Theater and Substance at the School of the Americas

Nov 25, 2014 | Anti-militarization, News, US Drug Wars and Military Aid, War and Conflict

By John Lindsay-Poland

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SOA Watch November Vigil 2014. Photo credit: Gary Cozette

Over the weekend, hundreds of people commemorated the 25th anniversary of the killing of six Jesuit priests by Salvadoran soldiers trained by the United States, by holding an annual vigil at the gates of Fort Benning, Georgia. There, the former School of the Americas (now Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, WHINSEC) continues to train 1,700 Latin American soldiers and police each year.

The day before the protest, a federal advisory committee to WHINSEC held what one observer called a “highly choreographed” annual meeting to discuss curriculum and direction for the school. Established in the 1990s after public disclosures of manuals used by the school that promoted torture and killing civilians, the committee is made up of academics, retired diplomats, and representatives of Congressional, military and State Department officials.


SOA Watch November Vigil 2014. Photo credit: Gary Cozette

Known as the Board of Visitors, the advisory committee has no decision-making authority. So its three-hour meeting on November 21 was wide-ranging, but somewhat rudderless. During a public comment period, Alex Sanchez spoke of the connections between WHINSEC’s past and what is happening in Latin America today. He chided the officer from the Northern Command, which oversees US military relations with Mexico, for not even mentioning the recent disappearance of 43 Mexican students by Mexican police. That atrocity has provoked a national mobilization that is calling into question the government of Enrique Peña Nieto. He also spoke of the gang truce in his home country of El Salvador, which was undermined by official responses.

Military and civilian members of the Board of Visitors responded to Sanchez’s and other public comments, pointing out how massive the problems are or what their agencies are doing in response. To which, Ambassador Swanee Hunt replied, “These organizations did not ask us what we are doing right. They asked us what blinders we are wearing. So I suggest that we engage in this conversation with real humility.”

For activists seeking peace and justice, the Board of Visitors is a space we want to use to nonviolently question and confront those who create and execute foreign policy. We also know we must act in other spaces, with accountability to people who are impacted by the United States’ pervasively military response to conflict and injustice.

Here is the comment I submitted on behalf of FOR Peace Presence to the WHINSEC Board of Visitors:

For each of the last two years, I have submitted comments to the WHINSEC Board of Visitors that focused on one central issue: the importance of evaluating the results of WHINSEC training based on reports of human rights conduct, subsequent to their time in Fort Benning, of those who are students or instructors.

I have conducted research and sent you the results on the human rights records of Colombian officers who were students or instructors in WHINSEC between 2000 and 2004. This research indicated that a high percentage (48%) of such officers were either charged with serious crimes or commanded units whose members are under investigation for multiple extrajudicial killings. A randomly-chosen set of Colombian officers of the same ranks, branches, and years showed only 16% with a subsequent history of such problems. For a fuller explication, see the report issued in May by the Fellowship of Reconciliation and Colombian human rights organizations, The Rise and Fall of “False Positive” Killings in Colombia and the Role of U.S. Military Assistance, 2000-2010.

The purpose of this research is to demonstrate the importance of evaluating the institution, not solely based on surveys of graduates themselves (who have a strong self-interest in reflecting back WHINSEC’s stated values), nor just on the curriculum, but on the conduct of those who came through WHINSEC. This is the most relevant criterion for the effectiveness of WHINSEC training.

Some will argue that evaluation of conduct post-Fort Benning is a decision made by others; that it is expensive to do; or that we do not have the authority to monitor foreign armed forces. I suggest that a much more important factor is the political will of the Board of Visitors and of the Institute to carry out such evaluations. If you support such evaluation, the Members of Congress who serve on the Board of Visitors can help fund it, and the Departments of Defense and State whose officials also participate in Board of Visitors meetings have substantial leverage with the armed forces whose members attend WHINSEC, in order to effect follow-up and monitoring of the human rights records of those personnel and their subordinates. To be legitimate, such evaluation should be external, and not biased to support the Institute’s standing.

Others will try to kick the can down the road by saying this kind of evaluation can be done after doing an internal one. But an internal and external evaluation are not mutually exclusive, and any evaluation that seeks to measure conduct of graduates requires preparation and lead-up time. It is important to begin this process now.

In addition, I wish to raise two other issues relevant to WHINSEC’s mandate:

  1. Regarding U.S. support for Colombian armed forces instructors for other nations’ police and military:

SouthCom commander General John Kelly testified before Congress in April 2014 that Colombian trainers are used, in effect, to go around Leahy Law provisions that prohibit U.S. assistance to units and soldiers that have committed serious human rights abuses and not been brought to justice. “We ask [the Colombian military] to go somewhere else and train the Mexicans, the Hondurans, the Guatemalans, the Panamanians… The beauty of having Colombia, they’re such good partners particularly in the military realm, …on the military side, I’m restricted from working with so many of these countries because of limitations that are really based on past sins.”

Col. Anthony: How many Colombian instructors are serving at WHINSEC this year, and under what auspices are they funded? Are Colombian instructors who serve at WHINSEC and whose expenses are paid by Colombia or through FMS vetted using Leahy Law? [WHINSEC public affairs officer Lee Rials has informed me these instructors are vetted.]

SouthCom commander General John Kelly and NorthCom commander General Charles Jacoby: Do you support United States funding for training by Colombian forces of units whose members have committed what might be considered by some to be “past sins” – such as extrajudicial killings, forced disappearance, or forcible displacement – and have not been prosecuted under local laws?

  1. Teaching command responsibility.

SOA Watch November Vigil 2014. Photo credit: Gary Cozette

The Institute promotes both the “Medina Standard” and the “Yamashita Standard” under international law for command responsibility for crimes committed by officers’ subordinates. “The former applies when a commander orders a crime committed or knows that a crime is about to be committed, has power to prevent it, and fails to exercise that power; the latter occurs when a commander should have known about a war crime and did nothing to stop it,” according to materials used for the Institute’s lesson plans. (italics added)

However, if a school teaches a standard, officers violate it, and those officers are nevertheless invited by the school to study again or serve as instructors, it sends a strong message to all students about the meaning of the standard – even if the school was not fully aware of that violation.

We know that the Institute does not actually apply the Leahy Law; this is under the purview of the Department of State. Nevertheless, does the Institute support the use of the Yamashita standard promoted under international law – and taught at the Institute – for command responsibility, in the application of Leahy Law for personnel nominated to take courses at WHINSEC? Second, if the Institute becomes aware of a pattern of serious abuses reportedly committed under the command of an officer invited to the Institute as a student or instructor, would the Institute act to rescind the invitation? If the answer is yes, are you willing to establish this as written WHINSEC policy, and to proactively support investigation of reports of such patterns of abuse under the command of prospective students or instructors?

John Lindsay-Poland serves as an advisor to the FOR Peace Presence. See his blog post on the 2012 Board of Visitors meeting here