John Lindsay-Poland Comments at SOA Board of Visitor's 2012 Print
Written by Nico Udu-gama   
Monday, 16 July 2012 18:17

Comment before the Board of Visitors of the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation, June 28, 2012
John Lindsay-Poland, Fellowship of Reconciliation

Thank you for the opportunity to speak with you today. My name is John Lindsay-Poland, and I serve as research director for the Fellowship of Reconciliation, a national, interfaith, peace organization founded in 1915.  What I’d like to put before you, as much as a comment, is a query to you as members of the Board of Visitors and WHINSEC officers.

The Fellowship is a nonprofit organization. Like many other organizations, we want to know how effective we are in our mission, and our funders want to know as well. We do some of our own assessment internally, but periodically we seek outsiders to evaluate what we are doing. It is normal for members of any institution to have blinders about their own performance, sometimes about even basic things. It also happens that sometimes leadership of an institution will try to control evaluations of what they do.

With government institutions, there is a public interest in such evaluation, because the resources for these institutions come from the public sector. It is a simple principle of good governance to evaluate the effects of public expenditures in the specific areas where those expenditures are occurring, and on the basis of clear goals. Moreover, with military organizations operating in relation to the militaries of other nations, there are additional compelling reasons to seek autonomous evaluation. Members of military institutions are given the legal authority, in some circumstances, to take the lives of other people. They are not only permitted by their societies to do so, they are sometimes told, even ordered to do so. This extraordinary characteristic of militaries means that when military organizations of one state instruct military officers from another state, it is enormously sensitive and delicate. The case is even more compelling for an institution, like WHINSEC, whose previous incarnation has a history such as the School of Americas. Yesterday, the president of Ecuador announced that Ecuador will no longer send soldiers or police to WHINSEC because of the history here. So there are pragmatic reasons for evaluation as well.

I would like you to understand something about the critics of WHINSEC. Their point of departure, very often, is the suffering of the victims of state terrorism. As you know, the Americas, including the United States, have a painful history of carrying out state terrorism, some of it very recent, some of it on a large scale.  While violence against civilians from any source is devastating, when it is carried out by state agents, it is especially grievous, because it ratifies the idea that there is nowhere to turn for redress, especially if those agents are never sanctioned.

When you start with the suffering of victims, and with an interest in justice and prevention of future violations, you ask Why? Where did this bloodletting come from?  What led those perpetrating this violence on their path? That is a very different point of departure than the question, Is our curriculum professional? Or, Are we teaching international humanitarian law?

Fundamentally, the measure for effectiveness of the training received in a military institution should be in behaviors – what is the behavior of those who come through here after they leave? Anecdotes do not measure this. And if respect for human rights is a core objective for both policy and specific training assistance, then we will seek to measure the human rights conduct of those receiving training. This requires a much higher level of follow-up with graduates than previously done. New provisions of the Leahy Law also explicitly require ongoing documentation of all units receiving US training and other assistance and of the unit to which individuals receiving US training are deployed. Evaluation for a military school will require the cooperation of Security Assistance Officers and Defense Attaches in embassies.

I will offer you an example. From March 2002 to March 2003, then-Major Jaime Lasprilla Villamizar was an instructor here. He taught the Captains Career course and what was then called the General Staff and Command course. When he returned to Colombia, he rose in the ranks, and as colonel commanded the Ninth Brigade in the Department of Huila, in 2006 and 2007. While he was with the Ninth Brigade, troops under his command reportedly committed at least 58 extrajudicial executions, one of the highest levels in Colombia. You cannot have that many extrajudicial killings without a level of planning that indicates commander responsibility, at the very least by omission. However, he has not been charged with responsibility for any of these killings, consistent with a 97% rate of impunity for reported extrajudicial killings in Colombia. Subsequent to his time in Huila, by this a time a brigadier general, he became commander in 2009 of Task Force Omega, a critical command not only for the Colombian armed forces, but for U.S. strategy in Colombia.

Evaluation of human rights impacts also means tracking back from cases of gross human rights violations, such as the thousands of cases of extrajudicial killings reportedly committed by armed forces in Colombia in the last ten years, to understand what the role of foreign assistance has been, especially when that assistance has been large scale and has helped to validate the political legitimacy of the partner military. Two years ago, we conducted a study that examined these questions in Colombia, with respect to diverse kinds of assistance to more than 500 units of the Colombian armed forces. Our conclusions were not definitive, but they were disturbing. We found that reported extrajudicial killings increased on average in areas after the United States increased assistance to units in those areas. I am leaving you with a copy of this report in English and Spanish. [1]

We know that many graduates of WHINSEC courses rise in the command structure. It is also important to examine the responsibility of commanders for acts committed by members of their unit.

I leave you then, with this query: What internal evaluation mechanisms, if any, does WHINSEC have in place to evaluate the effects of its course experience on the conduct of students when they return to their institutions?

I had the chance yesterday to speak with Colonel Huber, who said that measures of effectiveness focus on whether WHINSEC graduates have risen in the ranks. In the case of Brigadier General Lasprilla Villamizar, this criterion would result in a positive evaluation, when in fact he was rewarded and promoted after troops under his command carried out a pattern of civilian killings.

I’d like to suggest that civil society, specifically human rights organizations and researchers, should be partners in carrying out such evaluation, because we have data that is not in the judicial system, such as the information I referenced regarding commander responsibility for killings reportedly committed by the Ninth Brigade. Moreover, this piece of evaluation would have been impossible without release of names of graduates, in order that human rights organizations review our own data with respect to those individuals and their unit assignments.

We hear the claim that WHINSEC courses have a positive impact on human rights, but how do you know - and how do we know - if there is no follow-up on the conduct of personnel who spend time here?

Finally, how is the Board of Visitors critically examining the human rights impacts in the field of WHINSEC’s programs? How might you begin to make space for such an independent evaluation?

Thank you for listening.

John Lindsay-Poland
Fellowship of Reconciliation
Contact: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it


[1] Military Assistance and Human Rights: Colombia, U.S. Accountability and Global Implications, can be downloaded at