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Southcom’s Engagement Program Promotes Human Rights

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

MIAMI, June 1, 2012 – An active theater engagement program at U.S. Southern Command is making notable progress in promoting respect for human rights within regional militaries, the command’s human rights coordinator reported.

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A pocket-sized card used by every member of the U.S. Southern Command as well as service members traveling or operating in its area of responsibility describes the command’s human rights policies and the “five Rs” of human rights: recognize, refrain, react, record and report. Courtesy image

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“Throughout our entire area of responsibility, many nations in this region have had a history of human rights abuse in the past 20 or 30 years,” Leana Bresnahan acknowledged in an interview with American Forces Press Service.

Bresnahan credited Southcom’s human rights policy, the first for a U.S. combatant command when it was issued in 1990, and its standup five years later of the first COCOM human rights office, with helping reverse that course.

“This emphasis on human rights is something that is unique for a combatant command,” said Army Maj. Gen. Gerald W. Ketchum, director of Southcom’s theater engagement directorate. “But the reality is that it is integral to everything we do.”

Southcom’s human rights office represents an institutional statement of U.S. values and the command’s commitment to maintaining a robust human rights program in the region, Bresnahan said.

“Human rights are part of our national values, our history, our traditions,” she said. “The bottom line is -- it is what we do as a nation.”

That principle underpins U.S. engagements with countries around the world, and is written into foreign security assistance laws. The so-called Leahy Law, for example, prohibits U.S. military assistance to foreign military units that violate human rights with impunity.

“We are prohibited from providing security assistance or any other DOD-funded training to a unit of a foreign national military if there are credible allegations of gross human rights abuse unless there has been effective action to investigate and prosecute those human rights abuses,” Bresnahan said.

That congressional mandate provides the carrot that has helped Southcom inculcate respect for human rights within the region, she noted.

Bresnahan said she’s been encouraged, as the region has put decades of military dictatorship and conflict behind it and embraced democracy, at how open regional partners have been to the human rights message.

The American Convention on Human Rights, for example, established the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights to protect and promote human rights, as well as the Inter-American Court of Human Rights to enforce these rights.

“The transformation has been amazingly positive, and the militaries serving in these countries today are receptive to the human rights message,” Bresnahan said. “They know that human rights are an issue, and there is a great deal of awareness. They are aware of their responsibilities and open to assistance.”

As part of its charter, Southcom’s human rights office works with regional militaries to help them develop doctrine that encompasses human rights principles and training programs that introduce them to their forces. The staff also works with them to help strengthen their internal control systems and increase cooperation with civilian authorities.

These efforts are particularly important and relevant, Bresnahan said, in the few countries where the governments call on their militaries to help local police forces provide internal security.

Ketchum emphasized that the United States strives to be a facilitator, supporting partners in their efforts and promoting shared values. “We are not dictating what people should be doing,” he said. “We provide forums and minimal resourcing that allows everyone to come together on this issue. We emphasize the importance of it and try to help where we can as they develop their own path for training, for integrating that into institutions, into how they develop their doctrine.”

“And we have had some real success stories in providing support,” he said.

The training focuses at every level, through classroom courses and field training exercise scenarios to senior-level military colleges and seminars.

The Western Hemisphere Institute of Security Cooperation at Fort Benning, Ga., integrates human rights into every course it provides to Latin American mid-level officers and noncommissioned officers every year, Bresnahan said.

Meanwhile, the Center for Hemispheric Defense Studies in Washington is introducing more human rights into its strategic-level curricula for senior-level officers and civilians. In addition, the Defense Institute of International Legal Studies incorporates respect for human rights into training it provides at the schoolhouse in Newport, R.I., and around the region through its mobile education teams.

But equally important, Bresnahan said, is the troop-level training conducted predominantly by partner-nation military members themselves.

Often the U.S. military members’ biggest contribution, she said, is the example they set. “The respect that partner nation militaries have for the U.S. military is tremendous,” she said. “These guys in uniform are the best messengers you can get. It is very powerful.”

Every member of Southcom’s staff as well as service members traveling or operating in its area of responsibility are required take an online human rights course and carry a pocket-sized card describing the command’s human rights policies. The reverse side covers the so-called “five Rs” of human rights: recognize, refrain, react, record and report.

“They need to recognize what a human rights violation is, refrain from committing a violation, react if they see one being committed by someone else, and if they can’t prevent it, immediately record it and report it up their chain of command,” Bresnahan said.

While acknowledging that some military members initially questioned why they were getting involved in human rights training, she said, “increasingly, our own military personnel are realizing the influence they can have on this issue.”

U.S. State Department and other governmental as well as nongovernmental organizations share that assessment. “They recognize that our military people have a level of influence on other militaries that they might not have,” Bresnahan said.

With recognized successes, Ketchum acknowledged that the mission isn’t yet complete.

In some cases, Southcom can’t support a partner nation because of its human rights record. “Some of our countries are challenged and we really want to help, but human rights remains an issue that is going to have to be discussed and overcome,” he said.

Navy Vice Adm. Joseph D. Kernan, Southcom’s deputy commander, said that’s a challenge the command struggles with as it engages in the region. “Human rights are important, and countries that ask us at the leadership level to come in and work with them know we are going to advocate human rights,” he said.

“And we often advocate strongly for providing support to a country that may have had a long past human rights issue,” Kernan continued. "We remain very sensitive to human rights abuses, but our perspective in some cases is that we would like to work with willing partners and promote human rights through side-by-side engagement.”

“This, as well, affords us the opportunity to build a more expansive partnership across a number of other common interest areas,” he added.

Bresnahan emphasized the increasingly complex security challenges the region’s military forces are being tasked to meet, and warned that promoting respect for human rights is a long-term effort. “One should never assume the war has been won,” she said. “Like freedom itself, respect for human rights requires constant vigilance.”


Contact Author

Navy Vice Adm. Joseph D. Kernan
Army Maj. Gen. Gerald W. Ketchum

Related Sites:
U.S Southern Command
Human rights fact sheet

Click photo for screen-resolution imagethis July 8, 2010, file photo, Marines from the United States and nine other nations join forces to quell a mock civil uprising in the streets of Ancon, Peru, during Partnership of the Americas/Southern Exchange 2010. The exercise includes human rights training and skill sets associated with military operations in urban terrain. Photo by Peruvian Marine Sgt. Apumayta  
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