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US Army School of the Americas (USARSA/SOA)

After 54 years, the US Army School of the Americas (USARSA; also known by the acronym SOA) was closed on 15 December 2000, in accordance with Section 2166 of the National Defense Authorization Act for FY 2001. In its place, the the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation (WHINSEC) was created.

The US Army School of the Americas was a bilingual Training and Doctrine Command (TRADOC) service school that trained over 56,000 military, police and government from 22 nations throughout the hemisphere. The School was charged by Public Law 100-180 (10 USC 4415) with the mission to provide doctrinally sound, relevant military education and training to the nations of Latin America; promote democratic values and respect for human rights; and foster cooperation among the multinational military forces. A highly qualified staff of 320 military and civilian instructors, and some 30 guest instructors from Latin America, prepared, supported, and presented more than 30 courses in Spanish to students representing over 125 nations. SOA's professional program prepared the company- and field-grade officers, cadets, noncommissioned officers, police and civilian government personnel to face the ever increasing role of the armed forces in conducting non-traditional missions involved in Operations Other Than War.

Sensitive to that, SOA added new courses to include peace operations, resource management, border operations, democratic sustainment, medical assistance, counter-mine operations, and counter-drug operations. All of the instruction was designed to prepare the military forces of the Americas to be constructive and effective partners in the democratic processes of their nations.

Inherent in all the training and education programs, SOA systematically advocated human rights awareness and strives to graduate students whose respect for such values was both enlightened and solidified. Doctrinal training was supported by human rights instruction comprised of case studies, prominent guest lecturers, diverse informational programs, provocative seminars, and practical application in realistic field scenarios.

Human rights violations continued to be a concern in the region. The 1995 State Department report on human rights states that even though progress has been made, widespread abuses of human rights continue in some Latin American countries. For example, although progress was made in negotiations between the Guatemalan government and guerrillas and human rights activists were elected to the country’s congress, serious human rights abuses continued to occur in Guatemala in 1995. In Mexico, serious problems also remained, such as extrajudicial killings by the police and illegal arrests. Colombia was another country in the region that continued to face major human rights problems associated with its military, including killings, torture, and disappearances.

Reflecting the history of the region, School officials emphasized that the School provides instruction on human rights principles to all students. This human rights instruction is not presented at any other Army school. All of the School’s courses, except the computer literacy course, include a mandatory 4-hour block of instruction on human rights issues in military operations, including law of land warfare, military law and ethics, civilian control of the military, and democratization. This instruction is expanded in some courses. For example, the command and general staff officer course devotes 3 days of instruction to the subject, and uses the My Lai massacre in Vietnam as a case study. School officials told us that they consider this case study an excellent illustration of issues related to professional military behavior, command and control, and changes in U.S. military attitudes and acceptance of the principles of human rights.

The SOA traced its history to the establishment in 1946 at Fort Amador, Panama Canal Zone of the Latin American Center - Ground Division (US Training). The SOA came to occupy Building 35 at Fort Benning, Georgia, a historic edifice which, from 1932 to 1964, headquartered the US Army Infantry School. In April 1994 it had been dedicated as Ridgway Hall in honor of General Matthew B. Ridgway, whose work in Latin America won him honor and distinction.

Concerns about the continued need for the School in the post-Cold War period have surfaced, driven in part by adverse publicity over human rights violations associated with past students of the School. Negative publicity about the School would probably continue and a new name for the School may be an appropriate way to break with the past.

In 1999, the US Congress voted to close the School of the Americas, which has educated some of the most horrible violators of human rights in this hemisphere. In 2001, the Pentagon changed the name to the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation , but did little to address the fundamental issues raised by Congress about the schools training methods, its lack of oversight, and its record of graduating human rights abusers.

On 3 April 2000, about 1,000 people demonstrated outside the White House, urging US authorities to close the training center for Latin American military officers. The US Army-run School of the Americas had trained more than 60,000 troops in counterinsurgency warfare over the last 50 years. Critics had long accused the school of training soldiers in questionable and abusive tactics, which were then used against populations in their home countries. Organizers of the demonstration cited reports released by Human Rights Watch and the US State Department that linked graduates of the school to paramilitary killings in Colombia.

The annual protest of training conducted at the School of the Americas at Fort Benning, Georgia, demonstrations occurred on public property immediately outside of Fort Benning. The City of Columbus, Georgia instituted a policy requiring suspicionless magnetometer searches of all persons seeking to attend the demonstrations. The City justified the searches in light of past conduct at the demonstrations, including “frenzied dancing,” large debris used to erect a “global village,” ignition of a smoke bomb, and trespassing on the grounds of Fort Benning, in violation of 18 U.S.C. § 1382. The City also noted that unrelated protesters at other venues had allegedly instigated instances of violence, and that the Homeland Security threat assessment was elevated.

In 2002, H.R. 1810, would repeal the authority of the Department of Defense to operate the school, effectively closing it. This legislation would also establish a joint congressional task force to evaluate what kind of education and training is appropriate to provide to military personnel of Latin American nations, particularly with respect to the observance of human rights.

Fort Benning began transition to the Maneuver Center of Excellence in 2008, and the Institute moved to Collins, Lewis and Greene Halls, with modular buildings to house classrooms. Col. Felix Santiago took command in July and managed the move. He also re-organized the Institute into three components: The Schools of Professional Military Education and Specialized Studies, and the Roy Benavidez NCO Academy.

The Democracy and Human Rights Program promotes understanding and respect for democratic values and institutions, human rights, the rule of law, and civilian control of a nation's armed forces. Offered when each student arrives at WHINSEC, these classes portray how deeply embedded U.S. values have maintained a strong constitutional democracy and uninterrupted civilian control of the military throughout our history.

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