The abduction of Rodrigo Granda Spreading liberty by arming dictators?
Jan 222005

I’m writing this on a delayed flight back to Washington, after spending the past two days at the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, the former U.S. Army School of the Americas, at Fort Benning in Columbus, Georgia. I’d been to Fort Benning before, to the annual November protests organized by School of the Americas Watch, but this was my first visit inside the gates.

For those unfamiliar with the Institute (known by its acronym WHINSEC, though most activists still call it SOA, recalling its initials until a 2001 name change), it’s a U.S. Army school offering Spanish-language training and education specifically for the militaries of Latin America. It has a controversial history. During the cold war, a time when much of the region was ruled by dictators, the school strengthened abusive militaries. It has a long list of notorious graduates. In the mid-1990s we learned that even some torture techniques were included in course materials. After years of activist efforts to close the school and legislative questioning of its role, Congress changed its name, added new layers of oversight, required more human rights content in all training, and got rid of many (though not all) courses teaching lethal skills. Today even Canadian soldiers attend.

Reformed or not, though, you might ask why the U.S. Army feels it necessary to maintain a special school, at taxpayer expense, just to help the region’s armies. Don’t these armies have histories of human rights abuse, a questionable commitment to open societies that tolerate dissent, outsize political clout and impunity for most wrongdoing? Why would we seek to strengthen what in so many countries is already the strongest state institution?

The official answer to these questions has changed over the years. For a long time, it was anticommunism at all costs. After the cold war, the school played only a small drug-war role but placed emphasis on “engagement,” building relationships with officers from the region. Its backers argued that contact with U.S. counterparts makes Latin America’s militaries more respectful of human rights and democracy. Now, the “war on terror” is of course a defining mission, though only one specific course has been added (the “Counter Narco-Terrorism Information Analyst Course”).

These answers still do not explain why we need a special school to do all of this (in fact, the WHINSEC accounts for well under five percent of the Latin American military personnel we train each year – 857 out of 22,855 students in 2003). Nor do they explain why training and engaging Latin American military personnel is a higher priority than training and engaging Latin American judges, legislators, mayors and governors, urban planners, tax collectors, first-responders, engineers, or social-service providers.

So why did I visit? I wanted to learn more about the part of the Institute’s mission that sounds most like something CIP would support: training in human rights, civil-military relations and the military’s role in a democracy. After years of monitoring the place, I also just wanted to see it firsthand and get to know the people who run it. I’d also read in past WHINSEC “Board of Visitors” reports and been told by relevant congressional staff that the Institute’s leadership was puzzled by NGOs’ past non-acceptance of invitations to visit. Why, they asked, do they criticize us but never even come to see for themselves?

So along with researchers from Human Rights Watch and the Carter Center, I accepted the invitation extended by Harvard’s Carr Center for Human Rights Policy to attend a discussion of the school’s human rights and democracy programs and how they can be improved. A debate over whether the Institute should exist was not the purpose and therefore off the table.

Because of our concern that this visit could be misinterpreted as an endorsement of the Institute and its mission, the Institute’s staff agreed not to publicize it on their website or in their promotional materials. Likewise, I won’t reveal who-said-what details about the visit, but I do want to offer the following observations.

  • I was surprised by the preponderance of Colombians, even though we know that Colombia has been the number-one source of students at the SOA and WHINSEC since 1999 (if you don’t count Chilean cadets). The Institute’s deputy commandant is a Colombian colonel and its ranking guest non-commissioned officer is a Colombian sergeant. (The Colombian dominance is further strengthened by the American Servicemembers’ Protection Act, a bit of Republican-inspired legislation that cuts off military aid to twelve Latin American countries that don’t exclude U.S. personnel on their soil from the jurisdiction of the International Criminal Court. While Colombia agreed to sign one of these “Article 98” agreements granting immunity, students from the twelve banned countries may only attend counter-drug courses funded through counter-drug aid accounts, which are excluded from the ban.)

  • I did find a genuine interest in making human rights more than just window-dressing to improve the school’s image. Clearly a lot of thought has gone into developing a curriculum and trying to integrate it into all courses, and the staff and instructors we met showed a strong belief in what they are doing. The training curriculum does a good job of introducing international human rights standards and goes well beyond the little human-rights training that U.S. personnel receive.
  • However, I didn’t get a sense that the military trainees are internalizing the human rights lessons in a way that makes sense to them. The training heavily emphasizes human rights law (types of rights, past conventions), rules of engagement, proper interaction with civilian populations, and similar operational aspects – but there is less consideration of how this might play out in practice. A likely outcome is that personnel who graduate the Institute’s programs may end up with a rather compartmentalized idea of human rights.
  • For instance, individuals may leave the school able to cite the International Declaration of Human Rights chapter and verse, but still convinced that non-violent critics of the state, especially leftists, are security threats that need to be reined in through force if necessary. Though freedom of speech and the right to dissent are on the list of inalienable rights, the training doesn’t explore the importance of tolerating – not to mention protecting – those who relentlessly criticize and seek deep reforms, but do not violate the law: human rights defenders, labor organizers, investigative journalists, whistleblowers and denouncers of abuse and corruption, among others. The famous phrase attributed to Voltaire – “I disapprove of what you say, but I’ll defend to the death your right to say it” – needs to be part of the training. That includes swallowing hard and explaining that even the speech of those who express anti-U.S. views is protected.

    When covering these issues with military counterparts – whether at the Institute or in other forums – U.S. instructors have to be especially sensitive to armed forces’ interaction with non-governmental organizations. We held a very lively discussion with officers taking the year-long Command and General Staff course; the Colombian officers in particular revealed the familiar but all-too-common belief that NGOs are partial to the guerrillas, or even in solidarity with them or under their direct control. (It seems that in the minds of many, the Danish NGO that made a donation to the FARC last year is typical.)

    It is important that U.S. personnel do more to convey the message that, unlike guerrillas which seek to destroy the state, there is a peaceful left that, by denouncing abuses, seeks to improve the state. Its goals are honorable: to discourage future abuses, to advocate for victims and to align the state with values – like due process, equality of opportunity and equal justice under law – that make states worth defending in the first place. Even if they are a pebble in the military’s shoe, these groups need to be protected. Right now, it’s not apparent that the training conveys this message clearly enough.

  • The training also appeared largely to omit a common phenomenon in Latin America: the problem of armed groups that, like Colombia’s paramilitaries, are pro-government and fight the same enemy. While instructors use scenarios and hypothetical situations, including a good in-depth review of the 1968 massacre in My Lai, Vietnam, these generally center on the avoidance of direct human rights violations. Indirect violations – that is, collaboration with or toleration of other groups that do the dirty work – do not appear to be a prominent training topic.

    Though U.S. counterinsurgency doctrine claims that citizen militias can be a useful tool, the experiences of Guatemala and Colombia indicate that helping them can make the situation far worse: they are difficult to control, and they end up escalating civilian killings, engaging in criminal activity (like the drug trade) and devastating the government’s legitimacy. The Institute’s instructors need to amend the old doctrine regarding paramilitary forces: the message should be that illegal violent groups must be combated regardless of their political leanings.

  • The program has to do much more to tackle the question of impunity, which is a huge issue throughout Latin America. While it capably explains rules for operations, the program does not do enough to explain what must happen when these rules are violated – as they inevitably are, no matter how well-trained the force is. What happens to those responsible?

    Obviously, in much of Latin America, those responsible avoid prosecution, often through intimidation of, or at least non-cooperation with, judges and investigators. Impunity in turn makes much human-rights training irrelevant: if a soldier in the field knows he can commit an abuse without punishment, the mere knowledge that the abuse is “wrong” will not always be enough to deter him.

    It is essential that the Institute’s discussions of human rights abuses include the post-abuse environment. Instead of circling the wagons – the students should be told – a military that respects the rule of law collaborates fully with investigators and the justice system, even if it means giving incriminating eyewitness testimony. (The case study of the My Lai massacre – in which only one soldier, a lieutenant, was punished, and he was paroled by 1974 – is not exactly a model of fighting impunity here at home. If anything, the lesson students would draw from the My Lai case is a realization of how far even the United States has to go toward punishing crimes against humanity.)

  • Of course, the present has no shortage of “teachable moments” for human rights as well. The Institute cannot comfortably ignore, and should thus encourage, frank dialogues about Abu Ghraib, Guantánamo, “Camp 6,” the “enemy combatant” category, the “Salvador Option,” the televised killing of a wounded prisoner in Fallujah, the Gonzales torture memo, and other cases in the headlines. I did not get a sense of whether such dialogues are taking place, but they should be, since they are certainly on everyone’s minds. Are they examples of the United States not practicing what it preaches? Do they show our justice system working (the conviction of Spc. Graner, the important role that JAGs have played in Guantánamo) or failing (the lack of prosecutions against higher-ranking officers)?
  • We spent much less time talking about the Institute’s training in civil-military relations and military support for democracy. As a result I don’t know how, or whether, the Institute takes on the most contentious civil-military issues in the region today. These would include where the jurisdiction of military justice ends and that of civilian justice begins; oversight, appropriations, and control of military expenditure; military investments in the private sector; or how the military is expected to function in ungoverned zones where the rest of the state is not present. I don’t know whether the Institute instructs militaries to obey elected leaders from the left (most Latin American soldiers and officers tend to be profoundly conservative, even more so than in the United States). I don’t now how instructors reinforce the idea that it is the judiciary, not the military, which gets to decide when an elected leader has violated his country’s constitutional order.

    The latter question is an important one in the current regional climate. The Bush administration – as we heard in Thursday’s inaugural speech – has placed promotion of democracy at the center of its foreign-policy rhetoric. At the same time, administration officials consider “radical populism” to be a threat to U.S. interests. The trouble is, democracies occasionally elect “radical populists” or other leaders who are openly critical of the United States. The Institute should teach that even these leaders are legitimate and must be obeyed. Does it?

  • A final suggestion, for now at least. Though it has changed its name, modified its mission and made significant improvements to its curriculum, the Institute must do still more to rid itself of the baggage of the School of the Americas. For one thing, the Army and the Defense Department have never formally admitted to any past mistakes. There has not been a public reckoning with how the school contributed to abuses and undemocratic behavior, how its graduates stopped civil-society reformers from confronting social injustice, how its excesses in fact undermined U.S. interests, and which past practices must never be repeated. Instead, in the often acrimonious debate with groups like SOA Watch, the school’s defenders have sought to play down past mistakes (“nobody condemns Harvard because the Unabomber was educated there”). This is the wrong way to go.

    A clean conceptual break with the past is needed. Without it, in some future threat environment – for instance, one in which the United States perceives a greater hemispheric terror threat – the Institute could find itself quickly backsliding into old patterns of supporting repression. A thorough review and public report, by an independent panel representing many sectors and points of view, might offer a way to identify past errors, explain how they happened, and recommend ways to ensure they don’t happen again.

The plane will be landing soon, I’ll edit and post this shortly. That’s enough for now…

3 Responses to “A visit to WHINSEC”

  1. eduardo Says:

    Thanks for that insightful post. I’m pretty sure that Bolivia continues to have a high participation rate in the Institute. I don’t have a doubt that Bolivia will continue to send soldiers and officers to the U.S. I can only hope that the SOA continues to evolve, because the Armed Forces in Bolivia will continue to play a large part in Bolivian politics.

  2. jcg Says:

    Hopefully you’re able to point some of these things, directly or indirectly, to the people involved at such an institution…it’s good to know that the former SOA has indeed changed for the better, despite rants to the contrary elsewhere, but as always, several adjustments remain to be done in order for public perceptions regarding it (especially outside the U.S. more than inside, I suppose…other than in interested circles) can truly change.

  3. Jack Tidwell Says:

    As with any institution, the wheels can come off if we are not self-critical. Kudos for recognizing that to improve one must continue to find ways to improve. That said, the presence of a “Neighborhood Watch” for our hemisphere is an absolute necessity. Terrorism happens, so must reality based offensive and defensive efforts against it. SOA was not the beginning of such a concept. As long as there have been friendly neighbors concerned about their families, there have been groups who want to protect Civilization with hope in their hearts. We must be cautious against military and police. That is why we have a Second Amendment. The citizens themselves must be armed with knowledge and power.

    Try this idea. WINSEC. World Institute for Security Cooperation. Los Caballeros de la Mesa Redonda.

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