Minding military manners: Human rights education for uniformed services in Guinea-Bissau

Lieutenant-Colonel Jorge Gastao Na Sulnate. © OHCHR

Guinea-Bissau has faced political turmoil since its independence from Portugal in 1974 with longstanding violence and an elusive quest for justice by many.

Since 2013, UN Human Rights has trained the various branches of the military, including decision makers and border guards, about human rights, humanitarian law and international obligations.

A Guide on Human Rights for Armed Forces, written in Portuguese and known as the “blue book,” outlines human rights and responsibilities. The guide is now compulsory reading for new recruits.

Lieutenant-Colonel Jorge Gastao Na Sulnate, who coordinated the training for the armed forces, believes the time was right.

“Things were definitely not good. There were enforced disappearances and our only way of dealing with the general population was through violence,” Gastao said.

“Things are changing here,” said Eduardo Da Costa Sanhá, the country’s former Minister of Defence and former Vice-President of the Military Tribunal. UN Human Rights helped us see how we could transform the way we work, stay within the law, know our obligations and work peacefully with civil society.

Learning about dignity

While training succeeded in shifting deep-rooted attitudes, change was difficult due to the military’s historical role and hierarchical structure, coupled with poverty and a lack of knowledge about human rights.

Through the UN Human Rights training, the military learned how to respectfully and peacefully interact with civilians. It also challenged its default reaction to use force.

“Before, the military took things into their own hands when it came to civilians, now there is civilian justice,” said Augusto Da Costa, UN Human Rights Officer.

“We have also learned about gender equality…and the right to health,” added Ensign Maria de Fatima Mendes.

Collective awareness for a brighter future

Guinea-Bissau is now experiencing a societal shift.

According to Olivio Pereira, Secretary General of the Presidency of the Council of Ministers, “Human rights have changed lives. We are more politically mature, no one can violate laws with impunity. Society is more democratized and people simply won’t stand for it.”

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