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COLOMBIA: US Military Aid Contingent on Reversal of Rights Record

Matthew Berger

WASHINGTON, Sep 1 2010 (IPS) - As a new administration takes over in Bogotá, some groups are hoping for change in the human rights record of Colombia – and that the U.S. will use its clout in the country to ensure that change occurs.

At some point in September, the U.S. State Department will likely certify that Colombia is meeting the human rights conditions required for receiving some of the military aid provided by the U.S. But in the year since the last certification numerous human rights violations have occurred in the country, Colombian and U.S. NGOs said in a statement issued Monday.

The groups hope that the fact that those human rights violations occurred while former president Álvaro Uribe was in power means that Colombia has a chance to break that trend under new president Juan Miguel Santos – and that the U.S., which gives hundreds of millions of dollars in aid to Colombia each year, has a chance to pressure them to do so.

The certification requirement only affects U.S. military assistance – and only a percentage of it. Moreover, the State Department has never not certified that Colombia meets the human rights conditions required for receipt of the aid in the ten years that certification has been required.

The certification requirement has “still been a useful tool because the State Department, in anticipating these decisions, sometimes delays certifying and discusses with the Colombian government the serious issues of human rights,” says Lisa Haugaard, executive director of the Latin America Working Group, one of the 18 groups behind the statement.

“It’s been the one tool we have available to put some pressure not just on the Colombian government but on the State Department,” she told IPS.

Rather than simply asking for delays, the groups would like the State Department to not certify Colombia’s human rights record. Haugaard explains that it has been a particularly bad year for human rights in the country. “We’ve seen considerable backsliding, particularly in terms of investigating and prosecuting effectively abuses by the army, even the most egregious ones,” she says.

Over the past year, several infractions have remained unaddressed, including the supposed failure to prosecute rights violations like the “false positive” extrajudicial executions in which Colombian military personnel have allegedly executed civilians then dressed them up as guerrillas in order to inflate their combat body count.

Though the cases involve 3,000 victims of extrajudicial executions dating back to 2002, results are slow, according to the groups.

In response to the false positive scandal, 27 military personnel were dismissed in 2008, but none have been charged with crimes, they say.

They also write that 31 union leaders, 7 community leaders and one indigenous leader have been killed so far in 2010, and that there has been an “exponential increase in threats against defenders via email since April 2010.”

They also point to the expanded operations of paramilitaries and criminal groups as well as evidence of military-paramilitary cooperation.

Six of the groups – WOLA, CIP, Human Rights First, Latin America Working Group, Lutheran World Relief and the U.S. Office on Colombia – wrote a letter to U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton Aug. 20 in which they ask the U.S. to press for reform in these areas and in protecting human rights defenders.

Their hope is that the new Colombian administration will offer a new opportunity for reform.

Uribe’s government had come under fire for presiding over a multitude of human rights abuses, including, most famously, a scandal in which recordings of the wire-tapped conversations of people supposed to be critics of the government – including human rights defenders, politicians, journalists and even Supreme Court justices – became public.

The majority of blame for the eavesdropping activities – illegal under Colombian law – was directed at the Department of Administrative Services, or DAS, an intelligence agency under the president’s authority. DAS had grown considerably in size and scope since being founded in the 1950s, but following the wiretapping scandals, and especially the discovery of a recording of a conversation between a Supreme Court justice and a U.S. embassy attaché, Uribe ordered the dismantling of DAS. That dismantling has yet to be carried out.

These actions by DAS are the “very antithesis” of the condition that Colombia respect the rights of human rights defenders – required for them to receive some of the U.S. aid, the groups behind Monday’s statement say.

For his part, Santos has showed signs that he will move to distance himself from his predecessor’s record.

In his inaugural speech Aug. 7, he vowed to do more to defend human rights, and in the weeks since his government has continued to emphasise making human rights – as well as social issues – a more central issue than they were under Uribe.

But, says Haugaard, “He’s no clean slate.” She notes that as Defense Minister under Uribe, Santos “was somebody who put in place policies that escalated the killings of civilians.

“But he was also somebody who then, after there was international pressure and outcry, put in place some policies that began to bring down the number of killings of civilians,” she adds. “So he’s somebody who listens to what the international community thinks, but also someone who was implicated in the problems in the first place.”

In the statement, the groups are asking the State Department “to withhold certification until marked results are seen in advancing human rights cases and combating Colombia’s rampant impunity.”

While she feels the evidence for non-certification is there, Haugaard is realistic about the prospects of their request’s success. “I think the State Department will be reluctant to not certify right now – not only because it always has but also because a new government is coming in – but [our request] is based on the past year of the facts on the ground, and that’s what we’re asking the State Department to look at.”

And if the certification goes ahead anyway? “We’ll see what’s next,” she says.

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