Despite ongoing concerns about the Nigerian military's shaky record on human rights, House Foreign Affairs Chairman Ed Royce said Wednesday the U.S. needs to step up aid to the central African country's armed forces — even if it means waiving the "Leahy Law," a 1998 act designed to prevent American assistance being given to human rights abusers. The California Republican said President Barack Obama has the power to waive the Leahy Law, an amendment to the Foreign Assistance Act , in "extraordinary circumstances."
Sarah Sewall, State Department under secretary for Civilian Security, Democracy and Human Rights, said she did not know if the United States was considering a waiver to the law.
"Some 50 percent of the Nigerian military at this point in time are not eligible for that form of cooperation with the United States because of the Leahy Law," Sewall said. "And so I think it's just very important as we look at the Leahy Law and as we remember that the fight in Nigeria is fundamentally about human rights and freedoms, we would wish to honor the Leahy Law's commitment to human rights in that context."
Royce's position follows calls this month from Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., to send U.S. special forces into Nigeria and a letter signed by every female senator pressuring the administration to place international sanctions on the terrorist group.
"Unfortunately, the State Department did not want to designate Boko Haram as a foreign terrorist organization until 14 months after the FBI and other government organizations made their plea to designate the group," Rep. Ted Poe, R-Texas, said. "We should have listed Boko Haram earlier. Instead, we worried about diplomatic relations."
Others pushed back on the notion that an earlier designation by the State Department would have prevented the kidnapping.
"I was in favor of declaring Boko Haram as a terrorist organization, but I want to address the undercurrent with some of my friends on the other side of the aisle that somehow, the lack of designating them as a terrorist organization earlier contributed somehow to this kidnapping," ranking member Eliot L. Engel, D-N.Y., said. "I think that's absurd ... it was a policy decision based on facts on the ground."
Also attending the hearing was Deborah Peter, a 15-year-old Nigerian whose father and brother were killed by Boko Haram in December 2011. Peter met with Royce and Engel before Wednesday's hearing and Rep. Gregory W. Meeks, D-N.Y., said he was angered by her story.
"No child, no child should have to see their parents killed, and siblings, before their eyes," Meeks said. "I don't see why that once we get these girls free, I'm going to tell you, for me, I want drones. I want something because they don't belong on this earth."
Tim Starks contributed to this report.