I’m on a plane back from Miami, where I spent the last two days at a conference, sponsored by Southern Command, on â€œThe Observation of Human Rights Standards in Non-Traditional Military Operations.â€ I was one of a few non-governmental participants; everyone else was mostly military officers from Central America, the Dominican Republic and the Andes.
I was asked to give a talk entitled â€œAn NGO perspective on human rights and security in the Western Hemisphere.â€ Given that rather vague outline,Â I tried to make two points.
- I argued that the main human rights challenge right now is impunity: while good human-rights training can make abuses less frequent, the best way to minimize violations is to judge and punish them swiftly and transparently. I’m not sure how well this went over, but it had to be said.
- I spent more time, though, talking about the whole issue of â€œnon-traditional military roles.â€ This is something that has us worried lately, and I was concerned that Southern Command had devoted a whole conference to it.
Much of Latin America has spent the last twenty years trying to transition from military dictatorship to elected civilian rule. During the period of military rule, armed forces assumed a panoply of roles having nothing to do with defense, from crimefighting to development projects to management of the economy. A big part of the subsequent transition has involved whittling militaries’ mission back to their â€œtraditionalâ€ purpose of defending national territory and sovereignty, plus overseas missions like peacekeeping. In particular, police forces have been moved out of the armed forces’ and defense ministries’ control.
At the same time, though, a few things have happened. The possibility of war between countries in Latin America has dwindled almost to zero, making almost irrelevant the core military role of defending against foreign aggression. Meanwhile common crime has increased, overwhelming civilian police forces that, in many countries, are small, poor, underequipped and hamstrung by corruption. Add to that the â€œwarsâ€ on drugs and terror, and pressures have increased to reinstate some â€œnon-traditionalâ€ domestic military missions.
In Central America, in Mexico, and especially in Venezuela (though notably not in the Southern Cone region), presidents are sending the soldiers into the streets – to fight rising crime, to eradicate and interdict drugs (with U.S. aid), to protect forests and other environmental assets, even to carry out development projects. President Felipe CalderÃ³n has sent the Mexican army into zones overwhelmed by narco-violence. Soldiers and police carry out joint anti-crime and anti-drug patrols in Guatemala, El Salvador and Honduras (a Honduran officer remarked that these patrols are often â€œone policeman and ten soldiersâ€). Hugo ChÃ¡vez has soldiers teaching in schools, building housing, and running neighborhood food kitchens.
Doing all of this is a bad idea, I argued, unless it’s very temporary and comes with a plan to make civilians able to play these roles more capably. If not, it’s bad for governance: expanding military roles is a poor substitute for helping civilian institutions to do their jobs. If the non-military part of the government has no intention to govern part of its territory, then it would be better simply to leave that zone unpopulated.
It’s bad for human rights: it puts the military – who are trained not to serve the civilian population but to obliterate an enemy – into frequent and direct contact with citizens, increasing the likelihood of abuses. And it’s bad for democracy: it rolls back one of the main advances of the recent transitions from military to civilian rule: the armed forces’ return to the barracks.
In retrospect, I didn’t have to dwell for so long on this â€œnon-traditional military roles are badâ€ theme. Some in my military audience probably didn’t agree with me, and others were probably silent out of unwillingness to question a policy decision taken by their elected civilian â€œcommanders-in-chief.â€ But those who did speak to me said they agreed – that they also opposed â€œnon-traditionalâ€ missions for their institutions.
â€œWe’re speaking the same language on this,â€ said one officer. Several said, more or less, that they have absolutely no desire to be police or park rangers. They are having these roles thrust on them by elected presidents who have nowhere else to turn, or they are simply trying to pick up the slack left by civilian government institutions who are failing to do their jobs.
Keep in mind that I have no idea whether these were majority views in these countries’ military institutions. The officers represented at this week’s conference were mainly those charged with developing human-rights doctrine and training, which means they probably represented their institutions’ more modernizing and forward-looking sectors. Most were also relatively young – late 30s to late 40s – an indicator that they represent the first generation of officers to spend their careers under civilian rule.
Some of the independent U.S. human-rights experts present at the conference had accompanied Southern Command’s Human Rights Initiative since it began in 1995; they remarked that the military participants’ level of â€œbuy-in,â€ sophistication, and apparent commitment to human rights had improved dramatically since then. In their remarks, several of the officers expressed pride in the human-rights strides their institutions had made since the dark days of dictatorships and â€œdirty wars.â€
For this very reason, many of them were nervous about being ordered into new missions that will put the soldiers back into regular contact with the civilian population. This is why some had asked Southern Command for guidance on how to adjust their human-rights training to these new circumstances.
That left Southern Command with a difficult decision. On one hand, they could have made clear that the United States does not want any part in an expansion of military roles, and could have refused to hold the conference. To refuse, though, would have meant denying a reality that is already happening, and losing an opportunity to encourage observance of human rights standards.
If new, â€œnon-traditionalâ€ internal military missions are becoming the norm in Latin America today, a principal consequence will be a total breakdown of the distinction between military and police roles. (This breakdown is already rather advanced in Colombia, where police routinely fight guerrillas and soldiers routinely fight crime. But due to its internal armed conflict, Colombia is a special case.)
What is the difference between a military and a police force? There are several distinctions:
- A military is trained to defeat an enemy with maximum use of force. A police force is trained to serve a population with minimal use of force.
- Soldiers generally live on bases and in barracks, separated from the population. Police generally live in their homes, in their communities.
- Soldiers generally carry heavier weapons than police.
- Most militaries have a separate judicial system to try violations of their military code. Crimes committed by police are tried and punished in the regular criminal justice system.
- In most countries, under normal circumstances, soldiers do not have the power to arrest or interrogate citizens, search their homes or tap their phones. Police do, at least with judicial approval.
All of these distinctions have exceptions (where, for instance, to put carabinero police who live in barracks, or police SWAT teams who carry heavy weapons?), but for most police or military units they are very real. Giving the military new police roles, however, blurs these distinctions dangerously.
The military officers present in Miami couldn’t carry out a debate on the wisdom of â€œnon-traditionalâ€ military roles. That would have been a public display of military questioning of civilian decisions, and there is obviously a lot of sensitivity about that. They could only discuss how to carry these missions out without doing human-rights damage.
We didn’t get a chance, then, to discuss the consequences of this blurring of military and police roles. But where is this headed?
Right now, it seems that countries face several possible scenarios.
1. The current model might remain in place: police forces will remain underfunded and ineffective, and militaries’ internal role will grow.
2. If they continue to be dysfunctional and to enjoy little public confidence, civilian police forces could just wither away and be supplanted by the armed forces. Better-funded, better-disciplined, better-armed militaries could resume the heavy-handed crimefighting roles they played back when generals sat in presidential palaces.
3. Militaries, with few or no external threats to justify their traditional â€œdefenseâ€ mission – could fuse with police into single entities – â€œNational Guardsâ€ or something similar – charged with taking on all security threats.
4. This fusion could go in a militaristic direction: internal security could be carried out with an iron fist by heavily armed, lethally trained, barracks-dwelling guardsmen. Presidents might come to depend on this powerful military-police hybrid for more than just security, ordering it to carry out development and infrastructure-building projects, to defend the environment, even to offer healthcare and education. It is hard to imagine civilian democracy surviving for long with such a lopsided balance of civil-military power and responsibilities.
5. On the other hand, the fusion could go in the other direction. Governments could choose the path forged by Costa Rica and Panama: abolishing the armed forces and giving civilian police the resources and tools they need to protect citizens and secure the national territory.
The Costa Rican delegation to the conference was clearly proud of, and satisfied with, the choice their country had made back in 1948. As governments throughout the region become ever more worried about internal crime, and defense from foreign aggression becomes ever less a compelling mission, the Costa Rican model seems to make more and more sense. Why not focus all security resources on improving the police – the institution designed to deal with the crime threat that worries citizens the most?
Needless to say, none of the other militaries present, much less Southern Command, voiced enthusiasm for the Costa Rican model. As far as possible alternatives go, it’s still a bit too â€œnon-traditional.â€