Human Rights and Military Conduct: A Progress Report

By Vickers, George R. | Joint Force Quarterly, Autumn 2000 | Go to article overview

Human Rights and Military Conduct: A Progress Report


Vickers, George R., Joint Force Quarterly


Increased awareness of human rights over the last thirty years has led to new standards for state actors in peace and war. Human rights concerns have been particularly salient in the Western Hemisphere, where military dictatorships overthrew civilian regimes in much of the Southern Cone and Andes in the 1960s and 1970s, and where U.S. policies supported regimes in Central America that were opposed by Marxist-inspired guerrillas during the 1980s.

Fresh Start Strategies

Since the Cold War, democratic governments have promoted constitutional reforms aimed at subordinating the military to civilian control and preventing human rights abuses. Latin American militaries have also undergone a self-examination to adapt their roles and missions to the changing strategic environment. By and large they have endorsed democratic principles and human rights. At the first Defense Ministerial of the Americas in 1995, representatives reviewed a commitment by the armed forces to remain subordinated to civilian authority, act within constitutional bounds, and respect human rights.

Reflecting changes in national security strategy, the U.S. military has played a critical role in promoting democracy and human rights. While Cold War strategy was dominated by deterring communist expansion and nuclear war, the strategy of engagement and enlargement proclaimed by the Clinton administration stressed enhanced security, prosperity at home, and democracy abroad. Rooted in a belief that there is an affinity between democratic systems and free market economies, and that democratic states are less likely to go to war with each other, this strategy aimed to ensure that regimes consolidate democratic institutions and increase respect for human rights.

The incorporation of democracy and human rights as national security policy objectives has been accompanied by operational changes in the role and mission of the forces deployed in the hemisphere. Human rights training has been intensified and efforts to reform military justice in Latin America have been introduced.

While these initiatives have lowered the decibel level between human rights advocates and the military, there is no consensus on their effectiveness. Two crucial dilemmas arise in attempting to harmonize such efforts with other objectives. First, training has met obstacles that limit its impact. The backgrounds of many militaries have afforded them considerable freedom from civilian control while portraying them as guarantors of the state. Moreover, a legacy of repression and dictatorship continues to polarize societies and inhibit civil-military relations.

Another dilemma involves threats such as drug trafficking, organized crime, and terrorism. In most mature democracies responsibility for dealing with such threats falls to civilian institutions. But in much of the hemisphere these challenges have overwhelmed new democratic governments, leading to a call for the military to play a central role. The democratic transition in many nations removed the armed forces from internal security operations; thus human rights organizations and democracy activists fear that proposed roles and missions will reinforce impunity and lead to a return to violations. The distinct historical and cultural contexts from which Latin American militaries have emerged make it difficult to transfer practices developed within the unique U.S. experience.

Evolving Programs and Policies

Since the 1950s the U.S. Armed Forces have been provided with a modicum of training on the laws of war. Alleged abuses during the Vietnam War forced a reexamination of human rights training. After the investigation of the My Lai incident by the Peers Commission, a DOD directive issued in 1974 required all military personnel to receive training in the laws of war commensurate with their responsibilities. Moreover, exercises were modified to convey the laws of war requirements such as introducing civilians into battlefield scenarios. …

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