Military school in question


A Buddhist monk’s words, spoken to him decades ago, never left him. Instead, they fueled his passion and life work: educating and striving for human rights.

Father Roy Bourgeois, a retired naval officer who received a purple heart during the Vietnam War, still remembers the phrase verbatim: “Our greatest enemy in life is ignorance. And the answer is wisdom, love and non-violence. It’s our only hope.”

Bourgeois now travels the nation to conquer ignorance among Americans.

He visited UNF Feb. 18 to speak about a controversial military training school located 290 miles north of Jacksonville in Fort Benning, Ga.

Torture, blackmail and execution were outlined as interrogation techniques in the school’s training manuals, released by the Pentagon in 1996.

Formerly known as the U.S. Army School of the Americas, the Western Hemisphere Institute for Security Cooperation mainly trains Spanish-speaking students from Latin America.

Training manuals used at the SOA and elsewhere from the early 1980s through 1991 promoted techniques that violated human rights and democratic standards. SOA graduates continue to surface in news reports regarding both current human rights cases and new reports on past cases, according to the Center for International Policy Web site.

Bourgeois has fought continuously during the past few decades to gain support against the school he considers a “crime against humanity” because he said it promotes “the slaughter of the innocent.”

He has helped release books and documentaries detailing specific occurrences of some security cooperation graduates who have tortured, raped and killed insurgents and their families.

But officials closely associated with the school disagree with Bourgeous’ principles.

“[Bourgeois’] whole organization is based on the false premise that any association with the school led to a criminal act,” said Lee Rials, public affairs officer at the institution.

Last year, Bolivia became the fifth country after Costa Rica, Argentina, Uruguay and Venezuela to discontinue sending its troops to the institution, according to a news release.

Controversies have developed in recent years concerning human rights abuses committed by school graduates, and there have been several legislative attempts since 1993 to cut funding for the school, according to a report in the Library of Congress released by the Congressional Research Service in 2000.

The School of Americas was closed in 2000 after Congress passed a bill, but it reopened with its new name in 2001.

The new school includes human rights, ethics and democracy lessons in every first academic course.

“[The instructors] are not just teaching [the students] human rights,” Rials said. “We are teaching them how to do their jobs in a legal and ethical way.”

Still, Bourgeois has led many nonviolent protests against the school, and he, along with hundreds of other protestors, has been imprisoned for trespassing.

“They can send us to prison, but they cannot silence us,” he said. “The truth cannot be silenced.”

In the past, Bourgeois scheduled a month-long fast, where hundreds gathered around the institute. This November, he is leading another group to the school to conduct a mock funeral procession.

The school’s administrators are aware of the plans.

“Here’s the real irony with the people who trespass: Any day they can go to the Visitor Center, sign in and go in freely,” Rials said. “We welcome visitors all the time. We are proud of the courses we teach here and we want people to know that.”

Last year, a bill was lobbied to cut the funding to the tax-payer funded institute, but it was six votes
short, Bourgeois said. It will be voted on again in Congress this April.

Amnesty International is an organization that actively works to protect human rights and has a chapter at UNF. In 2002, it too called for the school’s suspension of training.

“This area is pretty conservative and most people don’t want to hear it,” said Samantha Faulds, senior political science major and vice president of Amnesty International at UNF. “But we need to get more students educated about human rights abuses that are happening, not only in our country but … the whole world.”

E-mail April Schulhauser at [email protected].