When Colombian paramilitary leader Carlos Mario Jimenez, known as "Macaco," tried to reduce his expected prison time in 2008 by turning over his ill-gotten gains to prosecutors, he included on his property list the assets of a major palm oil cooperative. The revelation came as little surprise: The drug-running militias had famously displaced thousands of small farmers across the country through years of massacres, killings, torture and threats, and there had long been rumors that their proxies were developing palm oil projects on the stolen land. Now it was clear that the suspicions were correct.
What came as a shock, though, was that the specific palm oil projects Macaco was delivering had received funds from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) as part of an "alternative livelihoods" strategy meant to wean farmers off growing coca leaf. The U.S. agency, however, had neglected to look beyond the formal list of members of the cooperative to see the violence and human rights violations associated with the projects. USAID had halted similar projects with another company around the same time after U.S.-based groups raised concerns over its alleged paramilitary ties, and claimed to have instituted better procedures to screen land projects. But its failure to adequately implement them in the Macaco case reinforced concerns that the United States seemed willing to turn a blind eye to rights abuses.
This damaging episode is not merely an isolated example, but the result of U.S. aid agencies' weak human rights safeguards. President Barack Obama, who laid out "a new comprehensive strategy to prevent and respond to mass atrocities" in a speech at the Holocaust Museum in April, is well aware of the need for the United States to respond to the worst crimes on the planet. But the White House risks missing the bigger picture if it does not address human rights abuses and repression more broadly.
For decades, the human rights community has raised concerns about military support directed at abusive security forces, but it has paid relatively little attention to softer forms of assistance. This aid, however -- which is provided largely through USAID and the State Department, adding up to approximately $47 billion in 2011 -- can also play a significant role in either abetting or addressing human rights violations.
Fortunately, USAID is starting to recognize the importance of integrating human rights more thoroughly into its work, and has begun to revamp its procedures to achieve this goal. It has strengthened human rights programming and begun to integrate concerns about rights into areas like health and gender rights. But success will require the agency to address a number of areas where its work has failed to meet basic human rights standards, or even worse, supported repression.
Aiding Repression and Abuse
Providing U.S. assistance to countries where booming economic growth is coupled with severe repression -- for instance, Ethiopia, Rwanda, and Uganda -- presents a particularly difficult challenge. In Ethiopia, human rights groups have reported in great detail how the leadership in Addis Ababa has become increasingly authoritarian over the past few years. Since 2003, Human Rights Watch (HRW) has documented crimes against humanity and war crimes by Ethiopia's security forces in response to armed insurgencies, both within its own territory and in neighboring Somalia. And following the introduction of two repressive pieces of legislation in 2009, the vast majority of Ethiopia's independent voices -- including journalists, human rights activists, and opposition party supporters -- have either fled the country or been jailed on trumped-up charges.
In 2010, the ruling party won 99.6 percent of parliamentary seats after a national campaign of threats and coercion. During the campaign, HRW found that the government was using development and food aid, partially funded by the United States, as a tool for repression -- conditioning access to essential government programs, funded through foreign assistance, on support for the ruling party.
Yet even as repression has worsened, development aid has increasingly flowed to Ethiopia. USAID spent almost $740 million on aid to Ethiopia in 2010, the latest year for which solid numbers are publicly available, compared with $588 million in 2005.
This is not a simple issue. Ethiopia is one of Africa's largest and poorest countries, and donors understandably want to help provide a safety net for its most vulnerable citizens. Unlike in countries where donors can support non-governmental activity in lieu of funding a repressive state, in Ethiopia the government has constricted that opportunity through a repressive law that limits the ability of civil society groups working on any human rights or advocacy issues to receive foreign funds. But ignoring the reality that aid to a closed regime means bolstering the power of the ruling party -- and failing to monitor the social effects of U.S. aid programs appropriately -- is no solution.
In other cases, USAID has supported abusive government programs out of lack of concern for human rights standards or simply lack of vigilance. For example, in Vietnam, HRW recently documented how people detained by the police for using drugs are held without due process for four to five years. They are subject to a government policy of "therapeutic labor" for up to 12 hours a day, six days a week. Those who refuse to work, or who infringe on the institution's rules, are tortured and subjected to other forms of ill treatment. These centers "are little more than forced labor camps where tens of thousands of people work against their will six days a week processing cashews, sewing garments, or manufacturing other items," HRW wrote upon the publication of its investigation.