CHARLOTTESVILLE, VIRGINIA — From Haiti to Zaire to the former Soviet republic of Georgia, restless armies are thwarting democracy by taking the law into their own hands.
Washington can offer new programs to stabilize civil-military relations in transitional nations, but for nearly two decades, well intentioned human-rights groups have blocked foreign military personnel from receiving legal training through U.S. foreign-assistance programs. To stop democracy's backslide, human-rights advocates and supporters of foreign assistance should find common ground and support judicial training for foreign military personnel in the aid package being negotiated in Congress.
Since the 1980s, U.S. foreign-aid programs have been reoriented to promote democratic institutions. The Agency for International Development and the National Endowment for Democracy has helped labor unions, business-development groups, womens' organizations, political parties and microenterprises in Latin America, Eastern Europe, Africa and Asia to build democracy.
But in many developing countries, the army remains the most powerful -- and often the only -- national institution. Facing austerity budgets in the wake of the Cold War, many military cultures are desperately seeking an enemy. In many unstable democracies, armies and their civilian supporters -- threatened by the loss of jobs and the sale of formerly strategic state industries -- are reverting to nationalism and coup-mongering.
Fighting between Yugoslavia's ethnic groups and political tensions among the former Soviet republics do not bode well for constitutionalism in eastern Europe. Armies in Argentina, Brazil and Chile continue to oppose constitutional reforms that would fully subordinate them to elected governments. Indonesia's army operates with impunity against rebellious nationalists in Timor and Aceh. With President Mobutu's army slowing the transition to democracy, Zaire stands on the brink of civil war.
These events demand new initiatives designed to bring armies into the democratization process as well as make them more cognizant of internationally accepted standards of human rights.
During the Cold War, military spending by the superpowers increased their influence over their allies. Concurrently, unbridled defense spending by U.S. and Soviet clients in the developing world consolidated military and authoritarian regimes. With the balance of power now dependent on democracy and economic reform, defense cutbacks in developing nations must be complemented by ''civilianization'' programs that work inside military organizations to promote respect for the rule of law.
One way to help stabilize civil-military relations in emerging democracies would be to create an Office of Democratic Initiatives within the U.S. Department of Defense. It could coordinate defense programs with those of AID and the NED to promote democratic norms within allied military establishments.
Recent initiatives, like the Defense Resources Management Education Program, which seek to enhance civil-military relations, would have a stronger advocate within the Pentagon. An annual report on the human-rights compliance of foreign armies, produced by the office, could become a yardstick for measuring the amount of aid a country should receive.
Ambassador Richard Schifter, the assistant secretary of state for human rights and humanitarian affairs, has recommended a pilot program to dispatch mobile training teams of U.S. military lawyers to promote democratic values and human-rights standards among army and police forces in Peru.
If funded by Congress, teams of lawyers from the Army's Judge Advocate General's Corps would conduct seminars for their host country's military counterparts, focusing on democratic values, the laws of war and basic international human-rights law. In the past, however, Congress has prohibited such military assistance under pressure from human-rights lobbyists who view foreign military establishments as being beyond reform.
To help improve human-rights compliance in Latin America, the Inter-American Defense College in Washington could implement a judicial training curriculum conducted by international experts in conjunction with the U.S. Army JAG School. This program would strengthen respect for constitutionally guaranteed rights among the armed services in such problem nations as Colombia, El Salvador, Guatemala, Panama and Peru.
Over the past decade, world military expenditures reached unprecedented peacetime levels. But the collapse of communism is advancing a new order that demands the reform of traditional defense establishments. The International Monetary fund and the World Bank now seek to link deep cuts in defense spending with economic reform programs in developing countries.
The handwriting is on the wall for restless armies in every corner of the world. But America's commitment to promoting democratic initiatives abroad could be hampered by feuding between human-rights groups and architects of foreign policy. Democracy will be the big winner if both sides support congressional efforts to humanize foreign military aid.
Eric Ehrmann writes on international affairs. Christopher Barton is assistant director of the Center for National Security Law at the University of Virginia.