The Rise and Fall of Section 502B

Chappell, John Ramming | February 22, 2023

The first major foreign policy legislation of the human rights revolution of the 1970s,1 Section 502B of the Foreign Assistance Act (FAA) is a latent oversight tool that Congress could use to promote human rights in U.S. security assistance. Section 502B may be the most potent provision of law regarding human rights and security assistance that has never been used. The provision prohibits U.S. security assistance to governments that engage in a consistent pattern of gross violations of human rights, requires the State Department to report on human rights issues, and provides Congress with a mechanism to enforce the statute’s prohibition. This paper traces Section 502B’s history and contends that Congress should incorporate Section 502B into its efforts to promote human rights in U.S. security assistance. Section I discusses how Section 502B functions. Section II then traces the introduction and strengthening of the statute in the context of a rise in congressional oversight and attention to human rights in the 1970s. Section III tracks the decline of Section 502B, pointing to executive resistance to implement the provision’s mandates, judicial tolerance of 502B violations, and legislative reluctance to enforce the statute. Section IV notes a quiet reemergence of interest in Section 502B since 2018. Finally, Section V offers recommendations for how and in which contexts Congress could invoke Section 502B to exercise oversight for U.S. security assistance.