The Washington Update: A Hell of a Ride

by Carlos Salinas, Amnesty International USA

(A longer version of this article appeared in the Colombia Bulletin, Vol. II, No. 3.)

On November 26, 1997, President Clinton signed into law the fiscal year 1998 foreign aid spending bill, the Foreign Operations Appropriations Act (H.R. 2159), bringing to a close an important chapter in grassroots campaigning on Colombia and opening a new area of work. At the same time, 1997 saw an unprecedented increase in military aid to Colombia and Blackhawk helicopters were approved for the Colombian National Police.

Concerned individuals, members of networks and non-governmental organizations rallied behind the Leahy Amendment, a Congressional measure prohibiting US counterdrug aid from foreign military units implicated in human rights violations. Named for its chief sponsor, Senator Patrick Leahy (D-VT), it was supported by other human rights champions such as Representatives Esteban Torres (D-CA) and Nancy Pelosi (D-CA).

Expanding Leahy

The Leahy Amendment was first passed as part of the Fiscal Year 1997 Foreign Operations Appropriations but only applied to counterdrug aid controlled by the State Department's Bureau for International Narcotics and Law Enforcement, i.e. it only applied to a specific counterdrug account -- not even all counterdrug aid. A month after its passage, Amnesty International USA showed that the US government had been providing military aid to Colombian military units implicated in gross human rights violations, despite Administration assurances to the contrary. This revelation made the need for the Leahy Amendment very clear.

Early in 1997, the Clinton Administration voluntarily applied the criteria established by the Leahy Amendment (no aid to units credibly alleged to be implicated in rights violations) to all forms of counterdrug aid. At the same time, the Administration appears to have been pressing the Colombian Government to sign an end-use monitoring agreement, a mechanism by which the US would be able to ensure that its assistance was being used for the intended purpose, i.e. for counterdrug operations. When the Colombian Army balked, US aid that had been approved was halted.

Attack on Leahy

In hearings held in July, Representatives Dan Burton (R-IN; Chair of the Committee on Government Reform and Oversight), J. Dennis Hastert (R-IL; Chair of the Subcommittee on National Security), and others opposed the extension of the Leahy Amendment by the Administration.

Despite this considerable Congressional pressure, the Administration held firm and refused to release aid until some type of guarantee was instated. At around this time, the head of Colombia's armed forces, General Bedoya, was fired by President Samper, and on August 1, an end-use monitoring agreement was signed between Colombia and the USA.

These same Representatives were able to delete the Leahy Amendment from the House version of the Foreign Operations Appropriations Bill.

Heading into Conference

But all was not lost. As with all bills, there were two versions of the Foreign Ops Bill: one version in the House of Representatives and one in the Senate. The Senate's version included an "expanded" version of the Leahy Amendment. It extended the human rights restriction to all forms of military aid -- not just some forms of counternarcotics aid as in the original version.

The two versions were to be turned into one version by a process called "conference" by September 30, the end of the fiscal year, so it could be sent to President Clinton to be enacted as law.

September also saw the confirmation hearing in the Senate for the incoming US Ambassador to Colombia, Curtis W. Kamman. He was asked by Senator Christopher Dodd (D-CT) how he had implemented the Leahy Amendment in Bolivia, where he was currently the Ambassador. Amb. Kamman stated that the US Embassy found one case, dating from 1994, that appeared to fit the Leahy criteria. Clearly, there will be more follow-up. Amb. Kamman did meet with a small group of human rights NGOs on 19 December and answered questions relating to his tenure in Bolivia and asked questions about Colombia.


In the meantime, grass roots organizations focused on the members of the Foreign Ops subcommittee but also on another key member, Rep. Gilman, who Gilman has traditionally been a strong supporter of human rights. After much discussion and many calls from constituents, Chairman Gilman wrote Amnesty members in his home district that he could support the Leahy Amendment. This of course signaled the compromise, opening the way for the approval of the Leahy Amendment in the final reconciled version of the Foreign Ops bill.

The final, approved version, which was signed into law on 26 November, is for fiscal year 1998, and applies to all military aid provided under the spending bill, not just counternarcotics aid. Since the Leahy Amendment is part of the Foreign Ops Bill, it needs to be renewed each year. This new Leahy Amendment, the new law of the land, is as follows:


SEC. 570. None of the funds made available by this Act may be provided to any unit of the security forces of a foreign country if the Secretary of State has credible evidence that such unit has committed gross violations of human rights, unless the Secretary determines and reports to the Committees on Appropriations that the government of such country is taking effective measures to bring the responsible members of the security forces unit to justice: Provided, That nothing in this section shall be construed to withhold funds made available by this Act from any unit of the security forces of a foreign country not credibly alleged to be involved in gross violations of human rights: Provided further, That in the event that funds are withheld from any unit pursuant to this section, the Secretary of State shall promptly inform the foreign government of the basis for such action and shall, to the maximum extent practicable, assist the foreign government in taking effective measures to bring the responsible members of the security forces to justice so funds to that unit may be resumed.

Yet Another Increase in Aid

Paradoxically, while having extended end-use safeguards, the Administration had also expanded aid to Colombia, approving more than $115 million for the fiscal year that ended on October 1, 1997, with a sizable military component.

The Souder Amendment

On July 30, 1997, during the Foreign Ops proceedings in the House, Representative Hastert introduced on behalf of Representative Souder (R-IN) a proposal totaling $50 million which would provide four Blackhawk helicopters to the Colombian National Police. This proposal is known as the Souder Amendment.

After the reconciliation process between House and Senate versions of the Foreign Ops bill, the Souder amendment, was modified and the result, the new law of the land, was as follows: "In addition, the conference agreement includes $15,000,000 in a new account, 'Narcotics Interdiction', in order to provide the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs (INL) with the flexibility and funds to procure Black Hawk helicopters for the Colombian National Police. The bureau is directed to use the funds in this account, together with base funds from "International Narcotics Control," to procure three Black Hawk utility helicopters, including maintenance and training, for the National Police solely for counternarcotics purposes, at a cost of $36,000,000. In addition $14,000,000 should be made available to provide upgrades for UH-1H Huey helicopters for the Colombian National Police solely for counternarcotics purposes."

This and any other aid still has to conform to the criteria set forth by the Leahy Amendment. The challenge for us is to ensure full implementation of the bill. And to make sure that Washington policy- and lawmakers understand that we will not stand idly while the US transfers aid to the continuing carnage in Colombia.

What you can do:

Clearly, the Souder amendment will transfer Blackhawks to the Colombian National Police. Given the human rights crisis in Colombia, this and other US transfers need to be monitored closely to ensure they are not used to commit human rights violations. Since Rep. Souder is responsible for the Blackhawks, he should take responsibility for what these helicopters do, by leading in monitoring efforts and being able to pinpoint where they are, how they are being used, and to ensure human rights violations in the regions where they are used are not attributed to those helicopters. Rep. Mark Souder's phone is (202) 225-4436 and his fax is (202) 225-3479.

Carlos Salinas is the Government Program Officer for Latin America for Amnesty International in Washington, D.C., and a member of the CHRC Advisory Board.