his power to prevent egregious crimes by U.S. allies and promote human rights around the world. Leahy’s work “saved lives,” according to Amy Fischer, Americas advocacy director at Amnesty International USA. “He has truly shown for decades what human rights leadership looks like in practice.” Main emphasizes the same thing: There are people alive today who would not be without Leahy.

The planet, of course, is used to U.S. officials talking about human rights all the time. “Human rights and dignity must stay at the core of the international order,” Secretary of State Antony Blinken proclaimed earlier this year. A search for the term in the State Department’s tweets could keep you reading for years.

But how much of a role do human rights actually play in U.S. foreign policy? As an anonymous senior official explained in 2013, very little. Instead, stated concerns over human rights are not sincere but merely useful propaganda about our current enemies. “The countries that cooperate with us get at least a free pass,” the official told the Washington Post. “Whereas other countries that don’t cooperate, we ream them as best we can.” Democrats are no different from Republicans in this respect, he explained about the election of President Barack Obama: “There’s pretty much been no change at all. … It was an almost seamless transition from Bush to Obama.”

Bloviating on human rights by U.S. leaders therefore can generally be ignored, in the same way that no one took seriously the Soviet Union’s flood of bitter tears over the suffering of African Americans.

Yet Leahy was a true exception to this rule.

When speaking about his retirement, Leahy discussed his accomplishments and specified, “I am especially proud of the Leahy Law.” First passed in 1997, and subsequently expanded and improved, the law prohibits U.S. assistance to “any unit of the security forces of a foreign country if the Secretary of State has credible information that such unit has committed a gross violation of human rights.” Of all his actions over 50 years, the Leahy Law may be his most significant legacy.

Leahy came of age in the Senate during a period when the U.S. supported not just massacres but also extraordinarily gruesome ones, especially in Central America during the 1980s. The infamous 1981 killing of almost 1,000 residents of El Mozote in El Salvador was carried out by a military unit that had just been trained and equipped by America. Years later, Leahy was still outraged by what happened, condemning the “lies, half-truths, and evasions” by U.S. officials about the murders.

Many of America’s vicious 1980s policies migrated south to Colombia during the 1990s. U.S. aid flowed to the Colombian military, purportedly as part of the war on drugs (a scheme vociferously supported by then-Delaware Sen. Joe Biden). This was preposterous, given how deeply intertwined the Colombian government itself was with the country’s cocaine economy. In reality, much of the American money went to waging an incredibly cruel counterinsurgency campaign against the country’s leftist guerillas, plus any civilians in the general vicinity.

Villagers reported that military and paramilitary units would show up in town, grab people engaged in political organizing, and cut their clothes at the shoulder or thigh. This was a warning that if they didn’t flee, the units would return the next week and cut off their limbs at those points with a chainsaw. This was absolutely not an idle threat.

U.S. policy toward Colombia was the immediate impetus for Leahy’s work on his namesake bill. It subsequently had a partial but real impact there — and beyond. For calendar year 2019, there were 31 security force units ineligible for U.S. aid in nine countries, including 12 in Mexico alone. The Leahy Law has obviously not prevented all atrocities by U.S. allies, partly because it is often poorly enforced — two clear examples are Saudi Arabia’s assault on Yemen and Israel’s treatment of Gaza and the West Bank — but human rights advocates see it as far better than nothing. “It continues to provide an incentive to countries whose security forces possess poor human rights records to clean up their acts, and it remains a really powerful tool to prevent the U.S. government from directly arming human rights violators,” says Fischer. “One of the things that made Sen. Leahy so powerful and effective in his human rights leadership is that … he really took a systems approach to it.”

“One of the things that made Sen. Leahy so powerful and effective in his human rights leadership is that … he really took a systems approach to it.”

Leahy also staged direct interventions in specific cases. One notable recent example is the 2016 murder of Berta Cáceres, then the most prominent environmental campaigner in Honduras and possibly the world. “There’s an enormous amount of impunity in Honduras,” Main states. “People get away with murder all the time and easily get away with the murder of an activist.”

This has not been the case with Cáceres, however. Several low-level conspirators have been sentenced to prison. And more surprisingly, Roberto David Castillo, the president of a dam company that loathed Cáceres for blocking its projects, was found guilty earlier this year of ordering her assassination. Before Castillo’s corporate career, he was a Honduran army intelligence officer and received training from the U.S.

Credit for this outcome goes first and foremost to brave members of the justice system in Honduras, a country where judges are sometimes killed themselves. But it is also thanks to Leahy, who worked the case in front of and behind the scenes. “The most impactful [U.S.] pressure came from Leahy,” Main contends, “using his power within the Appropriations Committee to push the State Department to do what they always are saying that they’re doing in terms of promoting rule of law and human rights.”

All this barely scratches the surface of Leahy’s work. He’s been a prominent American leader in the worldwide effort to ban land mines. As part of that fight, he helped establish a fund to compensate people crippled by land mines. He played a crucial role in the Obama administration’s decision (since partially reversed by President Donald Trump) to normalize relations with Cuba, with the easing of some U.S. sanctions mitigating the long-term American attempt to strangle the island economically.

All this said, it must be acknowledged that Leahy also played a role in the larger U.S. global military system. John Lindsay-Poland, a project coordinator with the organization Global Exchange and an admirer of many of Leahy’s accomplishments, points out that Leahy “has also chaired committees that approved many billions of dollars that advanced warfare and destruction in dozens of countries.”

But it is undeniable that Leahy has been a unique, and uniquely positive, figure in the history of the Senate. The question now is whether anyone can replace him. “It’s due time for somebody to take up that mantle,” says Fischer. As of today, however, while there have been meaningful contributions from several senators, there is no singular character who’s demonstrated Leahy’s dogged, long-term commitment to international human rights.

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