Human Rights In The Americas: A Regional Training Initiative
By Dialogo July 01, 2011
Human rights, from lessons learned to the way forward, continue to be a
priority for military leaders in the Americas. “Today the Armed Forces of El
Salvador have the moral awareness that war must have limits,” said General David
Munguía Payés, Salvadoran defense minister, during the inauguration of a human
rights and International Humanitarian Law (IHL) seminar. “And those limits are set
for us precisely by this respect for human rights and the rights defined by the laws
of war.” The seminar, jointly sponsored by the U.S. Southern Command and the
Salvadoran Defense Ministry, took place May 17-19, 2011, in the Salvadoran capital.
Gen. Munguía Payés’ comment referred to El Salvador’s civil war from 1980 to
1992, in which the Armed Forces confronted insurgents belonging to the Farabundo
Martí National Liberation Front, taking an estimated toll of 70,000 dead, according
to BBC Mundo. “From 1980 to 1983, the topic of human rights was not important for
us, [but] in 1984, the war began to be pursued more humanely,” he added. Gen.
Munguía Payés’ words set the stage for a convergence of ideas, past experiences and
lessons learned on the topic of human rights on the part of panelists from at least
12 countries. The conference, “Human Rights in the Americas: The Challenges We
Face,” was part of the Human Rights Initiative, a regional program set up by
USSOUTHCOM in 1997, which aimed to provide training and support for militaries to
operate in compliance with the standards established by IHL.
IHL, according to the website of the International Committee of the Red
Cross, is a set of norms designed to protect individuals who are not participating
in hostilities or who have ceased to do so during wartime. Its chief objectives are
to mitigate the effects of armed conflict for humanitarian reasons and to limit
human suffering during armed conflict. IHL is governed by the four Geneva
Conventions of 1949 and the two additional protocols of 1977.
“It’s good to see so many countries from the region coming together to
combine ideas that we can use as a framework to adapt to the particular
characteristics of each of our countries and forces,” Major Kirk P. Johnson of the
Jamaica Defence Force told Diálogo, emphasizing the benefit of exchanging ideas.
“Each country has its own experiences, achievements and challenges, which are
lessons for the others.”
The three-day conference included individual presentations and joint panels
with speakers from different countries, bringing together many perspectives. Topics
related to current human rights and included policies, relations between civil
society (including the media) and security forces (both military and public-safety
forces), the effects of corruption on the protection of human rights, and the
protection of human rights in border areas and during peace-keeping operations.
Additionally, participants explored how to strengthen regional security mechanisms
in the Americas, among other issues.
With all the information shared and lessons learned, the conclusion was the
same: The problem is the responsibility of all. Civil society, the military,
governments, nongovernmental organizations and academic institutions in the region
all have the responsibility of educating citizens from an early age to establish the
concept of human rights in society.
“A comprehensive solution cannot be achieved without training,” said Elena
Ambrosi, director of the Human Rights and International Humanitarian Law Office of
the Colombian Defense Ministry, speaking on a panel about the challenges faced in
combating terrorism and illegal armed groups. Coronel Juan Carlos Gómez Ramírez of
the Colombian Air Force emphasized that training is necessary in order to act
legally. He mentioned the importance of the armed forces in the region carrying out
their functions of protecting civil society within a framework of absolute legality,
in order to win society’s support.
“Victory is on the side of whoever obtains the support of civil society,”
said Colonel Juan Angel Bejarano, director of the Human Rights and International
Humanitarian Law Office of the Honduran Armed Forces, in reference to the challenges
faced in protecting human rights while defeating transnational crime. “It’s not
enough to protect the state, if the individual is not protected,” noted Abraham
Stein, director of the Department of Defense and Hemispheric Security of the
Secretariat for Multidimensional Security of the Organization of American States.
Mario López- Garelli, of the International Committee of the Red Cross, gave a
fitting summary: “Training is the chief focus in the implementation of human
The Geneva Conventions of 1949 and the Additional Protocols of 1977: The
Foundation of International Humanitarian Law
Four international treaties, which were expanded from their original versions
in 1949 following the atrocities during World War ii, are the foundation for
international humanitarian law. the chief protections provided by the four geneva
The First geneva Convention protects wounded and ill members of the armed
forces on campaign during wartime and recognizes the international Committee of
the red Cross’ distinctive emblems: the red Cross, the red Crescent and the red
Crystal (adopted in 2005). ::
The second geneva Convention protects wounded, ill and shipwrecked members
of the armed forces at sea during wartime.
The third geneva Convention focuses on prisoners of war and defines the
categories of individuals who have a right to prisoner-of-war status.
The Fourth geneva Convention protects civilians, including those in
In the 20 years following the adoption of the conventions, the definition of
war evolved, leading to the adoption of two additional protocols on issues related
to internal armed conflicts and conflicts of national liberation within
USSOUTHCOM Human Rights Initiative
The Human Rights Division of the U.S. Southern Command founded the Human
Rights Initiative in 1997. Since then, it has served as a facilitating body and has
sponsored more than 130 seminars, conferences and other events to support the
training efforts of friendly Western countries in establishing human rights and
international humanitarian law in their democratic societies. In addition to
providing facilitation and support, the initiative fosters the development of a
substantial institutional culture of respect for human rights among the leaders of
Western democratic societies and their forces.
These activities entered an implementation stage in 2003, when the Human
Rights Division of USSOUTHCOM established a partnership with the Center for Human
Rights Studies, Training, and Analysis, a Costa Rican nongovernmental organization,
and designated the center its Executive Secretariat for Follow-Up.
At present, the secretariat has signed memorandums of cooperation with the
defense ministers of Bolivia, Colombia, Costa Rica, the Dominican Republic, El
Salvador, Guatemala, Honduras, Panama, Peru and Uruguay, when they have committed
their publicsafety or security forces to the norms of the Human Rights