Media Center



February 6, 1996 - Miami

I would like to thank General Barry McCaffrey, Commander in Chief of U.S. Southern Command, and Dr. Antonio Cancado Trinidade, Executive Director of the Inter-American Institute of Human Rights, for organizing this important conference and for inviting me to address the distinguished panelists and guests here today. I would also like to congratulate General McCaffrey on his recent appointment as the Director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

The topic of this conference, "The Role of the Military in the Protection of Human Rights" could not be more timely. The role of the military throughout the world, and more specifically in our hemisphere, has changed with the dramatic end of the Cold War and the existence of democratically elected governments in 34 countries in our hemisphere. This is a welcome change, but it is a change that raises questions about the role of diverse sectors, including the military, in a democratic society.

Throughout the Americas- in those few countries with well-established democracies- and in those countries in the process of consolidating democracy, the mission of the military is in transformation. Transforming into what? Certainly, the primary role of the armed forces continues to be to provide vital and legitimate national security against external threats.

But Latin American societies are highly complex: significant internal armed struggles remain in few countries; indigenous populations are increasingly using political means and sometimes violence to defend and promote their legitimate rights; narcotrafficking is a major threat to democracy; and terrorism and organized crime pose mayor challenges as well.

The problems of our hemisphere- severe poverty, marginalization of entire regions and sectors of population, the further weakening of state institutions due to the debt crisis and the public sector restructuring constitute an enormous challenge to the democratic institutions, public order and stability of our democracies.

In individual countries, the military is being asked by civilian authorities to assume new responsibilities: humanitarian assistance and disaster relief; mine clearing operations and international peacekeeping; combating drug trafficking, narcoterrorism, contraband, and illegal immigration; and implementing reforestation and infrastructure projects. In addition, in many countries, the police force functions as a military or paramilitary service. While this may be useful for confronting organized crime, it has also led to the police unintentionally disregarding their basic function of protecting citizens.

If we compare the present situation with a decade ago, we would certainly recognize that the mission of the military is quite different and may be more difficult. In most countries, their budget has been greatly reduced; they operate within stricter legal constrains; and they are more likely to be held accountable to the civilian government, congress, and to public opinion.

So, within this framework, we see the armed forces assuming a vast array of new missions, but we need to redefine the relationship between civilians and military. We need to consider what we want from the military in our hemisphere, and then how to prepare them for that role. Essentially, we want a military that plays a supportive role in the consolidation of democracy and in the protection of human rights.

In the twentieth century, the threats to constitutional governments in our hemisphere came from various leftist insurgencies, but also from the armed forces. In many countries, elected governments were overthrown by military coups, and gross human rights violations were committed on behalf of the so-called national security.

In the twenty-first century, civilian and military authorities should collaborate to ensure that the military has an investment in democracy. I am convinced that democracy and free markets are here to stay. Democracy, once the exception, has become the rule. Trade barriers have fallen, giving way to private initiative, economic and state reform, and regional integration. While severe poverty and socio-economic disparities remain, the hemisphere is on the right track after the "lost decade of the 1980s," and many countries are experiencing 3-4% economic growth, and in several cases 5% growth.

The dictatorships, insurgencies, and rivalries among nations that once characterized our hemisphere have almost all ended. We now see a great shared commitment to democratic values and open economies, and there is more respect for the will of the people and more concern for marginalized sectors of society, such as women and indigenous peoples.

Democracies define themselves in terms of a commitment to liberty and fundamental rights. The state that identifies and protects fundamental rights is a strong, and dynamic state. Oppression of rights, on the other hand, is a clear sign of a fragile, threatened government. States that ensure fundamental rights generally are more stable and prosper- economically and politically.

I believe that the armed forces are fundamentally important to the preservation of the legitimacy of the state and serve as a symbol of the nation. They can facilitate the achievement of the economic and political goals agreed upon by the Heads of State present at the Summit of the Americas, and re-stated by the hemisphere's Defense Ministers present at Williamsburg in July 1995.

In the final document of this meeting we see the same commitment to the Inter-American system that we find in the OAS charter, the Resolutions of Managua and Santiago, and the Declaration of Principles of the Summit of the Americas. They recognize that the preservation of democracy is the basis for ensuring mutual security; that armed forces should be subordinate to constitutional authorities; that the armed forces act within the bounds of the national Constitutions and the rule of law; and that a respect for human rights is developed through practice and training.

Distinguished guests, we must take advantage of the opportunities presented by this new spirit of cooperation. In a time where the military is trying to find its place in the democratic system, the governments and civil society of our hemisphere must provide leadership. Together, civilian and military leaders must define a role for the armed forces that will make it a partner in Latin America's political and economic prosperity.

A new culture must be formed within the military, one that is firmly rooted in the rule of law and respect for democratic institutions and processes. Old practices and structures- which have in the past been obstacles to democracy and human rights protection- will have to be changed.

To stimulate your discussions, I would like to offer thoughts on some changes to be considered for the military to play a constructive democratic role in the hemisphere. In addition, I will tell you what the OAS is doing to support democracy and human rights in the Americas.

First, we need to recognize that the military are also members of civil society. We need to foster equitable relationships and better dialogue between the armed forces and civilians. Currently, the armed forces are perceived of as being a separate class in society. In fact, in most countries they enjoy too many special privileges. These many special privileges sometimes distort the true role of the military, create opportunities for corruption, abuse of power, and sometimes the obstruction of justice.

On the other hand, the armed forces do not enjoy their full civil rights. Depriving any citizen of their civil rights is a contradiction in a democratic system.

It is also important that citizens recognize that the military has a vital role in external defense and deserves to be professionally prepared and compensated for its contribution to national security.

Second, it is not enough to express a commitment to the respect for human rights. There must be a shared responsibility, particularly by political and military leaders, to implement this commitment. The armed forces of each country need to establish a proactive human rights strategy to both prevent human rights abuses from occurring and to deal with transgressions when they occur. Such a strategy could include, among others topics, the preparation of a code of conduct and regular and periodic human rights training and education.

Third, civilian authorities should create the necessary legal framework to restrict rights abuses by members of the armed forces and other authorities. In some countries, the legal framework of the authoritarian era has not been modified and laws which restrict liberties remain. In addition, many countries in our region have national laws which are in contradiction of the American Convention on Human Rights.

This framework to restrict rights abuses by the armed forces should restrict the jurisdiction of military tribunals to members of the military, and try to eliminate military jurisdiction over civilians. In countries were terrorism has forced the adoption of such tribunals, the terms and limits to these tribunals should be clearly defined.

Fourth, national reconciliation is imperative for democratic consolidation. We have observed that in some countries, the inevitable debate over the past leads to attitudes and actions by recalcitrant sectors which challenge the constitutional order. Let it be crystal clear, threats to democratic government will not be tolerated either by the citizens of the Americas, nor by the international community.

Fifth, we must remember that the establishment of democracy, the rule of law, and full respect for human rights is a dynamic process, and one which none of us may take for granted. Human rights abuses can occur, and do occur, in both stable democracies and in incipient democracies. But the essence of democracy is the protection of rights, and the expansion, not restriction, of liberties.

Now, let me turn to how the Organization of American States supports democracy and human rights in the region. There is no doubt that the major topic on the Inter-American agenda at the close of the century is the strengthening of the democratic state, the protection of human rights, and economic prosperity. The principal responsibility of the OAS clearly is to defend, promote and develop democracy.

In support of democracy, the Organization should play an increasingly comprehensive and ambitious role in three directions. First, the OAS should play a direct role in seeking resolution of conflicts that threaten democracy in the hemisphere. Second, the OAS should be able to anticipate and dismantle pressures that eventually could undermine democratic institutions. Such threats do not appear overnight, and political and diplomatic action should be taken, early on, to resolve them. Third, member States have requested that the OAS strengthen democratic institutions and processes through technical assistance to legislatures, municipalities, electoral bodies, regional political fora, and national human rights bodies.

Regarding human rights, let me share our vision of the importance of a regional human rights system and some of our ideas to strengthen the Inter-American human rights system. I will leave it to the renowned human rights experts at this conference to discuss the Inter-American human rights system in detail.

We depart from a strong belief in the inter-american system as a whole. The regional system is more representative of the culture, norms, needs and legal systems of our hemisphere than the universal system. We find that a regional legal system reflects our common interest in harmonizing norms and practices, --be it in the area of economic integration, anti-narcotics norms, environmental standards, or fundamental rights. For this reason, the Inter-American human rights system is the most effective and appropriate arena for the promotion and protection of human rights in our hemisphere, and we are working to strengthen it.

Today the Inter-American human rights system faces new problems and demands that require a judicial, conceptual, operative and even political adjustments.

Our agenda for strengthening the Inter-American human rights system includes adapting the Inter-American Commission and Court to meet new challenges and opportunities, -providing both bodies with the necessary financial and human resources- and strengthening the connection between the Inter-American system and national systems.

We need to accomplish some new actions:

First, it is imperative that all legal instruments of the system be ratified, especially the American Convention on Human Rights, and that all countries accept the jurisdiction of the Court.

Second, the emphasis of the Commission and the Court should focus on investigating and resolving individual cases, sanctioning the responsible authorities and in developing a body of case law for use by national and international bodies.

Third, certain parts of the basic legal instruments- the statutes and regulations- of the Commission and the Court need to be harmonized. Harmonization of the legal instruments will make for greater transparency, clarity and efficiency in the legal work of both bodies.

Fourth, we need to strengthen the national systems of protection and promotion of human rights, and improve the connection between the inter-american system and the national systems. The countries should take measures to adopt their national laws to their international obligations.

Fifth, we need to incorporate new rights -social, economic and cultural- and emerging social and ethnic groups into the system's protection.

General McCaffrey, Judge Cancado-Trinidade and distinguished guests, I want to express my renewed gratitude for this opportunity to share some thoughts about the role of the military in a democratic society. We need to promote more democratization, wider participation, greater collaboration among our hemisphere's civilian and military leaders and expansion of fundamental rights. I am confident that today's conference will contribute to the achievements of these goals. Please be assured of the support of the Organization of American States in collaborating with your proposals to strengthen the protection of human rights and democracy in the hemisphere.

Thank you very much.