By Phil Stewart
WASHINGTON (Reuters) - The head of the U.S. military's Special Operations Command is seeking to ease restrictions preventing elite American forces from training foreign units linked to human rights violations, saying limiting such help can sometimes be counter-productive.
At question are restrictions under a law written by Democratic Senator Patrick Leahy of Vermont that prohibits funding for training foreign military units if there is credible evidence linking them to gross human rights violations.
"We absolutely want to ensure that the forces we're working with understand and appreciate their requirement to maintain appropriate human rights," said Admiral William McRaven, testifying before the House Armed Services Committee on Wednesday.
But McRaven said the restrictions under the Leahy law prohibited the kind of training that could reinforce the importance of human rights.
"We're kind of getting forced out at a time when we probably need to engage them more than ever before," he said, without naming specific countries.
In another hearing on Tuesday, McRaven said he was exploring the issue within the Pentagon and with lawmakers in Congress. A spokesman for McRaven said the admiral was examining ways to have the restrictions on training eased.
Any change in the Leahy law is likely to face stiff opposition among human rights groups.
Tom Malinowski, the Washington director for Human Rights Watch, objected to the premise that greater exposure to American training might change the behavior of foreign military units linked to rights violations. That behavior is promoted in a command climate that rewards, instead of punishes, abuses, he said.
"Training troops in places where leaders don't hold them accountable doesn't work," Malinowski said. "The whole point of the Leahy Law is to promote accountability so that training can achieve its goals."
McRaven said that if a member of a foreign unit was linked to a human rights violation, then the U.S. military at times was required to step back from the entire unit. McRaven called that a policy of "poison person/poison unit."
General James Mattis, the outgoing commander of the U.S. military's Central Command, testifying at the same hearing on Wednesday, raised the possibility the Leahy law was perhaps creating broader limitations than Congress intended.
The top Democrat on the House Armed Services Committee, Adam Smith, appeared sympathetic to McRaven and said the committee needed to examine the issue.
"I support the human rights concerns," Smith said. "I just think that (Special Operations Command) being able to go in and do train-and-equip missions is a way to improve human rights."
(Editing by Peter Cooney)