In the wake of an attack against the military in the Mexican state of Michoacán in May 2007, soldiers went on a 3-day rampage. According to Mexico’s National Human Rights Commission, members of the armed forces arbitrarily detained and held 36 people at a military base for up to 84 hours. The detainees suffered numerous abuses—including torture and rape—as part of an effort to obtain information about alleged links to drug-trafficking organizations. One of the detainees was burned, several were tied to posts, and one had his head submerged repeatedly into a bucket of water. The soldiers beat and raped four girls under the age of 18. In addition, soldiers entered more than 30 homes without warrants, causing property damage and injuring inhabitants.
Colombian police and Panamanian soldier conduct vehicle search training scenario in St. Johns, Antigua and Barbuba, exercise Tradewinds 2011
U.S. Marine Corps (Tyler Hlavac)
Unfortunately, such stories of human rights abuses by military personnel have increased since President Felipe Calderón assumed office in December 2006 and summoned the armed forces to lead the struggle against the violent drug-trafficking organizations that have wreaked havoc on society. Mexico is not alone in its inability to reconcile human rights and public security. A growing public security crisis in much of Latin America and the Caribbean has placed exacting pressures on security forces. The adage that desperate times call for desperate measures could spread as governments search for effective methods to fight the crime epidemic and public insecurity. Across much of the region, the inability of law enforcement to deal with the crisis has led to the deployment of troops to the streets. Police forces in many countries are overwhelmed and underfunded. Worse, police corruption is rampant, and police involvement in illicit trafficking has become commonplace. As a result, a diverse group of nations, including Brazil, Colombia, Guatemala, El Salvador, Honduras, and Mexico, has assigned law enforcement responsibilities to their militaries, and other nations will likely follow suit in the effort to stem the violence associated with powerful criminal organizations.1
The integration of human rights and public security into a single coherent agenda is of critical importance. As the Mexican case illustrates so vividly, the militarization of law enforcement increases the potential for confusion and mistakes in the realm of human rights. While the United States should in no way encourage the expansion of the military’s domestic role and should focus additional resources on strengthening police forces and judicial institutions, Washington cannot ignore the reinsertion of the armed forces into an internal security role.2 Given the military’s participation in past repression in Latin America and in recognition of the fact that military doctrine is not typically oriented toward the responsibilities of law enforcement, strong human rights programs within the armed forces of Latin America and the Caribbean are essential.3
This article makes the case that the reconciliation of human rights and citizen security is critical to the security and stability of the Americas and provides an overview of the daunting public security challenges in Latin America and the Caribbean that have led to military reinsertion. The article then demonstrates how the U.S. Southern Command (USSOUTHCOM) human rights division has advanced the human rights agenda in the region. It argues that the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD) should assume a greater role in the development of military human rights programs across the globe and draws lessons from the USSOUTHCOM experience that could inform human rights programs in the other regional combatant commands. The article concludes with a reminder that the military is not a long-term solution to public insecurity and that an effective plan must include police reform and the establishment of the rule of law to address the impunity that plagues much of the region.
Why Human Rights Matter
In addition to the obvious moral and ethical reasons for respecting rights, attention to human rights is an essential component of an effective public security campaign. Former Secretary of Defense Robert Gates highlighted the need to reconcile rights and security during his 2009 address at the Halifax International Security Forum: “Strong human rights programs are vital when conducting military responses in complex environments
. . . security gains will be illusory if they lack the public legitimacy that comes with respect for human rights and the rule of law.” Unfortunately, the misperception that rights and security are contradictory goals is widespread.4 Barry McCaffrey reports that there is a common assumption that respect for an enemy’s soldiers and its civilian populace can stand in the way of a successful military campaign.5 Instead, respect for human rights increases the efficacy of security forces, both military and law enforcement.
Human rights abuses undermine trust, public support, and cooperation, all of which are vital to an effective campaign to restore security. Violations undermine the necessary trust to get community collaboration. In fact, they have the potential to turn the populace against the military or police. Without trust, security forces lack access to vital intelligence. Where citizens have faith in security officials, they are more likely to share information. As we see from successful community policing programs in cities such as Bogotá and Rio de Janeiro, trust enables security forces to get closer to the population, so they can see and hear things that citizens are unwilling to discuss where human rights violations are the norm. On a related note, respect for rights is necessary to ensure that any progress in the arena of public security is lasting. As McCaffrey argues, violations create the need to “defend gains because of the enduring hostility from a civilian populace.”6 The bottom line is that respect for rights leads to closer ties between the security forces and community and to increased social support for those forces.
Integrating human rights and public security is especially important in those Latin American nations where there is low confidence in the legal system and a history of traumatic interaction between the security forces and people. In much of the region, the relationship between the armed forces and society is fraught with distrust and fear. Trust-building mechanisms, which include respect for rights, are key elements to any strategy to restore citizen security. Furthermore, where military personnel violate rights, they aggravate the climate of lawlessness and impunity that allows violent criminal organizations to f lourish.
A failure to integrate rights and security could undermine democracy in Latin America. Where state actors, including security forces, violate the rights of citizens, the legitimacy of the democratic system is at risk. In particular, human rights abuses undermine the rule of law, a cornerstone of liberal democracy. The rule of law entails the equality of all citizens, including state agents, under the law and predictability in the application of rules and regulations. Security forces must be subject to the principle of legality in a rule-oflaw system. Recurrent deployment of troops to the streets has historically led to impunity for corrupt and abusive military personnel. Without a rule of law to protect human rights, citizens are unlikely to value democracy, and its legitimacy and even survival are at risk.
Sailors and Coastguardsmen intercept suspected cocaine smugglers in eastern Pacific Ocean
U.S. Navy (Ed Early)
In addition, history provides an important lesson on the importance of integrating rights and security. Human rights issues do not go away, and citizens in much of Latin America continue to engage with the legacy of repressive military dictatorships. Abuses of the past continue to haunt societies long after they occur, as we see in Argentina, Chile, and Guatemala. Societal divisions have lingered, and the issue remains prominent.
Finally, human rights training can increase public and congressional support in the United States for military engagement with the armed forces of Latin America and the Caribbean. In the U.S. system of government, congressional supervision serves as an important, though imperfect, deterrent to abuses. In theory, security assistance from the United States is contingent on respect for human rights. Reports of human rights violations undermine congressional support for military-to-military engagement and aid.
The Public Security Crisis
The need for security is urgent and undeniable, and illicit trafficking activity has exacerbated regional and local crime problems. Survey data reveal that citizen insecurity is one of the top two public concerns in the region, and the need to combat crime has entered the political discourse from Mexico to Chile. According to the 2009 Latinobarometer survey, citizens from Chile, Costa Rica, El Salvador, Guatemala, Panama, Uruguay, and Venezuela found crime to be the most important problem facing their countries. Violent crime has had a detrimental impact on the quality of life and has eroded confidence in democracy. If governments fail to stem the tide of violence, citizens are likely to lose faith in democratic institutions and may ultimately opt not to defend them against authoritarian incursions.
As crime rates increase, pressure mounts for “strong” government action, which in many instances results in highly repressive and undemocratic measures.7 To ensure that citizen dissatisfaction does not undermine the legitimacy of democratic government, Latin American leaders must address the challenges posed by crime and violence, but they must also avoid using undemocratic means in the process.
It is important to understand the magnitude of the public security crisis that has led to military reinsertion in much of Latin America and the Caribbean. In Central America, the democratic transitions of the 1980s and 1990s sparked optimism that the isthmus would finally experience a break from its violent past. The optimism was short-lived, however, as Central America has yet to witness a new era of stability. Crime and insecurity remain a fact of everyday life. Illicit trafficking organizations increasingly move drugs, humans, and weapons through Central America and Mexico, and crime rates have skyrocketed. In addition, much of Central America suffers from an epidemic of gang (mara)-related violence.
The statistics reveal a grim reality. In 2009, the United Nations Development Program reported a homicide rate for Central America of 33 per 100,000 citizens, more than 4 times the global average of 8 per 100,000 and over 5 times the U.S. rate of 6 per 100,000. The homicide rate is 77 per 100,000 citizens in Honduras; 66 per 100,000 in El Salvador; and 50 per 100,000 in Guatemala.8 The Guatemalan murder rate has more than doubled over the past decade. One indicator of the culture of insecurity that has enveloped Guatemala is the increasing reliance on private security personnel, who outnumber the police by a factor of five.9 Even Costa Rica and Panama, two countries that have long been considered exempt from the scourge of violent crime, saw their homicide rates double between 2000 and 2008.10
The violence is not limited to Mexico and Central America. The Venezuelan capital of Caracas has become infamous as the murder capital of the world with a staggering homicide rate of more than 130 per 100,000 citizens. Venezuela’s overall murder rate is 57 per 100,000. Although the homicide rate in Colombia declined during Álvaro Uribe’s presidency, it remains high relative to the rest of the world at 39 per 100,000 inhabitants. Brazil suffers a homicide rate of 25 per 100,000. The nations of the Caribbean have also experienced a spike in violent crime. In Jamaica, the homicide rate rose from 36 in 2003 to 58 per 100,000 in 2006. In the Dominican Republic, the homicide rate rose from 14 to 27 per 100,000 between 1999 and 2005, and the rate in Trinidad and Tobago more than quadrupled from 7 to 30 per 100,000.11
Potential Role of the U.S. Military
DOD can contribute to the development of robust human rights programs in the militaries of nations that have requested U.S. assistance in their struggle for public security.12 DOD should assume greater responsibility in human rights promotion efforts that focus on the intersection between respect for rights and the provision of security. Unfortunately, the department has not demonstrated a serious or consistent interest in human rights training programs.
USSOUTHCOM, which focuses on South and Central America and the Caribbean, is currently the only unified combatant command with a dedicated human rights division. The division has made a laudable effort to promote a military ethic of restraint, strong mechanisms of accountability, and increased transparency since its creation in 1990. At the end of the Cold War, USSOUTHCOM commander General Maxwell Thurman, USA, recognized the need to integrate human rights into the command’s operational mission and to address the legacy of the past, when human rights were on the back burner. The human rights initiative came from within USSOUTHCOM rather than from DOD.
Today, the USSOUTHCOM program receives no dedicated funding from DOD, which limits its ability to secure the resources necessary to support its mission, thereby limiting its impact on the region. The division has relied on the commander’s limited discretionary funds and has had to turn to the Joint Staff to fund human rights programs in Colombia. Given the lack of policy direction and dedicated funding from the Office of the Secretary of Defense, the USSOUTHCOM human rights program has no top cover other than moral certitude. Nevertheless, the division continues to promote programs based on the belief that the U.S. military and its partners have much to learn from each other in the realm of human rights.
First and foremost, the USSOUTHCOM human rights division has an internal function. It is responsible for ensuring that all U.S. military personnel deploying to Central and South America and the Caribbean have received extensive human rights training, including instruction on international humanitarian law and the procedures for identifying and reporting violations. The internal function of the division is especially important in Latin America, where there is a deeply rooted distrust of the U.S. military. Cold War Latin America was characterized by repressive authoritarian governments supported by Washington, whom many viewed as a facilitator of the widespread human rights atrocities.
In addition to ensuring that all USSOUTHCOM personnel receive human rights training, the division directs members of the U.S. military to work with their regional counterparts in an effort to promote respect for human rights in Latin America and the Caribbean. The division’s responsibilities include ensuring that human rights are integrated into all USSOUTHCOM exercises, operations, and training programs and serving as a liaison to other entities working on human rights issues, including the interagency community and nongovernmental organizations (NGOs).13
In recognition of the challenges posed by military insertion into domestic security, the USSOUTHCOM human rights division focuses on integrating respect for human rights into military doctrine and on rules for the use of force in nontraditional missions. When assistance is requested, the division supports Latin American and Caribbean nations in the generation of rules, and it sponsors training programs that encourage rank-and-file troops to follow those rules. USSOUTHCOM Command Strategy 2020 highlights the importance of human rights training: “Some militaries are taking on internal security roles. USSOUTHCOM, in conjunction with others in the U.S. interagency [community], should help them shape these new security duties in ways that fully respect human rights and the rule of law.”14
Naval officer instructs Honduran police in San Lorenzo during Southern Partnership Station 2011
U.S. Navy (Ricardo J. Reyes)
U.S. Southern Command has helped sponsor regional conferences with the goal of building regional consensus on the responsibility of military forces in protecting human rights. The inclusion of members of civil society groups provides an opportunity for defense officials and military members to interact closely with civil society representatives and to address mutual suspicions. For instance, a 2009 conference in Guatemala drew representatives from 22 nations and major Guatemalan and international human rights organizations. The 5 days of dialogue provided a unique opportunity for Guatemalan military and human rights advocates to discuss sensitive issues that continue to haunt their country as it recovers from the 36-year civil war that was marked by egregious human rights abuses.15
The Human Rights Initiative (HRI) exemplifies the USSOUTHCOM effort to foster a culture of respect for human rights within the armed forces of the region. In the 1990s, USSOUTHCOM and the Inter-American Institute for Human Rights, an NGO based in Costa Rica, co-hosted two regional conferences on the role of security forces in defending human rights that led to consensus on the need to institutionalize a regional human rights program. The effort became known as the Human Rights Initiative.16 Between 1997 and 2002, USSOUTHCOM sponsored a series of six seminars involving military representatives from 34 countries along with members of prominent NGOs; this effort led to the Consensus Document, a military human rights program with specific plans of action and measures of effectiveness. The Consensus Document now serves as a model for doctrine, training, internal control systems, and cooperation with civilian authorities. The document presents the HRI mission: “To prevent and sanction violations of human rights and international humanitarian law by members of the military and security forces and create zero tolerance on the part of these institutions for any violations which its members may commit.”17
To help countries implement the model program, the USSOUTHCOM human rights division turned to the Center for Human Rights Study, Analysis, and Training, another NGO based in Costa Rica, which serves as the Secretariat for the HRI. The Secretariat signs a memorandum of cooperation with the Defense Ministry of each country that commits its military to the HRI. So far, Bolivia, Colombia, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, El Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Panama, Peru, and Uruguay have signed memoranda of cooperation. The Conference of Central American Armed Forces, a regional organization, has also made a formal commitment to implement the HRI. Like other USSOUTHCOM human rights efforts, however, the HRI would benefit from formal DOD support.
Building a Global Defense Department Human Rights Program
Given the complex nature of emerging challenges throughout the world, the need for military human rights programs will only increase. Nontraditional threats such as public insecurity and terrorism impact every corner of the globe, elevating the urgency of integrating respect for human rights into military doctrine and of developing and adhering to rules for the use of force. Based on his experience, McCaffrey concludes that poor understanding of the complexities of unconventional war is an institutional problem that sets the stage for human rights abuses.18 DOD should develop and fund a robust human rights program that would include all six regional combatant commands.
As it assumes a greater role in the promotion of human rights, DOD can build and improve upon the USSOUTHCOM model. The evolution of the command’s program during the past two decades provides important lessons for the other regional commands. First, any successful military human rights program requires support from above. Without dedicated funding, the impact of the program will be limited. In the case of USSOUTHCOM, the human rights program has been internally driven and has depended entirely on the command’s leadership and personnel since it receives no formal support from DOD. Though well-intentioned, intermittent programs are not enough to make a lasting difference. As General Douglas Fraser, USAF, explains, an effective human rights program “must be enduring—not episodic.”19
Second, any military human rights program should have both an internal and external mission. It is essential that all U.S. military personnel deploying abroad receive intensive human rights training. Just as U.S. military personnel must respect human rights in Latin America and the Caribbean, it is essential that the military respect human rights as it conducts counterterrorism operations in other regions. Indeed, Joint Publication 3–07.1, Joint Tactics, Techniques and Procedures for Foreign Internal Defense (FID), emphasizes that “In many FID combat situations, the moral high ground may be just as important as the tactical high ground.” The Abu Ghraib scandal served as a powerful reminder that abuses by U.S. military personnel undermine support as well as claims to the moral high ground. Respect for human rights is as important in the battle against terrorism as it is in the struggle against criminal organizations. As President Barack Obama declared during his 2009 acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize, “America—in fact, no nation— can insist that others follow the rules of the road if we refuse to follow them ourselves. For when we don’t, our actions appear arbitrary and undercut the legitimacy of future interventions, no matter how justified.”
Third, DOD personnel must recognize that theirs is not the lead U.S. Government agency in promoting human rights and that a whole-of-government approach is essential. The Department of State leads overall U.S. Government efforts to advance human rights, and DOD plays a supporting role. Any DOD human rights program must be limited to working with the military and requires close coordination with the State Department, U.S. Agency for International Development, and other U.S. Government agencies. Recognition of its auxiliary position has been critical to the USSOUTHCOM division’s operations in Latin America. Indeed, interagency coordination and constant dialogue with Country Teams have been central to the division’s success. The division’s civilian deputy chief, Leana Bresnahan, and her team stress the importance of not “veering into the State Department’s lane.”20 Moreover, as we learned from the School of the Americas’s experience during the height of the Cold War, the State Department must have the authority to oversee USSOUTHCOM programs. That is essential for all military initiatives, not just human rights programs.
Fourth, the USSOUTHCOM experience illustrates the importance of partnering with other nations and NGOs. In some parts of the world, the U.S. military carries historical baggage and lacks credibility. In the case of the USSOUTHCOM division, collaboration with the two Costa Rican NGOs has been essential to the Human Rights Initiative and has demonstrated that it is not a unilateral U.S. initiative but rather a multilateral program. In addition to the formal relationship with the Costa Rican NGOs, USSOUTHCOM’s continuing efforts to include members of international and regional civil society groups in conferences, exercises, and training programs have facilitated open dialogue between members of the armed forces and NGO representatives.
A human rights program at U.S. Northern Command (USNORTHCOM), which is responsible for North America, including Mexico, would help Mexico address the challenges associated with the military’s counternarcotics mission. As discussed earlier, the increasing number of abuses by Mexican soldiers undermines the effort to counter illicit trafficking networks. During his tenure as USNORTHCOM commander, General Victor Renuart, USAF (Ret.), expressed interest in creating a human rights division based on the USSOUTHCOM model.
UN Soldier and Chilean worker deliver cots to church providing shelter for citizens relocated to Port-de-Paix, Haiti, after earthquake in Port-au-Prince
U.S. Air Force (Victoria Brayton)
Leaders from U.S. European Command (USEUCOM), U.S. Central Command, and U.S. Africa Command have also reached out to USSOUTHCOM for guidance on human rights issues. Moreover, based on his experience as USSOUTHCOM commander from 2006 through 2009, the commander of USEUCOM and North Atlantic Treaty Organization Supreme Allied Commander Europe, Admiral James Stavridis, is pushing for greater human rights engagement with militaries in Europe. During his tenure as U.S. Pacific Command commander, Admiral Timothy Keating, USN (Ret.), pushed for security cooperation programs that focused on military respect for human rights.
Judicial and Police Reform
DOD has the potential to play an important supporting role in broader U.S. Government efforts at human rights promotion. In a 2009 speech outlining the Obama administration’s human rights agenda, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton declared, “We will use all the tools at our disposal, and when we run up against a wall, we will not retreat with resignation or recriminations, or repeatedly run up against the same wall, but respond with strategic resolve to find another way to effect change.” The U.S. military could be a potent tool to advance the administration’s human rights agenda and to effect the change that Secretary Clinton has called for not only in Latin America and the Caribbean, but also across the globe.
Although human rights programs are important, any effective long-term strategy to combat public insecurity must allocate significant resources to restore integrity to the judicial system and to law enforcement. This will not be an easy task. The rule of law in much of Latin America is weak, and the courts are considered ineffective and politicized in most countries. Until nations have the institutional capacity to hold criminals accountable for their actions, citizen security is impossible. Impunity plagues much of the region,21 and each nation must give priority to reforming the justice system and building investigative and prosecutorial capacities.
An overhaul of law enforcement is also critical. With the exception of Chile and Uruguay, trust in the military is notably higher than trust in the police. In Mexico, for instance, trust in the armed forces is 27 points higher than trust in the police.22 Training, funding, and professionalizing law enforcement is a necessary condition for public security in the democracies of Latin America and the Caribbean. Improved hiring standards and vetting procedures are vital. Only after the police have the capacity and incentives to meet their legal responsibility of providing public security will governments relieve the military from the internal security mission