Why the School of the Americas Has Not Reformed Print

April 1999

To: Foreign Policy & Defense Aides
From: Lisa Haugaard, Legislative Coordinator

In September 1998, a vote to cut funding to the US Army School of the Americas was narrowly defeated 212-201. Given this level of congressional opposition to the SOA, one would expect at a minimum increased congressional oversight of the school. In fact, oversight has taken a step backwards. While the FY98 Foreign Operations Act set forth specific requirements for the Secretary of Defense for reporting on the SOA, the FY99 Foreign Operations Act merely requires a letter from the Secretary of Defense certifying the school. This 3-paragraph letter, containing virtually no information, has been issued. The foreign operations subcommittees should reinstate the reporting requirement this year.

The FY98 report revealed serious, ongoing problems in curriculum oversight, few changes in the standard curriculum, and a complete lack of monitoring of SOA graduates. These problems remain unaddressed in 1999.

1. There is no adequate external evaluation of the School of the Americas' current curriculum.

The most thorough evaluation of the school's curriculum was carried out in 1996-97 by SOA instructors themselves. These "subject matter experts" lack any special training in human rights and law. In fact, the Defense Department Inspector General's 1997 report states that most of these subject matter experts were the instructors for the course they were responsible for reviewing. Not surprisingly, their review showed no problems. The Inspector General's report also found that "Most if not all of the those bodies responsible for external oversight of the school do not conduct hands-on content review of the school's lesson plans and instructional materials. These bodies rely instead on the school to perform its own oversight in those areas." (Executive Summary, p.1)

Another potentially "external" reviewer, the School of the Americas Board of Visitors (BOV), undercuts its own credibility by the fact that most of its recommendations were not directed to improve the school but to bolster its public relations image. A BOV report annexed to the 1998 certification report features advice on how to lobby members of Congress, meet with the media, plant op-ed pieces, and "develop a marketing plan to improve the image of the SOA in Latin America and the United States."

The SOA invites visitors to view the school. But these public relations visits are not a substitute for serious curriculum evaluation.


2. Deep flaws in past curriculum are not even admitted, so are unlikely to be corrected.

Human rights advocates find this lack of external review disturbing, given the egregious content of manuals and lesson plans used at the school in the past. The SOA and Department of Defense continue to maintain that these manuals, since removed, contained only "24 inappropriate or vague statements inserted throughout six publications (1,100 pages) that were otherwise completely consistent with U.S. law and human rights policy." This is, quite simply, an outrageous assertion. The six manuals from start to finish actively advocated that Latin American militaries spy upon and infiltrate civic organizations like opposition political parties, community organizations, labor unions, and charitable associations. They contain throughout a fundamental confusion between armed insurgents and legitimate, civic opposition. The manuals advocate illegal detention and operate in a vacuum devoid of reference to law or democratic values. On our webpage or available upon request are five pages of offensive excerpts from the manuals which the DoD apparently considers consistent with human rights policy. Given this continued dismissive attitude, human rights advocates can have no confidence in current curriculum review. If the school and the Defense Department can not admit or recognize the problem, they cannot correct it.

3. Human rights and democratic values remain a very small part of the school's curriculum.

Currently, the school promotes its new focus as a training ground for human rights and democratic values. However, the facts do not fit this picture. Of 52 courses (33 courses at the school plus 19 at the associated helicopter school) listed in the SOA 98-99 catalog, only five--Democratic Sustainment, Peace Operations, Civil Military Operations, Humanitarian Demining, and Human-Rights-Train-the-Trainer--focus on directly on human rights, democracy or humanitarian issues. According to the information supplied by the Defense Department to the foreign operations subcommittees in the Foreign Military Training and DoD Engagement Activities of Interest in 1998 and 1999 report, less than 10% of the students took any of these courses in 1998. Furthermore, although the SOA has made much of its Human Rights-Train-the-Trainer course, no student is listed as having attended the course in 1997 or 1998, and none are projected to do so in 1999, according to the Foreign Military Training report. This course, for all intents and purposes, does not appear to exist.

A four-hour block of human rights instruction taught to all students has been expanded, according to a U.S. Army letter to Congress, to eight hours, although it is not yet clear what this additional class time will cover or when it will be implemented. The block of instruction is positive but not nearly adequate.

The majority of the courses taught at the SOA are standard military fare, including Cadet Combined Arms Operations (attended by 175 students in 1998, compared with 68 for all of the above-mentioned democracy-oriented courses combined), Military Intelligence, and Psychological Operations. Despite its attempts to spin itself as a school for democracy, the SOA clearly remains primarily a military combat school.

4. Counter-narcotics training makes up a small part of the SOA's curriculum.

The SOA has also been seeking to recast itself as a counternarcotics training center. However, in 1998, only 94 out of 815 students (12%) took the school's two counternarcotics courses, according to the Department of Defense. It is interesting to note that for Colombia and Mexico, where U.S. foreign policy goals specifically stress counternarcotics, not counterinsurgency, only 15% of Colombian students and 13% of Mexicans took counternarcotics courses in 1998. Given these numbers, it seems doubtful that the SOA is key to the war on drugs, as its proponents claim. More importantly, military roles in counternarcotics should be strictly limited. Training militaries to take on policing roles in counternarcotics is not good human rights policy. The United States military is prohibited from carrying out policing within our borders. In Latin America, where some countries emerging from decades of military rule are attempting to separate police and military functions, encouraging militaries to get involved in policing represents a step backwards.

5. There is no objective evaluation of SOA graduates.

The 1998 certification report baldly states that "the army does not keep track of the 57,000 School of the Americas graduates." This means that there is no objective way to measure the SOA's claim that it produces officers with respect for human rights and democracy.

Yet despite this reluctance to admit to graduates who have violated human rights, the report asserts that numerous SOA graduates have gone on to make important contributions in their fields, and provides a list of the positions they had achieved. When Congressman Esteban Torres requested the names of those graduates, it turned out that at least five of these "prominent graduates" named by the Defense Department had human rights charges against them for torture, kidnapping and illegal detention.

6. Despite SOA claims that human rights abuses by its graduates are a thing of the past, new cases continue to surface.

After a cursory review, the 1998 certification report states that there were no new cases of human rights abuses by SOA graduates in 1996. Since that time, however, the State Department Human Rights Report on Colombia provided information implicating SOA graduates in a 1997 massacre and an illegal raid on a Catholic human rights group in 1998. Furthermore, the Colombian 20th military brigade, which was disbanded in 1998 for human rights abuses, was commanded by an SOA graduate.

7. Systemic reforms to avoid future abuses like those that occurred at the SOA are significant, but limited in scope.

To ensure that the United States does not train human rights violators or those involved in drug trafficking and corruption, new regulations have been instituted both for the SOA and for all other foreign military training programs to "vet" or screen candidates for training. This is a very positive step forward. However, without any evaluation of graduates, it is difficult to determine whether these regulations are being carefully implemented or what their impact may be.

A second promised reform may not even exist. In the aftermath of the scandal over the training manuals, the Defense Department was supposed to have issued a directive to ensure that no materials for training foreign militaries violate human rights standards. It is unclear if such a directive has been issued, what it contains, and how it is implemented.

In summary, serious questions remain regarding the curriculum and track record of the school. Furthermore, given the removal of reporting requirements from the FY99 Foreign Operations Appropriations Act, it will be difficult to get answers to these questions this year.