The US/Colombia Coordinating Office and the Colombia Human Rights Committee spearheaded a highly successful conference on the role of the US in Colombia in mid-October. This was a crucial moment in the policy debate in Washington, as it followed shortly after President Pastranas visit to the US and the UN in which he had requested massive increases in military aid. Attendance, which exceeded 150 persons, included congressional aides and officials from the Department of State, the Department of Defense and the Immigration and Naturalization Service, along with staff of human rights and religious organizations, academics, and grassroots activists. The program included presentations by two members of Congress, an Assistant Secretary of State, the Colombian Ambassador to the United States, plus seven additional speakers from Colombia and three from the US. There were twenty-five co-sponsoring organizations from the human rights, religious and academic communities, twelve of which sponsored speakers from Colombia. Oxfam-UK also provided financial assistance. The following is based on a record of the conference kept by Helene Pollock.
Representative William D. Delahunt (D-MA), who serves on the International Relations Committee, the Subcommittee on International Economic Policy and Trade and the Human Rights Subcommittee, opened the conference by offering a special welcome to Senator Piedad Córdoba Ruiz, chair of the Human Rights Committee of the Colombian Senate and a member of Colombias Congressional Peace Commission and National Council for Peace. Sen. Córdoba had been kidnapped by paramilitaries on May 21 and released 16 days later, in part due to international pressure. Rep. Delahunt commended her for her mission of awakening, utilizing and leveraging the concern for human rights among members of legislative bodies around the world, and endorsed her idea of organizing an inter-parliamentary conference on human rights. Speaking directly to Sen. Córdoba, he promised to speak to his colleagues about this idea and to work with her to make it a reality.
The keynote speaker was Ambassador Harold Koh, Assistant Secretary of State for Human Rights, Democracy and Labor. Ambassador Koh noted recent progress in training security forces, vetting the human rights records of individual military personnel, and dismissing human rights violators in the armed forces, such as Alberto Vallejo Bravo. Such actions emphasize the importance of civilian control over the military. In contrast to government efforts to improve the human rights climate, he pointed out that the guerillas continue to be responsible for massive human rights violations. He also noted that paramilitaries commit the vast majority of human rights abuses and must be the governments target for arrest. The situation in Colombia continues to be marked by unacceptable levels of violence and displacement. Of particular concern are the judicial system, the military tribunals and the systematic campaigns of intimidation of human rights defenders. Five human rights defenders have been killed in the first six months of this year, while others have taken the bitter route of self-exile. Ambassador Koh noted that the Plan Colombia offers a framework for the countrys reconstruction through its five interlocking themes, and has the potential to help pinpoint areas for cooperation between the US and Colombia. The human rights component of Plan Colombia is designed to improve monitoring of human rights violations.
Next on the agenda was a panel entitled Civilians Under Fire. Lisa Haugaard from the Latin America Working Group began by offering a long list of ordinary people who have been killed, kidnapped, displaced and forced into exile during the last few years. They may have been attacked by paramilitaries or guerillas; government forces may have failed to protect them or may have placed them at risk. Lisa Haugaard identified these ordinary Colombian citizens -- people just trying to live their lives -- as the real heroes in Colombia today. They are the civilians caught in the crossfire, and she urged everyone to take their perspectives into account.
The next panelist, Agustín Jiménez, President of the Committee in Solidarity with Political Prisoners (CSPP), noted that after 40 years the armed conflict in Colombia has reached a point where 10 persons are killed daily (see box for summary of his comments).
The next panelist was Jesús Antonio González, Director of the Human Rights Division of the Central Unitaria de Trabajadores (CUT), the nation's largest labor federation. After extending greetings from organized labor in Colombia, he recalled the 3,000 labor leaders from his organization who have been killed -- with a 99.9% impunity rate -- in the past 13 years, in the open, undeclared war in Colombia (see box for his comments).
Senator Francisco Rojas Birry, a representative of Colombias indigenous communities, continued to describe civil society under fire, admitting that it would be difficult to find words to describe what is happening to ordinary people in Colombia (see box).
The next speaker in the panel Civilians Under Fire was Eulalia Yagarí, an Embera Chamí, who is serving her third term as a State Assemblywoman in Antioquia (see box).
The next speaker was Heliodoro Sánchez, a representative from Chocó (the 90% Afro-Colombian Pacific coast region) who was forced out of his home, along with his community, in 1997, at a time when the community was working to obtain the collective land rights that had been guaranteed in the 1991 Colombian Constitution (see box).
During the question and answer period, Eulalia Yagarí added that, in her opinion, military aid is not needed, but rather assistance for those who are working for peace, including training in concrete skills and psychological support to deal with trauma. Colombia should be disarmed; the money designated for arms should be invested in economic aid.
The second panel began with a presentation by Colombias ambassador to the US, Luis Alberto Moreno. Ambassador Moreno has worked to make connections with NGOs in the United States, seeking to broaden the discussion beyond drugs, promoting peace and human rights. He described the present time as one of the most difficult moments in our history. Ambassador Moreno observed that a multifaceted approach is needed, since Colombias problems feed on each other, and this is the approach of President Pastranas Plan Colombia. Economic recovery is crucial in light of Colombias soaring unemployment rate -- 7.5% in 1997; 15% 1998 and 20% now. Colombia needs new employment, an expansion of international trade, an increase in foreign investment, and better access to markets. In last decade Colombia lost agricultural acreage, which resulted in many lost jobs. President Pastrana has negotiated a $6.9 billion three-year agreement with the International Monetary Fund, through a bilateral investment treaty which includes increased security for investors, better access for Colombian products, and funding for the social safety net. Another goal is military reform, including plans to professionalize the 40,000 conscripts in the army. Ambassador Moreno feels that this is the best way to begin to address Colombias human rights problem. Another priority is the reform of state institutions, to make possible effective prosecution of drug traffickers and human rights violators. The nations Vice President has focused on the problem of corruption in state institutions. Alternative economic development is central to the plan. One farreaching program involves relocating families from the south to other areas, where there is more productive land. Plan Colombia seeks to develop small business and micro enterprise opportunities, and to improve the infrastructure in the south. It includes measures to promote environmental protection in the Amazon and other areas. Another element of Plan Colombia is counter-narcotics, which makes up 40% of the overall military budget ($1.2 billion of a $3 billion budget). Since there are 16 million consumers of cocaine in the US, that means that Colombia is investing $750 per cocaine consumer. Specific activities include increased patrolling of rivers by the navy stop the traffic of arms and cocaine base, interdiction, forfeiture of assets used in the drug enterprise, and an increase in interdiction and cooperation with other governments. Drugs are not seen as a supply and demand issue but a global problem. A positive accomplishment was Operation Millennium, which resulted in high-level arrests of drug traffickers, with the Colombian police working with US agencies with cooperation from Ecuador and Mexico.
In response to a question about what the US could do to move the peace process forward, Ambassador Moreno pointed to the need for patience and the recognition that working for peace must be a long-lasting effort. The US should utilize a broad agenda, promoting international involvement. The international community has helped other groups to move toward a negotiated settlement. It is hard for many to understand the war in Colombia. It is not a typical guerilla situation like Central America. When the FARC previously sought to de-mobilize and participate in the political process, its leaders were killed. A process of education needs to take place, to bridge that gap. The war in Colombia cannot be resolved through military means. If that had been possible, it would have happened sometime during the past 40 years.
The next speaker was Rafael Rincón Patiño, Executive Secretary and member of the Coordinating Committee of the Civil Society Permanent Assembly for Peace, and co-founder of the Red Nacional de Paz (REDEPAZ). He spoke of the movement to build a single, united Colombia through citizen initiative. Rafael Rincón stated that the position of the U.S. should be to recognize the political nature of the confrontation, avoiding involvements that will result in prolonging the war (see box).
The next panelist, Senator Piedad Córdoba Ruiz, the highest-ranking Afro-Colombian congressperson, expressed appreciation for the many expressions of solidarity with her situation of having been kidnapped, which is not only her experience but that of many other people more than 40-50 intellectuals and human rights leaders. She shared a document developed by women engaged in a peace walk, which identifies the injustices as being structural in nature, due to most of the wealth being concentrated in the hands of a few people, along with the nature of decision-making and the injustice of poverty (see box).
The final speaker in the second panel, Carlos Salinas, Advocacy Director for Latin America and the Caribbean for Amnesty International USA, described the military aid package recently proposed. Why is there so much for the army and so little concern for the human rights violations committed by the various armed opposition groups? This is a generation-long conflict in Colombia, and no side respects the rights of the civilian population. This is a dirty war in which the victims are civilians. The US response seems to be to escalate the conflict. Some aid to the army is linked to units implicated in some of the worst atrocities. Up to $1.5 billion in aid has been proposed, with at least $740,000 in direct security assistance and at least $550 million in direct support for the security forces. This escalation of military aid could result in the worst human rights disaster in the hemisphere. The talk is of possible solutions but only one approach is considered, and it has been called a done deal. Where is the cry from the American people about our governments involvement in this dirty war, which is dirtier than others?
Carlos Salinas pointed out that the paramilitaries are involved in trafficking (according to the DEA), but you never hear about narco-paras. US military aid is being justified through an anti-drug approach, but also that the aid will address a larger reality. Yet the specific goals of the aid are not spelled out. If cases of collaboration between the army and paramilitaries are mentioned, they are said to be isolated cases. But theyre all over the place. Yes, the Colombian army needs to do a better job, and in the meantime were warned about being soft on drugs. There is a myth that good ol American know-how will turn things around.
Carlos Salinas then pointed out a number of parallels between the current situation in Colombia and that of El Salvador in 1980 and 1981: U.S. policymakers may have been the best of intentions, but as the carnage was escalating, we regretted, for example, the killing of Archbishop Romero and the massacre at El Mozote. And the truth: these were part of a deliberate strategy of terrorizing the civilian population through death squads tolerated by the military, as verified a decade later by the Truth Commission. Today, this same pattern is being repeated, with the same justification, by the administration. A member of Congress, Salinas noted, has pointed out that Colombia is different. It is four times larger than Vietnam and infinitely more complex, and the war there has lasted much longer. There is little reason to have confidence in the administration. If we ask which units will get the aid were told we cant know. In 1996 it was pointed out that US aid went to units engaged in human rights violations. Then were told all units have been vetted for human rights violations. But the army continues to allow the paramilitaries to operate. There are reassurances we wont get more involved, but the proposals are for deeper involvement, in things that are not new. Carlos Salinas urged Congress to schedule hearings and examine this aid package in detail, to take concrete steps to protect defenders, to support the rule of law and dismantle the paramilitaries, to provide support for civil society and respect the neutrality of communities, to Just say no to death squad politics.
The moderator of the second panel, Marc Chernick of Georgetown University, pointed out that its clear that after 50 years of uninterrupted violence, this is not a time to deepen the war. Instead it is a time for Washington to listen. Carefully consider the wisdom of the aid package. Listen to Ambassador Moreno, who clearly states that there is no military solution to this conflict, only a negotiated solution.
Rep. Sam Farr (D-CA) shared closing remarks, testifying to his sense of deep personal connection with Colombia. When he left for Colombia as a Peace Corps volunteer in 1964, it was what he called the happiest day of my life. At that time, the 700 Peace Corps volunteers were seen as hijos de Kennedy and were warmly received by the most remarkable, hospitable people. They could go anywhere, feeling safe. After he had encouraged his family to visit him in Colombia, his sister died tragically after falling from a horse, due to the lack of adequate medical care. He eventually came to recognize that her plight was the plight of people all over the world. Some years later, Rep. Farr spent his honeymoon outside Medellín, because he wanted his new wife "to experience one of the most beautiful countries in the world. He decried the tragedy of the current situation in Colombia, a country with such potential and riches, which has been turned into a place of fear. He encouraged the increased international cooperation and noted that the responsibility of Washington is to ensure that aid flows to the area where it is most needed. He also expressed his conviction that no funds should be granted to Colombia unless there is measurable progress in separating the military and the paramilitaries and in carrying out governmental and judicial reforms.
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