Editor’s note: This is a guest post by Carla Martinez Machain. She is an assistant professor in the Department of Political Science at Kansas State University.
Can U.S. troops abroad improve respect for human rights? A recent conversation with a U.S. Army lieutenant colonel who had deployed to Guinea as part of a series of U.S. military training exercises for military personnel in sub-Saharan Africa revealed that much of the training local troops receive involves human rights training, both theoretical and practical. In a particularly amusing anecdote, he recounted going as far as having long conversations with local soldiers on why honking at locals to get off the road when driving convoys through towns is bad form and fosters bad relations with civilians.
This image of human rights training being carried out abroad by U.S. soldiers stands in stark contrast with reports of the U.S. distributing “torture manuals” to Latin American military officers at its School of the Americas training sessions and those same foreign officers then going on to be implicated in human rights abuses. So, which story better illustrates the average effect that U.S. troop deployments abroad can have on the physical integrity rights record of the host state? Recent research (gated; ungated accepted manuscript version here) conducted by myself in collaboration with Sam Bell and K. Chad Clay shows that (no surprise here!) the answer is a (somewhat) complicated one.
Half Full and Half Empty Glasses
There clearly is reason to believe that a U.S. troop deployment (specifically, a non-invasion, consensual one) could lead to increased respect for physical integrity rights. As mentioned above, the U.S. military explicitly aims to alter the human rights practices of host country forces when conducting military training. Even without military training, given that these deployments are consensual, we can assume that they provide some benefits to the host country (such as providing security). Given that the U.S. ties its foreign policy to human rights concerns, the benefits of the deployments would give the U.S. increased leverage over the host country’s human rights policy, thus potentially leading to improvements in that area.
At the same time, previous work has found that human rights concerns tend to take second place to security interests when it comes to U.S. foreign policy. In addition, there is always the possibility that U.S. troop deployments, similarly to non-tax revenue, may actually make leaders more willing to abuse their populations.
What’s Salience Got to Do with It?
In our paper, we argue that which effect wins out will depend on how important the host state is to U.S. security interests. When a state is highly salient to the security interests of the United States, it is hard for the U.S. to credibly threaten to remove its forces due to human rights violations.
We indeed find that the presence of U.S. troops has a positive and significant effect on respect for physical integrity rights in the host country, but that this effect only exists when the host country is not located near a US rival, a leftist rebellion or Marxist state, or a conflict in which the U.S. is involved. On the other hand, we find no statistically significant effect for states that are highly security-salient to the United States.
This Thing Called The Cold War…
If you talk to U.S. military officers today, they will most likely tell you that human rights have always been an aspect of their military training. At the same time, it’s important to keep in mind that the U.S. has only explicitly made human rights issues central to military training in the last twenty-five years. To put it into perspective, in 1991 many of today’s field-grade officers were young cadets only just beginning their military careers.
What this means is that if at least some of the effect of U.S. deployments on physical integrity rights is a result of military training, we should expect a larger effect after the end of the Cold War. In addition, with the Cold War coming to an end, we should expect that the U.S. would be less likely to turn a blind eye to autocrats that benefit from U.S. military aid and abuse their populations, as the support of these regimes against Communism was no longer as essential with the Soviet Union gone. It was also in the post-Cold War era that human rights groups such as SOA Watch exposed U.S. military misdoings such as the aforementioned “torture manuals.”
In our article, we do find that in the post-Cold War era a U.S. military presence is more likely to have a positive effect on respect for physical integrity rights. Again, this is only true for states with lower security salience for the United States. We found no significant effect, regardless of salience, during the Cold War.
It’s Not All Bad News!
So what do we take away from this study? Mainly, we now have cause to be more optimistic about the effect that current U.S. military deployments can have on the promotion of physical integrity rights. The fact that there is a statistically significant positive effect of deployments on physical integrity rights, even if it is in a limited set of (less-salient) states, is cause for optimism. It is also good news that deployments in recent years have shown a significant positive effect that appears to have been absent during the Cold War, suggesting that changes to the U.S. military’s treatment of human rights may be having a real effect in the field.
At the same time, if one of the U.S. foreign policy goals of the United States government and military is to promote respect for physical integrity rights, it is important to note that in many locations (namely, those that are most important to U.S. security interests), this goal is not being met. We hope that further work on different types of deployments (for example, military training vs. development oriented ones) and on deployments by non-U.S. forces will help us to better understand this relationship and its implications for U.S. foreign policy.
The full article (gated) is available OnlineFirst from the Journal of Conflict Resolution. (The ungated, accepted manuscript version can be viewed HERE).
 Physical integrity rights are “the entitlements individuals have in international law to be free from arbitrary physical harm and coercion by their government” (Cingranelli and Richards 1999, 407). In particular, we focus on the rights to be free from extrajudicial killing, disappearance, torture, and political imprisonment.
 For example, Cooley (2008) discusses how some Central Asian states exploited their increased security salience to the United States during the Afghanistan war (Uzbekistan and Kyrgystan both hosted US bases) by using war-on-terror rhetoric to persecute their political rivals.