When I told people in Germany that my project in the US with Action Reconciliation Service for Peace (ARSP) would be with a human rights organization focusing on Central America, the InterReligious Task Force on Central America and Colombia (IRTF), I was asked how this connects to a German Holocaust reconciliation program. Although I knew that one of the goals of Action Reconciliation Service for Peace is to work for peace and this includes a broader focus, the connection was never as clear as when I started my research for a presentation about the School of the Americas and how it has been involved in the dirty wars in Central America.
The School of the Americas (today called WHINSEC), is a military school in the US which educates soldiers from Latin America with the original goal of anti-leftist counterinsurgency since 1946. In 1996, the Pentagon was forced to release the training manuals. These manuals were found to have advocated torture, extortion, blackmail and the targeting of civilian populations. In the civil wars in the Americas hundred of thousands were killed and tortured by SOA graduates, including awful massacres and genocide on indigenous cultures. Members of the death squads were most often SOA graduates. The utter racism, the description of how people were slaughtered, and how the military personnel played with death and life made me sick. And, sad. What did mankind actually learn after the awful crimes of the Holocaust? Human rights seem nonexistent. Where is the learning and progress?
When we from IRTF went to Ft. Benning, Georgia in November with a delegation of 50 people from Ohio to protest this military training institute, I experienced one of the most impressive rallies I’ve ever been to. In a vigil, we remembered the victims of the SOA graduates. People there ranged from 3 days old up to 95 years. Reading the list of the victims lasted almost one hour and it was still just a small portion of the victims. People from Central America, who have and continue to experience the violence in their home countries shared their pain and outrage. There were moments which would make a person depressed about this violence. But, then there was also hope, which brought all the people from across the world together. It was the hope for a world of love, a world where everyone will have access to human rights.
Some people may wonder why, in 2015, we protest a school which was involved in the dirty wars of the last century. The answer is simple and not at all satisfying: the influence is still there. The most obvious example is the coup in Honduras in 2009 against the democratically elected government, committed by graduates from the School of the Americas. Since then, Honduras has the highest homicide rate in the world, but 98% of perpetrators are never punished.
Here at my project, the InterReligious Task Force on Central America, we have as one part of our human rights work the Rapid Response Network. As an answer to human right abuses in Central America, Southern Mexico and Colombia we send letters signed by supporters of IRTF to government officials and UN ambassadors. We create a space to give the victims a voice and urge these officials to provide justice. One letter from March gives a good insight to the situation after the coup in Honduras: 4 dead students were found, showing signs of torture after they participated in a protest by teachers, students and parents for better learning conditions in Comayagüela.
The government responded to this protest by deploying heavily armed soldiers to fire tear gas, flash grenades and water cannons, as well as by placing schools under military lockdown. One of the murdered students was a 13 year old girl who said in an interview with a TV-journalist: “We need school desks and we receive gunshots. It’s not possible for us to be seated on the floor like dogs! We don’t even have chairs!” After the protest the police forced the school to submit the names of the protesters for “corrective measures.“ As if this violence and the enmeshment of the US through the SOA and the coup in 2009 wasn't big enough, the police in Honduras are also trained by the US through the program CARSI.
Back to International Human Rights Day: Yes, we can celebrate that there is such a thing as human rights. It’s a great step toward a world of peace and love. But, at the moment, it is just an idea for some people. Human rights are not rights everyone has access to.
Let's stop the killing, its not too late.