U.S./Colombia Coordinating Office Opens Doors in Washington

In October 1998, the Colombia Human Rights Committee established the U.S./Colombia Coordinating Office, in Washington, D.C., in response to a growing need for coordinated advocacy and coalition building among groups promoting human rights, justice, and peace in Colombia.

Over the past year, Washington has witnessed a swell of U.S.-based advocacy for Colombia from various sectors including policy and grassroots activists, academics, humanitarian organizations, and religious groups. In part, the increased attention is due to the tragic proportions of violence in Colombia. In 1997, 31,808 people were killed, a 19% increase over 1996. More than 6,000 of these killings were a direct result of Colombia's long-running internal armed conflict. In addition, an estimated 250,000 people were displaced in 1997, bringing to more than one million the number who have fled their homes in the past decade. Twenty-six human rights defenders have been assassinated since May 1997 and many more have been threatened.

The surge of interest is also in response to growing awareness of the U.S. role in Colombia's worsening internal armed conflict. United States policy toward Colombia continues to seesaw between increased military aid to fight the war on drugs, and support for peace initiatives and human rights monitoring. An October 1998 decision by Congress to boost the anti-drug budget toward Colombia by $201.25 million over three years tipped the balance towards militarization — the new aid package will include such equipment as six UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters and sophisticated surveillance equipment. U.S. Defense Secretary Cohen solidified this trend when he signed a cooperation accord with the Colombian military on December 1, 1998 that calls for the establishment of a bilateral working group of U.S. and Colombian military officials.

The rapid influx of NGO activities focused on altering this current policy path has heightened the need for current verified information on the situation on the ground in Colombia—the conflict and initiatives to end it. Coordination and communication have also become increasingly important as both U.S. and Colombian NGOs work to enhance their impact through joint initiatives.

The U.S./Colombia Coordinating Office responds to the need for information and coordination by acting as a communication link between three established coalitions, the Coordinación Colombia-Europa-Estados Unidos in Bogotá; the Colombia Human Rights Network and sister organizations; and the Colombia Sub-Group of the Latin America Working Group.

The Office exchanges information and develops initiatives with the Coordinación Colombia-Europa-Estados Unidos, a coalition of over 60 human rights groups in Colombia, to ensure U.S.-based advocacy shares the goals of Colombian-based civil society groups and to provide Colombian human rights leaders with a forum in the United States. Among grassroots activists, the Office provides leadership and expands collaborative efforts, primarily among committees of the Colombia Human Rights Network and sister organizations. The Office also assists in coordinating and catalyzing work by the Colombia Sub-Group of the Latin America Working Group, a coalition of over 60 national organizations working for a peaceful and just U.S. policy toward Latin America.

In addition to coalition work, the Office educates policy makers, media and the general public about political violence in Colombia, initiatives for peace and the impact of U.S. policy.

For more information, contact Alison Giffen, Director, Address: Suite 200, 1630 Connecticut Ave. NW, Washington DC 20009, Telephone: (202) 232-8090, Fax: (202) 232-8092, agiffen@igc.org