SOUTHCOM: Human Rights Improve Readiness and Effectiveness of Armed Forces

SOUTHCOM: Human Rights Improve Readiness and Effectiveness of Armed Forces

By Dialogo
April 29, 2016




It is almost a tradition: At the inaugural lunch of each of the three regional security conferences (CANSEC for the Caribbean countries, CENTSEC for the Central American nations, and SOUTHDEC for the South American partner nations) co-hosted by U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) every year, Leana Bresnahan, Chief of SOUTHCOM’s Human Rights Office, makes a presentation on the importance of human rights.

Bresnahan has been working for 19 years to promote respect for human rights through SOUTHCOM’s Human Rights Initiative. Since CENTSEC was held in Costa Rica this year, Diálogo
considered it appropriate to further discuss the topic with her on this occasion. Costa Rica is a country with a long democratic tradition and its capital is home to the largest organization in the Inter-American Human Rights System, the Inter-American Court of Human Rights.

Diálogo:
Why is the subject of human rights so important in relation to the Military?

Bresnahan:
Simply because respect for human rights, in addition to being essential to democracy, further enables us to fulfill the missions entrusted to our Armed Forces and police effectively and faithfully, and it significantly contributes to the success of these missions. We know that the insecurity and violence generated by transnational crime, by social conflicts, by gangs’ criminal activities, and by other factors have created the need to use the Armed Forces in support of the police. In fact, we know that in our modern and complex world, the Armed Forces perform various nontraditional missions that require a significant degree of interaction with the civilian population such as: humanitarian aid after disasters; border control; environmental protection; maritime rescue; peacekeeping operations; and the fight against human trafficking, to mention only some of the main ones. All these missions are usually carried out outside the context of an armed conflict and, therefore, fall under the legal framework of national legislation and international human rights law.

Diálogo:
Every contact with the civilian population entails a high risk of error and violating human rights, such as in the Armed Forces' mission to support the police who fight organized crime in various Latin American countries. Do you agree?

Bresnahan:
Yes, and that’s why it is important to have programs to prevent, and if required, to penalize human rights abuses. I believe the concern is understandable, but among the many conversations I have had with Military officials in the region, I have not spoken with any official who admitted enjoying being assigned to protect the city streets. Due to the urgent situation and to necessity, in our seminars and conferences, we have spoken of essential components to prepare our Soldiers, to protect them in their activities and, at the same time, to respect the civilian population’s human rights.

Diálogo:
What are those components?

Bresnahan:
Some of the components are: having an appropriate legal framework under which the Armed Forces may be used in support of the police; having well-defined and clearly communicated roles between the two participating forces; and having a well-planned coordination between the Military forces and the police. This includes aspects of human rights protection in operation orders; defining clear rules for the use of force and providing specialized training and clear instructions regarding procedures in place to handle specific situations, such as delivering prisoners to competent civil authorities, and to maintain an adequate control of any physical evidence, etc. Establishing clear policies to fully cooperate with investigations of alleged violations by our Soldiers; operating with the greatest transparency possible; and keeping the civilian population informed in order to foster the trust of citizens are also part of it.

Diálogo:
Currently, what is the greatest threat to human rights in the region?

Bresnahan:
Currently, the greatest threat to human rights in the region comes from criminal rings and gangs that are part of the transnational organized crime. The reality is that the violence situation in the region is devastating in certain places. The victims of violence are many. But the great majority of them are composed of common and poor citizens who are only trying to live their lives and do not have a means to escape from the violence that affects them daily. The Military forces and law enforcement agencies are employed to protect democratic institutions and the civilian population, and here is where cooperation can improve.

Diálogo:
Can you talk a little about the U.S. Southern Command’s human rights program?

Bresnahan:
For several years, the Southern Command has had a human rights program in place that focuses on two main aspects. The first is an internal approach to prepare our own personnel on this subject, integrating respect for human rights in our policies and activities. The second is an external approach that offers our support to our friendly countries in the region. Almost two decades ago, we spearheaded a regional process called Human Rights Initiative, with two main objectives: first, to support the efforts by each country to develop strong human rights Military programs with an emphasis on maintaining a policy of zero tolerance for abuse and on strengthening leadership in each friendly nation; and the second is to establish agreements and cooperation through dialogue and to set up a regional network of armed and security forces committed to carrying out their missions in compliance with respecting human rights. Members of this network help each other to foster and develop effective human rights programs.

Diálogo:
How do they foster the cooperation you mention?

Bresnahan:
Through the initiative I just talked about, we advocate for various forms of cooperation by stressing the importance of this cooperation among the armed and security forces of the countries. In addition, we emphasize on the urgency of promoting cooperation among state institutions, what we in the United States call interagency. The severity and complexity of the threats require this type of productive cooperation among the police and Military institutions and other state bodies to respond decisively. As part of the initiative, we promote the importance of a third kind of cooperation, which is the cooperation with the civil society, represented by universities, churches, and non-governmental organizations, organizations referred to as Human Rights NGOs, among others.

Diálogo:
What is the role of civil society in all this?

Bresnahan:
It is a key role. By recognizing the key role the civil society plays in building a democracy, through this initiative, we make room to give them a voice, to create more transparency, to foster closer civil-Military relations, to build bridges between communities who do not know each other well, and to identify areas of shared goals where there are clear opportunities to cooperate on behalf of our communities and the region. It is important to highlight that, for many years, the countries of Central America have been the most active countries in the Human Rights Initiative, to the same degree as Colombia, the Dominican Republic, and Peru. The changes that have been generated within the Armed forces of those countries are real, and they have produced positive changes in their institutions.

Diálogo:
Can you give us a concrete example?

Bresnahan:
Last week [March 28th-31st], we were in Tegucigalpa [Honduras] to participate in one of the initiative’s conferences with representatives of the Honduran Armed Forces, the National Police, the Human Rights Secretariat, the National Human Rights Commission, the National Women’s Institute, and many Human Rights NGOs. Our Honduran counterpart was the Armed Forces’ Office of International Humanitarian Law and Human Rights. In my opinion, the conference was successful and characterized by a respectful dialogue and discussion on how to overcome the challenges and threats in the country. One could sense a strong determination by state institutions and the civil society to mutually cooperate in the development of realistic action plans to continue to improve the capacity of the Armed Forces to carry out their missions with greater respect for the fundamental rights of the civilian population. We spoke of human rights as the center of gravity of the Armed Forces, as the source of legitimacy for those forces before the civilian population, and of the Armed and Security Forces as the primary advocates for human rights.

Diálogo:
What is the long-term solution to maintain public safety?

Bresnahan:
To have a well-trained civil police that guarantees citizens have their rights to live in safety, with social peace, and free from fear. This is the policy adopted by the United States government, and our Congress has been implementing legislation to condition our support to the region upon promoting those changes. The mission of our colleagues at the Department of State and at the U.S. Agency for International Development is to support the countries’ efforts to strengthen the civil police. Meanwhile, and forever, training, speaking about, and communicating on human rights is also an important part of preparing and protecting our Soldiers as well as our citizens.


Excellent, that’s how to teach and practice democracy. I reverently bow Peace in the world May the government be able to enforce the law.
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