Central American Armed Forces Join Together to Protect Human Rights

Central American Armed Forces Join Together to Protect Human Rights

By Geraldine Cook/Diálogo
September 16, 2016

"Working together to protect human rights in Central America” was the theme of the Human Rights Initiative's Central American Regional Conference, which brought together more than 90 representatives from Central American armed forces and organizations involved in human rights advocacy work. The event was held at the U.S. Southern Command’s (SOUTHCOM) Conference Center of the Americas from August 30th to September 2nd. The three-day conference analyzed the challenges faced by armed forces in the region regarding human rights, focusing on doctrine, training, lessons learned and best practices. Participants also discussed aspects of international humanitarian law in internal conflicts and violent situations. Brazil, Peru, and Colombia had military experts on the topic to share their lessons learned. Additionally, the participation of international organizations such as the Office of the UN High Commissioner of Human Rights, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, and the International Committee of the Red Cross shared their experience on international and regional norms regarding civil protection under the legal frameworks of human rights and international humanitarian law. The event was coordinated by Southern Command's Human Rights Office in collaboration with the Center for Study, Analysis, and Training in Human Rights (CECADH, per its Spanish acronym) of Costa Rica. The conference is part of SOUTHCOM's Human Rights Initiative (HRI), a program that prepares military and security forces in their daily work in relation to respect for human rights and promotes dialogue about the issue between different organizations. Sharing experiences Brigadier General Byron Gutiérrez Valdez, commander of the Guatemalan Army's Top Education Command, acknowledged that promoting and protecting human rights is a constant challenge for the military. For that reason, sharing regional experiences related to managing human rights is a top priority for Central American countries, as it involves taking a close look at the way military personnel act. “At present, in addition to the normal tasks of the military, we also have personnel providing support to civil security forces. This involves retraining personnel on different ways of carrying out and designing orders in order to protect citizens,” Brig. Gen. Gutiérrez told Diálogo. “It is very important for soldiers to not only be familiar with human rights and the rules for their work but to also put them into practice. We need a strong focus on teaching them about human rights issues but an even stronger emphasis on applying that knowledge in the field.” Educational programs The military are constantly working to improve the quality of their human rights educational programs, according to Colonel Julio Cesar Cerrato Amador, assistant director of Human Resourcesat the Humanitarian Law Directorate of the Honduran Joint Chiefs of Staff. “It’s not just a matter of putting our knowledge [about human rights] into practice. We also need to make it a priority to train everyone, regardless of rank.” For the Armed Forces of Peru, promoting human rights plays an active role in its education plans. “It gives us a series of strategic objectives for the defense sector to accomplish – not just in terms of training our staff but also in relation to respecting people’s fundamental rights when we have to carry out a mission in an armed conflict or violent situation internally or internationally,” said Colonel Herbert Jesús Viviano Carpio, director of the Center for International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights of Peru’s Ministry of Defense. The Secretariat of the Navy of Mexico has also taken its own initiative regarding this issue. It created the Human Rights Promotion and Protection Unit in May to organize actions that strengthen the culture of promoting, respecting, protecting, and guaranteeing human rights. Commander General Rear Admiral Hilario Durán Tiburcio, head of the Mexican Navy’s Human Rights Promotion and Protection Unit, told Diálogo that his country’s Navy “took a major step towards strengthening human rights by creating the unit as a specialized center.” “The goal is to prevent human rights violations during our operations,” said Rear Adm. Durán. “[We strive to make] respect for human rights part of the fabric of the principles, the values of the Navy and, in a way, it is seen as more of a psychological process rather than something we will do when the need arises. We want to make respect for human rights a daily practice.” Human Rights Initiative SOUTHCOM has been an advocate for human rights for more than two decades. Since 1990, SOUTHCOM has held international conferences for the militaries and security forces of Latin America aimed at developing human rights programs. In 2002, 34 armed forces in the Western Hemisphere created the “Consensus Document” to prevent and punish violations of human rights and international humanitarian law by its members. Parties that participated in drafting the document included academic experts, the Organization of American States, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, the International Committee of the Red Cross, and organizations from civil society, such as Human Rights Watch. In 2003, SOUTHCOM selected CECADH as the organization in charge of supporting and monitoring the HRI. To date, they have organized more than 200 conferences and seminars with the participation of over 10,000 people. Brig. Gen. Gutiérrez recalled that he was one of the first participants. “SOUTHCOM has supported us immensely through its follow-up on human rights issues. It helped us establish relationships with human rights NGOs. Ten years ago, we probably couldn’t have sat down at the same table with them. But now the walls have come down. We are doing very interesting work and communicate well with each other.” After three days of dialogue, the conference closed with a speech from Lieutenant General Joseph P. DiSalvo, deputy military commander of SOUTHCOM, who reminded participants that the armed forces “need mechanisms to make sure human rights continue to be a priority.” Some of these include the need to respect human rights in Central America, the creation of a system of accountability, ongoing training of all personnel, and campaigns to inform citizens of how important their armed forces consider human rights to be emphasized Lt. Gen. DiSalvo. To conclude, Rear Adm. Durán said that the most gratifying part of working to promote human rights is being able to “give legitimacy to our institutions through our actions… this is very important because it gives our operations legitimacy, and we will ultimately achieve a good image for our institutions.”
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