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Human Rights Implications of Foreign U.S. Military Bases

Human Rights Implications of Foreign U.S. Military Bases

Photo credit: U.S. Air Force / Master Sgt. Jeremiah Erickson

This analysis summarizes and reflects on the following research: Bell, S. R., Clay, K. C., & Martinez Machain, C. (2016). The effect of US troop deployments on human rights. Journal of Conflict Resolution, 0022002716632300.

Talking Points

  1. When host countries are less relevant to U.S. security interests, the presence of U.S. troops can lead to positive human rights practices.
  2. When host countries are more central to U.S. security interests, respect for human rights stays the same, or even decreases.
  3. Since the end of the Cold War, human rights education in the U.S. military has increased. However, continued expansion of this training is necessary to inform soldiers of the many ways they can influence human rights.


Since the end of the Second World War, the United States has implemented a foreign policy strategy where U.S. troops are constantly stationed in foreign countries. For the host country, the presence of U.S. troops has varying social, economic, environmental, and political implications. This study focuses on whether these implications, especially those related to human rights, depend on the host country’s relevance to U.S. foreign policy objectives and the country’s proximity to threats to U.S. security.

Past research has found that the presence of U.S. troops abroad can have both positive and negative effects on their host countries. Negative consequences include a false sense of security that leads to the reduction of the host country’s or police forces, which in turn leads to a corresponding increase in crime. A direct link between U.S. troops and increased levels of prostitution and violence against sex workers has also been identified. U.S. bases have caused lasting environmental effects in host countries including water, air, and soil pollution from fuel and lead. Also, the rise in property taxes and inflation in areas surround U.S. bases has been known to push locals out of their homes to seek more affordable areas. In addition to these more direct consequences, countries that host U.S. troops have shown a marked increase in their own defense spending, are more likely to initiate armed disputes with neighboring states, and are more likely to become targets of attacks from anti-U.S. actors. However, past research has also shown positive economic links through the assumed security associated with the presence of U.S. troops. This assumption leads investors to support host economies, trusting that a U.S. security presence will transfer to the security of their investment. Trade has also been known to increase in host countries under the same belief that the U.S. security umbrella will add to regional stability and open lines of commerce. The authors argue that these potential benefits of U.S. troop presence motivate host country governments to increase their respect towards human rights as a way to petition the U.S. to stay in their countries, knowing that human rights advancements are a valued goal among the U.S. military officers and elected officials who make the decisions regarding troop deployments.

In this study, the authors analyze the effect of U.S. troop presence on a host government’s respect for human rights, specifically physical integrity rights. The authors hypothesize that when host countries are irrelevant to U.S. foreign policy or security interests, the presence of U.S. troops can lead to positive human rights practices; but when host countries are more central to U.S. interests, the positive effects on human rights will be less pronounced, or even negative. In addition, they seek to understand more about whether placing an emphasis on human rights training for U.S. troops will improve human rights practices in their host countries.

To test their hypotheses, the authors measured host government respect for physical integrity rights and data on foreign U.S. troop deployments from 1982 to 2005. “Invasion deployments,” including U.S. troops during the 1991 Gulf War, Kosovo in 1999, Afghanistan in 2001, and Iraq in 2003, were not considered, as this research focused specifically on “peacetime” U.S. troop deployments. The authors rated each host country based on its proximity to a U.S. rival or strategic U.S. foreign policy interest. Next, they used training documents and interviews with U.S. military officials to measure the presence of human rights-related training provided to U.S. troops over time. Then they looked to see if there was any relationship between these factors and the host government’s respect for physical integrity rights, measured partially by the extent to which a government “respects the rights of their citizens not to be tortured, politically imprisoned, disappeared, and extrajudicial killed.” Human rights violations by U.S. troops were not included in the study.

The results show that governments’ respect for human rights only improved in host counties that were not important to U.S. political or security interests. In strategically important host countries, respect for human rights either remained the same or got worse. The study also found an increase in the attention the U.S. military has given to educating their troops on human rights issues in their own field operations and in their work with other militaries. Importantly, as human rights education for U.S. troops increased, so did the positive effect the troops had on human rights of their host countries—but only in countries unimportant to U.S. foreign policy. The authors suggest that these findings may be due to the (sometimes) positive economic and security benefits host countries receive during U.S. troop deployments. Once these benefits are realized, host country governments are likely to adopt pro-human rights attitudes and laws in order to keep U.S. troops around. However, the pressure to respect human rights is largely diminished when the host country is more significant to U.S. foreign policy—in these cases, the U.S. is more interested in the strategic positioning of their troops than in the host country’s attitude towards human rights. Consequently, the host country is less likely to change its attitude towards human rights knowing that their strategic importance to the U.S. makes troop withdrawal unlikely.

Physical Integrity Rights: “the entitlements individuals have in international law to be free from arbitrary physical harm and coercion by their government.’’ Cingranelli, D. L., & Richards, D. L. (1999). Measuring the level, pattern, and sequence of government respect for physical integrity rights. International studies quarterly43(2), 407-417.

Contemporary Relevance

Beyond the specific focus of this research on the relationship between U.S. troop presence abroad and human rights, it is important to consider the more fundamental question of whether the U.S. needs to maintain an overseas military presence in first place for the sake of security. The U.S. has a network of 800 military bases spread over 70 countries around the world—more than any other nation or empire in history. Although some may justify U.S. bases abroad with reference to U.S. national security, it is worth remembering that the presence of U.S. bases in Saudi Arabia was one of the primary justifications Osama bin Laden gave for the 9/11 attacks.  The U.S. military presence in South Korea is also one of North Korea’s primary motivations for building its nuclear arsenal.  In other words, these military installations—maintained at a huge expense to the U.S. taxpayer, depleting the ability of the U.S. to invest in schools, health care, and jobs—are actually harmful to U.S. security. They have also spawned numerous resistance movements in their host countries—a sign that many people do not welcome a U.S. military presence in their communities. This global network of bases is built on the idea that the U.S. has special rights and responsibilities in relation to other nations. This vast expanse of bases is offensive militarism, and as peace activist and academic Jack Nelson-Pallmeyer writes, “militarism is not defense. Defending interests isn’t the same thing as defending legitimate security needs” (2012, pg. 94). This is a reality most Americans don’t consider, but the consequences are felt in the countries hosting the bases, by the environment, and certainly by the taxpayer footing the now $700 billion budget of the U.S. Department of Defense.

Practical Implications

Since 1978, the U.S. government has been required to consider the human rights practices of recipient states before making decisions on foreign aid or security assistance. The 1997 adoption of the Leahy Amendment made human rights an even larger priority.

An uncomfortable finding of this study is that if a host country is important enough to U.S. foreign policy, then that country’s respect for human rights is less of a priority for the U.S. In other words, the U.S. is a less principled supporter of human rights than officially stated. The point of departure for any practical implications should be improved human rights practices, regardless of U.S. troop presence and regardless of the strategic value of the country. In cases where U.S. troop presence has led to improved human rights practices, the task ahead is to ensure that those practices become independent from the troop presence. This means that the U.S. needs to incentivize respect for human rights by these governments in other ways, as well as to support the work of local human rights defenders in these countries and facilitate their connections to broader transnational human rights networks.

More importantly though, the very premise of an extensive U.S. military presence abroad must be questioned, and action on human rights practices in other countries should be reframed accordingly.  While particular wars might provoke widespread U.S. antiwar activism, the U.S. military presence on 800 bases across the planet is normalized as part of the U.S.’s role in the world.  A concern for human rights, however, should draw our attention to the broader social, economic, environmental, and security costs of U.S. military bases for surrounding communities, as well as for the U.S. public.

Continued Reading

Military Training 101: Human Rights and Humanitarian Law By Amnesty International:

Where in the World is the U.S. Military? By David Vine, Politico, July/August 2015:

Base Nation: How US Military Bases Abroad Harm America and the World By David Vine. New York: Metropolitan Books, 2015.

US Military Bases in Guam in Global Perspective By Catherine Lutz, The Asia-Pacific Journal, vol. 8, no. 30:

Bases of Empire: The Global Struggle Against U.S. Military Posts Edited by Catherine Lutz. New York: NYU Press, 2009.

The United States Is Training Militaries With Dubious Human Rights Records—Again By Nick Turse, The Nation, September, 2015:

Authentic hope: it’s the end of the World as we know it, but soft landings are possible By Nelson-Pallmeyer, J. (2012). Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books.

Keywords: costs of war, foreign bases, foreign policy, human rights, troops, U.S. military

The above analysis is from Volume 2, Issue 5, of the Peace Science Digest.


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