More than 100 participants representing Western Hemisphere militaries, governments, nongovernmental organizations, and academia gathered in the Conference Center of the Americas at the headquarters of U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) December 1 to commemorate the 25th anniversary of SOUTHCOM’s Human Rights Initiative (HRI).
Rooted in SOUTHCOM’s efforts to promote a culture of respect for human rights, the HRI was established in 1997 to bring together military, public security, government, and civil society representatives from across the hemisphere with the aim of developing comprehensive and effective human rights programs for defense and security forces that focus on four crucial areas: doctrine, education and training, internal control systems, and cooperation with civilian authorities.
In 2002, with input from more than 30 countries, the HRI contributed to the development of a Consensus Document on human rights that currently serves as a human rights model. To help countries further their human rights goals, SOUTHCOM partnered with the Center for Human Rights Training, an NGO based in San José, Costa Rica, to be the HRI’s Secretariat.
Through its Human Rights Office, SOUTHCOM has supported the efforts of 11 countries that have committed to implementing human rights programs in their defense or public security institutions, including the Dominican Republic, which established the first Latin American military school dedicated to human rights education, as well as Colombia and Peru, which also established military schools dedicated to human rights education and training.
As part of the commemorative event, Belize became the 12th nation to join HRI during an official signing ceremony led by Belize Coast Guard Rear Admiral John Borland, Chief of Defence Staff, and U.S. Army General Laura J. Richardson, SOUTHCOM commander.
“At SOUTHCOM, we’ve long regarded respect for human rights as an integral component of military professionalism, a shared core value that unites us and unites us all. Human rights is a guiding principle — our North Star. It’s in everything that we do,” Gen. Richardson told attendees before representatives of the countries in attendance gave presentations on their human rights programs. Participants also took part in discussion panels, which focused on ways to effectively safeguard human rights during security missions.
One important safeguard within the U.S. Department of Defense is an annual requirement for all personnel to complete human rights training covering human rights principals, international humanitarian law, applicable U.S. laws, Department of Defense policies and regulations, and the responsibilities of military and civilian personnel who represent the U.S. military in the conduct of national defense missions.
In his address, Daniel Erikson, deputy assistant secretary of Defense for Western Hemisphere Affairs, lauded SOUTHCOM’s work with regional partners to promote a universal respect for human rights among the region’s military and security forces. “In the years since the initiative’s inception, Latin America and the Caribbean has made considerable progress with regard to respect for human rights and have achieved an unprecedented level of democratic governance and security. And working together, we have enhanced our capacity to promote regional stability and peace,” he said.
“We all know and we see that the rule of law and human rights and human dignity, for all of the progress that has been achieved, remains under threat by the forces of corruption, illicit networks, illicit trafficking, by the rise of autocracies, both within this region and very far away from this region, but who wish to engage. And so, I think that it’s really critical that we’re having this conference today to reflect on those challenges and to recommit to democracy, good governance and human rights in the Western Hemisphere,” he added.