Jerry M. Laurienti. The U.S. Military and Human Rights Promotion: Lessons from Latin America. Westport: Praeger Security International, 2007.

Martin G. Clemis


Due to the historically contentious nature of U.S. foreign policy in Latin America, the American military has rarely, if ever, been seen as a champion of human rights. Since the end of the Cold War, however, U.S. Southern Command (SOUTHCOM) has had the unique role of providing mandatory human rights training and education for all U.S. and American-trained military personnel operating within the region. In addition, the Human Rights Initiative (HRI), a division responsible for implementing and evaluating human rights standards in training, doctrine, and enforcement, has also been established. These efforts, as Jerry Laurienti illustrates in his book, The U.S. Military and Human Rights Promotion, have yielded some positive results. Although Latin America as a whole continues to be plagued by limited democracy, civil war, civil-military dysfunction, and the abuse of civil liberties, it has seen an “arguably measurable” reduction in human rights abuses in countries such as Colombia and Bolivia.  Human rights promotion, moreover, can have a positive influence outside of educating and training Latin American militaries, the author contends, by making a significant contribution to the reformation of ongoing global counterterrorism efforts. “U.S. Military human rights promotion,” Laurienti writes, “can serve as a positive influence in foreign armed forces, particularly as Washington searches for a balance between counterterrorism and democratic growth in its broad military engagement strategy.”

Examining whether or not U.S. military efforts to promote human rights abroad can have a positive effect within countries that are plagued by internal strife, insurgency, and terrorism is the focus of Laurienti’s book. Part history, part contemporary analysis, it employs regional case studies and dozens of personal interviews with government, humanitarian, and military personnel from the U.S. and throughout Latin America in an effort to evaluate both the efficacy and applicability of military human rights promotion abroad.

Laurienti’s arguments for military human rights promotion are based upon three additional assumptions. First, successful human rights are inextricably linked to strong bilateral military-to-military relationships between U.S. and Latin American forces. Training and educating foreign militaries, he argues, can have a positive impact on awareness and respect for human rights and civil liberties. Moreover, simply awarding or withholding U.S. foreign aid based upon a particular nation's human rights records is not enough. Financial and military incentives must be accompanied by education and training programs that will increase awareness and respect for human rights among indigenous military personnel. Next, successful human rights promotion bears a direct correlation to the level of democratic development within a particular country. The greater the level of democracy, he contends, the more likely nations will welcome human rights promotion. Colombia is a good example of this, as it has seen a commensurable rise in democratic practices and human rights principles in recent years. Conversely, a lower level of democracy will bring an increase in human rights violations. Venezuela, in contrast, has witnessed a proportionate decline in both democratic principles and respect for human rights.

Finally, successful human rights promotion depends on consistency in U.S. foreign policy. When the American military is willing to abide by human rights standards and practices as it conducts antiterrorism operations abroad, he believes, other nations are more willing to respect and enforce civil liberties policy in their own battles against terrorism and internal strife. Skirting the Geneva protocols and other international legal mechanisms, as well as demanding human rights reform from its allies intermittently, he argues, can undermine support for the U.S. and thrust any claims to the moral high ground in the battle against terrorism into a dubious and hypocritical light.

Written to fill a gap in the literature on the military's role in promoting human rights while balancing existing arguments that outright condemn or condone U.S. efforts in this area, the book provides an interesting but unconvincing analysis. Although Laurienti’s assertion that human rights promotion can play an important role in counterterrorism is plausible, it remains highly speculative.

The case studies Laurienti uses are inconclusive and provide no decisive evidence to support his thesis. Training and education programs in Bolivia and Colombia may have provided greater awareness and institutional mechanisms for promoting human rights within their armed forces, and engendered an overall diminution in human rights violations, but these nations continue to ratchet back civil liberties and democratic norms in their own battles within internal strife. The abuse of civil liberties, distorted civilian and military functions, a rollback of judicial power, and military impunity continue to undermine human rights recognition in these countries.

Criticism aside, however, this book does examine an important and often overlooked aspect of U.S. military policy. The U.S. military can and should play an important role in promoting human rights around the world. Human rights, one scholar has recently written, are “the West’s heraldry,” and the United States must respect, enforce, and promote them if it wants to distinguish itself from the extremists it seeks to defeat. Laurienti's work is an important first step in an expanding literature on human rights promotion and the American military.