Headlines, Human Rights, Latin America & the Caribbean, North America

RIGHTS: Int’l Campaign Launched Against U.S. “Torture School”

Gustavo Capdevila

GENEVA, Jul 18 2006 (IPS) - Peace activists from the non-governmental School of the Americas Watch (SOAW) will tour Chile, Peru and Ecuador in August to persuade the governments of those countries not to send any more military personnel to the training centre in the U.S. state of Georgia.

Activists were enthusiastic about the results of a similar mission in recent months to convince the authorities in Venezuela, Bolivia, Uruguay and Argentina.

The former School of the Americas, now called the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC), still bears the stigma of having trained thousands of military personnel in the techniques of repression, personnel who were subsequently involved in the bloodiest dictatorships in the region during recent decades.

Research has shown that the United States instructed thousands of Latin American officers, NCOs and soldiers at the School every year. Upon graduation, these military personnel returned to their countries and perpetrated crimes against the civilian population, U.S. Catholic priest Roy Bourgeois, the founder of SOAW, told IPS.

An SOAW delegation will implement the Latin American Initiative to convince governments and grassroots organisations in the region’s countries of the need to permanently close the WHINSEC, which has been based at Fort Benning, Georgia since 1984.

The School, initially established under another name in Panama in 1946, moved out of Panama in 1984 as part of the agreement transferring sovereignty of the canal and its surrounding zone, formerly under U.S. control, to the Panamanian nation.

Bourgeois, a veteran of the Vietnam War who left the U.S. Navy to become a priest of the U.S. Maryknoll religious community, said that SOAW activists had returned in high spirits from the first tour of Latin American countries to promote the campaign against the School of the Americas.

In Venezuela last year, the SOAW delegation met with President Hugo Chávez. A few weeks after the meeting, Caracas announced the withdrawal of its military personnel from the Fort Benning training school.

An SOAW mission travelled to Bolivia this year and was received by President Evo Morales, who promised that Bolivian soldiers would be gradually withdrawn from the U.S. training centre.

In Argentina, Defence Minister Nilda Garré announced that the government will order the return of military personnel taking courses at the WHINSEC.

“The following week we went to Uruguay, where the minister of defence, Azucena Berrutti, told us that her country would make the same decision,” said Bourgeois, although as it is, Montevideo has not taken up places reserved at the school for Uruguayan armed forces for several years.

“Following this tour, we are very hopeful that these countries will withdraw (from the School), also because of what is happening in many Latin American countries which were formerly close allies of the United States, or rather, subject to Washington,” he remarked.

Bourgeois was present at the Mar. 24 ceremony in Buenos Aires commemorating the 30th anniversary of the coup d’état of 1976, which led to a brutal military dictatorship, responsible for thousands of deaths and disappearances.

The U.S. priest listened to Argentine president Néstor Kirchner’s speech, in which he declared that “never again” would such things happen. Bourgeois asked himself if they really “could happen again.” The school is a threat to the promise made by the Argentine president, was the pacifist’s deduction.

The Maryknoll priest’s doubts are based on his certainty that “the aim of the school is to keep the military in power.” The WHINSEC is a threat to democracy, human rights and human dignity, he warned.

In addition, they resort to deceit, as in the case of the war against Iraq, Bourgeois said. “The Pentagon (U.S. Department of Defence) lies about the school. They say it teaches democracy. How can you teach democracy from the barrel of a gun?” he asked.

SOAW plans to carry out a third tour later on, to Mexico, Honduras, El Salvador and Guatemala, with the same purpose of encouraging these countries to give up using the former School of the Americas.

Bourgeois thought that Colombia, on the other hand, was a “very difficult” case, because most of the students at Fort Benning are from that country, which is living through a half-century-old civil war, fuelled by the lucrative drug trafficking business.

Colombia is the third largest recipient of U.S. military aid, after Israel and Egypt.

“Getting Colombian President Álvaro Uribe’s approval (for SOAW’s cause) is a very complicated issue, because over the last four years Colombia has received about four billion dollars from the United States. They are not going to risk that flow of dollars to close down the school,” he predicted.

Bourgeois traveled to Geneva to attend sessions of the United Nations Human Rights Committee, which on Jul. 17-18 examined the report by the United States on its compliance, in policy and practice, with the provisions of the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

Bourgeois wants the committee, which is charged with supervising implementation of the Covenant, to look into cases of espionage committed by U.S. authorities against SOAW leaders and activists.

Our peaceful demonstrations are monitored by the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) “under the guise of counterterrorist action,” he stated. I have come to the U.N. Committee with the hope that international pressure will stop “unwarranted espionage on U.S. citizens protesting peacefully against their government’s policies,” he said.

“We know they are unlawfully tapping our telephone conversations, even though official records acknowledge that our movement has a long history of pacifism,” Bourgeois maintained.

The spying is occurring because any person or organisation in the United States that criticises the government’s foreign policy is “seen as an agent of subversion, agitation and perhaps even terrorism,” he said.

And it is known that soldiers from other countries trained at the Fort Benning school “will go back to their countries and become the agents of U.S. foreign policy,” the priest said. “They protect the economic interests of the United States in those countries,” he added.

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