Southcom Chief Marks 20th Year of Human Rights Initiative

December 14, 2017

WASHINGTON, Dec. 14, 2017 — Countries where human rights are promoted are stable and secure, and militaries that respect and uphold human rights and the rule of law are welcomed, not feared, the commander of U.S. Southern Command said here Dec. 12.

Navy Adm. Kurt Tidd opened the Human Rights Initiative Conference here charting the progress of the initiative on its 20th anniversary.

“We’re really here to recognize the remarkable work done by all of us, together, to help make human rights the centerpiece of our hemisphere’s security forces,” Tidd said. “We have much to be proud of, and much still to do.”

Human Rights Don’t Come From the Barrel of a Weapon

The initiative codified a well-known truth: That human rights don’t come from the barrel of a weapon or are conferred by political leaders. “They are inalienable, uncontestable, fundamental rights that are inherent to every one of us, regardless of who we are, the color of our skin, the language we speak or the faith we follow,” the admiral said. “Protecting these rights is a core duty of any professional, modern military.”

Upholding human rights is an absolute, nonnegotiable, must-do mission for militaries. “It is the source of our great strength,” he said. “It is the moral and ethical fabric of our professions – the bedrock of our legitimacy.”

The initiative grew out of dark days in the 1980s and into the 1990s when rebel groups and narcoterrorists fought government forces in Central and South America and all trampled on human rights. Citizens of the region saw no difference between the rival forces.

“Our citizens and civilian leaders must be able to trust that those of us in uniform legitimately exercise our authority,” he said. “They must be able to trust that we protect civilians. They must be able to trust that we safeguard our core democratic values and meet the obligations of international laws.”

Human rights cannot be an afterthought, Tidd said, they must be central to the military mission of protecting citizens.

Military officers throughout the Western Hemisphere recognized, and began work on the Human Rights Initiative. Some 34 democracies in the region participated in drafting and finalizing the consensus document. Nongovernmental and international organizations advised throughout the process.

They produced the Consensus Document. “This document was more than just a piece of paper,” Tidd said. “It symbolized an enduring commitment, not just to institute respect for human rights within our hemisphere’s military and security forces, but to constantly improve our individual and collective performance. It was a promise to our hemisphere’s citizens, and to one another, that we will live up to our democratic ideals, and constantly strive to do better.”

Now there is a network in the region devoted to this concept, the admiral said, and every security decision considers the implications of that decision on human rights. “Across the hemisphere, human rights is now embedded in military doctrine, training, education, and above all, in our collective moral code,” he said.

The results speak for themselves, Tidd said, but they haven’t been easy.

Human Rights Initiative’s Success

The key is for regional militaries to engage in open, frank dialogue with their closest partners and fiercest critics. “In my opinion, this dialogue has been a critical factor for Human Rights Initiative’s success and our shared progress, and will be the critical factor for our continued progress over the next 20 years,” the admiral said.

The initiative recognizes the past even as the nations of the region push forward. “As anyone in uniform knows, one of the problems we must deal with as commanders is the legacy of our previous actions,” he said. “There is a history to each of our military forces. There is a history to this region, and our role in it. Some of it is extremely painful; none of it will go away. A people, a state, an armed force that can’t face up to its own past, can’t learn from it. Inevitably, the past will block progress to the future until it’s dealt with.”

Nations, militaries and people are still working to terms with a past. “For those of us in uniform, especially those who have been on the front lines, who’ve seen first hand how war and conflict breed misery and suffering, we have a responsibility to learn from our mistakes, and always keep those lessons front and center in every mission,” Tidd said. “Mistakes will happen. And when they do, how we respond as an institution will ultimately define our honor and legitimacy in the eyes of the people we serve. Our willingness to engage in dialogue about these mistakes is how we maintain — or regain — the trust of our citizens. Without that trust, no conflict is winnable, and history will ensure no one ever forgets.”

Parts of the hemisphere are experiencing high level so f violence. “Citizen security is under attack by ruthless criminal networks,” he said. “These groups commit horrific crimes against innocent civilians and sow fear and corruption everywhere they operate.”

This is – in some countries – exacerbated by “incomplete democratic consolidation and unmet development goals, institutional corruption and under-resourced police and criminal justice systems,” Tidd said.

Continuing – or redoubling – the emphasis on human rights is an answer. “There are still barriers to break down, trust to build, dialogue to continue,” he said. “In order for real progress to continue, real change to consolidate, we’re all going to have to get out of our comfort zone more often and continue these tough discussions. Protecting human rights requires constant work and vigilance. If don’t keep moving forward, we risk moving backwards.”