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In the weeks after the September 11 attacks on New York City and Washington, D.C., the United States declared a worldwide war on terrorism and assembled an international coalition to support its efforts. To conduct the war that has followed, the government has relied extensively on its foreign military assistance program, which it defines as a means for "friends and allies to acquire U.S. [military] equipment, services, and training for . . . legitimate self-defense and for participation in multinational security efforts."1 The United States has used this assistance both to advance specific military goals and to solidify the support of new allies. In the process, however, it has expressed minimal concern about the potential side effects of its policy. Asked in September if the lifting of arms export sanctions on Pakistan foreshadowed increased cooperation with other previously criticized states, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the United States would "work with" those governments that supported its fight.2 About a week later, he said, "[I]f governments are willing to cooperate against terrorism . . . then we welcome that cooperation, and that [will] result in a change in the level of our ability to cooperate with them."3 These and other official statements suggest that, at least for the foreseeable future, the war on terrorism will dominate U.S. decision-making on foreign military assistance. In such a climate, human rights protection may become an unintended casualty. 

In forging its international coalition against terrorism, the United States has modified its military assistance program in three significant ways. First it has changed its legal regime to facilitate arms transfers to foreign nations. Second it has granted military assistance to several states directly involved in the war in Afghanistan. Finally it has increased and expedited counterterrorism assistance and general military aid to other countries around the world. Whether these developments represent a long-term policy shift or a response to a specific crisis remains to be seen. In either case, they raise human rights issues that the United States should take into account.

Human Rights Watch is concerned about post-September 11 U.S. policy because it opposes military assistance to governments that have engaged in a pattern of gross violations of international human rights or humanitarian law. Several of the policy's potential beneficiaries have poor human rights records that include torture, political killings, illegal detention, and religious persecution, as well as histories of international humanitarian law violations, such as unlawful attacks on civilians. The modifications in the U.S. foreign military assistance program make it easier for known violators to acquire the tools of abuse, thus implicating the United States in abuses that result. The loosening of restrictions on military assistance also sets a dangerous example for arms exporting nations around the world. 

1 Defense Security Cooperation Agency (DSCA), "Military Assistance," at (accessed January 4, 2002).

2 Richard Boucher, U.S. Department of State Daily Press Briefing transcript, September 24, 2001.

3 Richard Boucher, U.S. Department of State Daily Press Briefing transcript, October 2, 2001.

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