U.S. Human Rights Policy Towards Colombia Advances

by Winifred Tate, Fellow for Colombia, Washington Office on Latin America

With the escalating human rights crisis in Colombia, and increasing pressure from human rights groups, U.S. policy towards Colombia has recently reflected a growing concern for human rights, reflected in the State Department's human rights reports, recent public statements by U.S. officials, and expanded programs and funding for human rights. However, these advances have not shifted the overall focus of U.S. policy from militarized counternarcotics efforts, which erode human rights safeguards, and the general human rights situation in the country continues to decline.

For the past two years, the State Department's Colombia human rights report has reflected a dramatic improvement in the quality of human rights reporting. This year's report, for example, devoted a considerable section to paramilitary groups in Colombia, concluding that "some local army and police commanders tacitly tolerated -and sometimes aided and abetted-the activities of paramilitary groups." One example was Col. Rodrigo Quiñónez, who was found responsible for paramilitary activity resulting in the death of 57 civilians, yet received only a letter of reprimand and remained on active duty at the year's end.

During his visit to Colombia in April, Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights, Labor and Democracy Harold Koh gave the most comprehensive public declaration on human rights in Colombia of any U.S. government official to date. During a human rights conference convened in Medellín by the United States Information Agency, Koh outlined five steps the Colombian government should take to improve the human rights situation. These include: (1) fostering a peace process with human rights guarantees, (2) severing the link between Colombian military forces and paramilitary groups and arresting paramilitary leaders such as Carlos Castaño, (3) addressing impunity, (4) promoting the rule of law, and (5) protecting human rights defenders. These recommendations largely coincide with the recommendations presented by human rights organizations in the weeks before Koh's trip to Colombia. His speech clearly reflects both a personal commitment to human rights and the strongest policy statement to date of the Clinton Administration's focus on human rights as an integral part of U.S. policy towards Colombia.

The focus on human rights is also reflected on the new priorities of the United States Agency for International Development (USAID). Rather than close the Bogotá office, as originally planned, by the year 2000, USAID has decided to expand its operations to work with the Pastrana Administration on a number of new fronts, including alternative development in poppy growing areas and support for human rights programs. In designing its human rights program, USAID has actively sought the input of human rights NGO representatives, in both the United States and Colombia. Meetings have focused on how to design a human rights program that will strengthen governmental human rights agencies and protect threatened human rights non-governmental organizations.

The recent advances reflect growing international interest. It was largely as a result of international pressure that Pastrana met with Colombian human rights NGO representatives and committed to a program to protect threatened human rights defenders. Together with representatives of the Ministry of the Interior, human rights NGOs have developed a comprehensive protection program for threatened defenders, with a budget of $5.6 million, which has been appropriated but not allocated by the Ministry of the Treasury. Additionally, Pastrana has dismissed two army generals who have been linked to paramilitary activity. Both Brig. Gen. Rito Alejo del Río and Brig. Gen. Fernando Millán Pérez were named in the State Department human rights report, which stated that they were appointed to leadership positions despite their links to paramilitary groups. Both generals were under investigation by the Colombian Prosecutor General at the time of their promotions to director of army operations and director of the army war college, respectively. Human rights groups had repeatedly called for their removal from office. In addition to their dismissal on April 9, 1999, President Pastrana announced that Gen. Jaime Humberto Uscategui, commander of the Second Division of the Army, and, also under investigation for his role in a paramilitary massacre in Mapiripán, was being suspended for 30 days. Col. Lino Sánchez Prada and two army sergeants were also arrested for their role in this massacre.

These advances, however important, do not address the larger issues of U.S. policy towards Colombia, which remains focused on militarized counternarcotics operations. While US aid to the Colombian security forces for counternarcotics operations has reached a record high of $286 million for FY 1999, US funding for human rights programs is estimated to be no more than a million a year. And late last year, the U.S. military announced a new cooperation agreement with the Colombian military, including the creation of a Colombian army antinarcotics battalion to operate in one of the most conflictive areas of the country, and new intelligence training and assistance.

International pressure is critical to ensure that Pastrana continues to make the necessary reforms. The removal of two officers for links with paramilitary activity must mark the beginning of a comprehensive policy to address paramilitary violence, including the purge of all officers involved in paramilitary activity from active service and the arrest of paramilitary leaders. Pastrana must ensure the effective and immediate implementation of the measures to protect human rights monitors.

Sustained international pressure, particularly from the United States, can play a critical role: International pressure, including in particular statements from the U.S. government, was instrumental in securing the release of the four human rights researchers kidnapped by paramilitary gunmen from the Institute for Grassroots Training (IPC) in Medellín in January. In the short run, international attention can be vital in creating the public support needed for a climate favorable to human rights work. Safeguarding citizen participation is also a fundamental step towards creating the conditions for a successful peace process in the long run.


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