Human Rights & U.S. Security Assistance in the Americas: This Much at Least Must Be Done

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U.S. Security Assistance and Human Rights in the Americas Today: This Much at Least Must Be Done

Statement by Lisa Haugaard, Executive Director, Latin America Working Group Education Fund at the Just the Facts Conference:
Security, Civil-Military Relations, and U.S. Policy in the Americas Today

September 28, 2012

How do you ensure that U.S. security assistance supports and does not undercut human rights? 

As a human rights advocate, my best answer is quite simple:
The United States should not provide training and assistance to highly abusive military or police forces.

However, the U.S. government often does give assistance and training to abusive security forces. 

In those cases, at an absolute minimum, there must be enforceable human rights conditions over all military and police assistance, through all sources, including through the Defense as well as State budget, and the State Department and the Congress must be willing to enforce them.

Enforcing conditions means actually suspending assistance when security forces commit gross violations of human rights with impunity.  And it means strategically using the leverage of the assistance to press the partner government for improvements in their security forces’ respect for human rights and accountability for abuses.

I remember well when as Plan Colombia was about to be rolled out by the Clinton Administration, as human rights and humanitarian agencies we went to the State Department and expressed our grave concerns about the human rights record of the Colombian military, especially about the issue of collaboration with paramilitaries which were committing massacres and selective assassinations. We were told repeatedly by U.S. civilian government and military officials, don’t worry, the human rights record of the Colombian army will improve. Don’t worry, they said, we will provide an enormous amount of human rights training, and respect for human rights will improve with U.S. aid and training.

And yet, after four years of massive U.S. assistance and training, during a five-year period from 2004 through 2008, members of the Colombian military allegedly committed massive numbers of extrajudicial executions, the murder in cold blood of innocent civilians, in 31 out of 32 departments in the country, by virtually all parts of the army. Over 3,500 extrajudicial executions were allegedly committed by members of the Colombian security forces between 2002 and 2010, the vast majority during 2004-2008.  

These cases often involved groups of soldiers detaining someone, with the victim sometimes seen by witnesses being detained in civilian clothing. Later, the person would be found dead, dressed in a guerrilla uniform, in an army morgue, claimed by the army as a guerrilla killed in combat.  In a number of cases, Colombian soldiers actually purchased young men from criminal recruiters and killed them in staged battles in order to up their body counts and receive bonuses and days off.  The record of the Colombian armed forces became far worse during this period, in terms of direct abuses committed by soldiers, during the high water mark of U.S. military aid and training.

And until recently, the United States supplied intelligence assistance to the Colombian intelligence agency known as the DAS.  The infamous DAS, as we later learned, used its expertise and resources to spy on Colombia’s Supreme Court, journalists, trade unionists and human rights defenders, and to go beyond spying to harassing and threatening human rights defenders and trade unionists. So of course we can’t limit our concerns to military training, we also have to be concerned with the consequences of aid to intelligence services.

Among the many lessons of this tragic chapter that should be applied to all U.S. military training in Latin America:  human rights training can be useful, and indeed I believe it can be, but it is nowhere near sufficient.  You have to look at what the incentives are, whether commanders under whom abuses are committed are demoted or promoted, and above all, whether there is justice for abuses.

And you absolutely must listen to the victims, the family members of the victims, and the human rights groups in country, as well as to U.S. and international human rights groups, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and UN representatives. In the Colombian case, until sometime beginning in 2007, no one listened to the brave Colombian victims of violence and human rights groups who were calling it like it is and telling the world the horrors they were seeing.

Human rights groups and victims generally tell the truth.  They may not say it in the way governments and militaries want to hear it, but they usually tell the truth as they know it.  If the U.S. government is granting security assistance to a country, U.S. civilian and military officials and congressional oversight committee members from both parties have an absolute obligation to listen to them—and then to do something about it when bad things happen.  You cannot supply massive amounts of security aid and training and then be deaf, dumb and blind to its consequences.

In regards to human rights conditions, the specific country conditions included in the foreign operations law are especially valuable.  They lay out from Congress very specific concerns that must be addressed in each country.  While the State Department has rarely actually issued a negative certification, the Senate at moments has placed parts of military assistance on hold, which has been very helpful in drawing attention to specific concerns.  And at moments, the State Department has dialogued with partner governments and pressed for, for example, civilian jurisdiction over human rights crimes allegedly committed by the military, in the cases of Mexico and Colombia.  This diplomacy has been important, and can indeed save lives on the ground.  Such diplomacy helped to encourage the dramatic drop in extrajudicial executions in Colombia after 2008 and is encouraging very gradual advances towards civilian jurisdiction in Mexico.  These are real accomplishments.  

Currently, there are country conditions or requirements over military aid to Colombia, Mexico, Honduras, Guatemala and Central America as a whole. These need to be far more vigorously enforced.  Recently, for example, the State Department certified that Honduras was meeting the conditions in law, which include respect for freedom of expression. It did so despite, to just cite one issue, many disturbing cases in the last year of excessive use of force against demonstrators by members of the Honduran police and military.

The Leahy Law, which forbids aid and training to specific units funded by the United States if units receiving aid have committed gross violations with impunity, is often not fully enforced. Indeed, it is challenging for human rights groups to monitor compliance.  Information about who is receiving training is released slowly; often witnesses might not identify which unit is involved; Leahy Law databases in U.S. embassies often do not collect adequate information. 

We are encouraged by important recent changes in the Leahy Law that require the State Department to more actively acquire information from other U.S. government agencies and individuals and organizations outside the U.S. government, and “to make publicly available, to the maximum extent practicable, the identify of those units” which are denied training as a result of vetting.  We are eagerly awaiting the State Department’s publishing of the list of denied units.

I would like to make two other points that are important today for Mexico and Central America.

First, the Defense Department and military often are tempted to say, our military JAG system works for us. Let’s just try to help other countries strengthen their military justice system.

As we have heard clearly from Stephanie Brewer of Centro Prodh and others today, military jurisdiction means impunity in many Latin American countries.  The U.S. government undercuts human rights in Latin America, and hard-won achievements in pressing for civilian jurisdiction, when it seems to say that improving the military justice system can be sufficient, instead of putting its weight squarely behind civilian jurisdiction.  As I mentioned before, sometimes the State Department really does the right thing on this issue, and at other moments the position of the U.S. government seems more ambiguous.  We need to stand firmly for civilian jurisdiction.

Second, it is essential that the United States not encourage militaries to take over roles that are more appropriate for police forces, as we discussed earlier.  In both Central America and Mexico, we are concerned that the U.S. government has either encouraged or tacitly supported inappropriate roles for the military in response to drug violence.  Even though we all know that police are often too weak, corrupt, or abusive, it is a short-term and shortsighted solution to place military in police roles, and it can lead to more abuses.  And military-style responses to law enforcement problems—whether or not they are carried out by military forces—can lead to serious human rights abuses.  A case in point is the counternarcotics operation in May 2012 on the Miskito coast of Honduras, where a DEA-supported Honduran taskforce shot and killed four people, including at least one pregnant woman and a fourteen-year-old boy.  In the name of counternarcotics efforts, communities cannot be turned into combat zones.

Finally, I’d like to end with the need to think about security in a different way.  We are often challenged by our civil society partners in Latin America:  tell your government to think about a way of building security that actually protects us, security that does not come from a gun.  Two weeks ago, in a historic effort, 110 victims of Mexico’s drug war violence and human rights advocates finished their month-long trek across the United States. They came through the United States and to Washington to tell us to find a different way of approaching drug violence. 

As you know, the leader of this initiative is Mexican poet Javier Sicilia, who lost his son to drug violence. In his famous open letter to his country’s “politicians and criminals,” he told his government that “we have had it up to here because you only have imagination for violence, for weapons.” We join our civil society partners’ in many parts of Latin America as they call on their governments and ours to have the imagination to think of responses to insecurity and violence that do not escalate the militarization of their societies, and instead heal torn social fabric, build communities, and build justice.