A Critical Juncture for Security and Human Rights

By Bresnahan, Leana D. | Prism : a Journal of the Center for Complex Operations, January 1, 2015 | Go to article overview

A Critical Juncture for Security and Human Rights


Bresnahan, Leana D., Prism : a Journal of the Center for Complex Operations


"Freedom means the supremacy of human rights everywhere,"

- President Franklin D. Roosevelt

In mid-April 2013, U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) sponsored a human rights seminar for Guatemalan military personnel. The seminar was one in a series of workshops, subject-matter expert exchanges, dialogues, and events that SOUTHCOM had sponsored in Guatemala since 2004, all under the auspices of a SOUTHCOM-sponsored regional process known as the Human Rights Initiative (HRI).1 HRI events focused on strengthening the Guatemalan military's human rights performance in the areas of doctrine, education and training, cooperation with civilian authorities, and internal control mechanisms. Unlike previous HRI events, participation in the April seminar by local human rights activists, an indispensable component of all SOUTHCOM's human rights promotion efforts, was minimal, but for a surprising reason.

That week many of the human rights activists were instead at the Palace of Justice, the seat of the country's highest court, to witness an historic event: the trial of a former dictator who had both risen to and fallen from power by coup d'état. Guatemalan General Efraín Ríos Montt had come to symbolize one of the darkest eras in the country's history. Now a frail-looking octogenarian, Ríos Montt had spent years benefitting from prosecutorial immunity due to his status as a member of Congress. But his place at the defendant's table that April had come to signify one of the greatest human rights victories for Guatemala - and the hemisphere - in recent history. The trial represented the first time that a former Head of State was tried for the crime of genocide by his own country's judicial system. It exemplified how rule of law was slowly taking hold in a country where impunity had reigned for decades. It also sent a powerful message to the international community that nobody is above the law in the commission of grave violations of human rights. The trial of Rios Montt and the active participation of the Guatemalan military in HRI are two among other positive changes that have taken place in the past decades in a country with a troubled history.2

Guatemala does not stand alone as it grapples with a legacy of human rights violations against its citizens. Much of Latin America's modern history involves decades of internal conflict, military dictatorships, and guerrilla warfare. Left in its wake were countless victims of kidnappings, forced disappearances, acts of torture, and massacres, the vast majority of whom have not seen justice delivered. As the internal conflicts and political violence came to an end in the final years of the 20th century, a process of democratization has taken hold. This transition to democracy brought with it the hope that respect for human rights would be institutionalized and protected in a comprehensive fashion. While the transition has brought with it greater political and economic stability for many countries, it did not automatically elevate respect for human rights to a national priority. The construction of a democratic state based on the rule of law and respect for human rights remains a work in progress in many countries. Democracy may be a necessary condition for the promotion of human rights, but it is not always enough to ensure their protection.3

United States Human Rights Policy: Promoting Human Rights

For the United States, the advent of trials against former dictators highlights our own attempts to balance human rights concerns with national security interests and foreign policy objectives in the Western Hemisphere. Much as Guatemala and other countries in the region are demonstrating support to the rule of law and respect for human rights, our own concept of human rights and the role it should play in shaping our foreign policy has evolved-and progressed greatly-in the last half-century.

This policy shift was years in the making. With the post-World War II emergence of the international human rights movement, which the U. …

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