In a move that starkly illustrates US priorities in Colombia, on August 23rd President Clinton formally waived human rights conditions attached to the $1.3 billion military aid package destined to help the Colombian military wage war against drug traffickers and peasant-based leftist guerrillas.
The conditions, inserted at the insistence of congressional liberals, would have blocked the aid package if the US government could not certify that that Colombia was in compliance with them. To comply, the Colombian military would have had to hold itself to minimal human rights standards and rein in its bloody-handed de facto allies, the paramilitary death squads, which now do most of the military's dirty work.
Prior to Clinton's decision, administration officials engaged in a frantic effort to spin the implicit admission that the Colombian military's hands are too dirty too pass muster.
The Office of National Drug Control Policy's Brad Hittle, for example, told the AP that, "You don't hold up the major objective to achieve the minor."
But what is the "minor" objective to which Hittle refers? Simply put, it is that the Colombian military and paramilitaries stop beating, raping, torturing, jailing, kidnapping, disappearing, and massacring unarmed, non-combatant Colombian citizens.
José Miguel Vivanco, Executive Director of the Americas Division of Human Rights Watch, condemned the waiver as "the wrong policy and the wrong time. The message is that the bad apples with the armed forces shouldn't be worried. Ultimately, the waiver defeats the purpose of any policy meant to improve human rights."
Even the State Department acknowledged the horrendous state of human rights in Colombia. In its latest annual report on human rights in Colombia, released in February, the department wrote the following:
"The Government's human rights record remained poor; there was some improvement in several areas, and the Pastrana administration took measures to initiate structural reform, but serious problems remain. Government forces continued to commit numerous, serious abuses, including extrajudicial killings, at a level that was roughly similar to that of 1998. Despite some prosecutions and convictions, the authorities rarely brought officers of the security forces and the police charged with human rights offenses to justice, and impunity remains a problem. At times the security forces collaborated with paramilitary groups that committed abuses; in some instances, individual members of the security forces actively collaborated with members of paramilitary groups by passing them through roadblocks, sharing intelligence, and providing them with ammunition. Paramilitary forces find a ready support base within the military and police, as well as local civilian elites in many areas."
(The complete text of the State Department report is online at: http://www.state.gov/www/global/human_rights/1999_hrp_report/colombia.html)
The State Department's bland, bloodless language cannot disguise the grim realities that hide behind euphemisms such as "extrajudicial killings." Those wishing to see where their tax dollars are going and who have strong stomachs can check out the much more critical and detailed reports from such well-respected human rights monitoring groups as Human Rights Watch (http://www.hrw.org/wr2k/americas-03.htm) and Amnesty International (http://www.amnestyusa.org/countries/colombia/).
Secretary of State Madeleine Albright recognized that Colombia could not meet the conditions "under any circumstances," and recommended that Clinton waive them.
In remarks broadly representative of the human rights community's reaction, the Latin American Working Group's Lisa Haugaard told DRCNet, "We are very disappointed that President Clinton chose to immediately waive the human rights conditions. The State Department made the correct determination that Colombia could not meet those conditions," said Haugaard, "but granting an immediate waiver without using those conditions to pressure the Colombian government shows how human rights concerns have taken a back seat to the drug war."
The reaction from congressional liberals who demanded the conditions in the first place, however, has been muted. Senators Paul Wellstone (D-MN) and Patrick Leahy (D-VT) blasted Clinton's decision. Wellstone called Clinton's commitment to human rights "mere rhetoric," but otherwise the silence has been deafening.
For Haugaard, this lack of congressional reaction only underscores the importance of voters keeping up the pressure on Congress. "It's important for people to let members of Congress know how disappointed they are and to express concern about the waiver and let members know how displeased they are," she told DRCNet.
"There will be plenty of opportunities to revisit this issue," Haugaard added. "Certification will come up again for the FY 2001 appropriation before January. And, of course, they'll be back next year asking for more, because this isn't going away."
Indeed. In fact, even as Clinton's war plans move into high gear, the endgame in Colombia recedes into the far distance. The influential Jane's Defense Weekly (London) reported last week that the aid package "falls significantly short of operational needs and will do little to improve Colombia's ability to successfully wage war against the drug cartels."
Jane's also reported that the FARC, the most powerful guerrilla group with some 17,000 combatants, is now arming more fighters and purchasing surface-to-air missiles for use against US-supplied Black Hawk and Huey helicopters.
And in a press briefing last week, Undersecretary of State Thomas Pickering and other administration officials began the delicate task of explaining why, despite a $1.3 billion investment, things are going to get worse instead of better in the medium term.
Pickering explained that it will take two years for all the US military equipment to arrive in Colombia and that cocaine production there is expected "get worse" for several years.
He added that, "I don't see any progress being made on the peace process now."
Drug czar Gen. Barry McCaffrey told the AP at about the same time that "the production of cocaine in Colombia is continuing to skyrocket" and "we're going to see more bad news out of Colombia."
Former Costa Rican President and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Oscar Arias weighed in with a letter published in the New York Times on August 25th, comparing the situation in Colombia with various Central American wars with which the US was involved in the 1980s: “The United States has apparently learned nothing from the horrors of El Salvador and Nicaragua, where vast amounts of military aid only served to intensify conflicts that neither side was going to win. Now, Congress and President Clinton have confirmed that they will make the same error in Colombia by sending $1.3 billion, almost all in military aid.”
Colombia's President himself, Andres Pastrana, raised eyebrows when sounding a note of caution about the whole venture as it relates to the flow of drugs. "Colombia can put a stop to drugs here at some point, but if the demand continues, somebody else somewhere else in the world is going to produce them," Pastrana told reporters at an August 29th press conference in Cartagena preceding President Clinton's visit, according to the New York Times. "We are already getting intelligence reports of possible plantings in Africa."
Meanwhile, drug war zealots in the house are demanding another $99.5 million in assistance to the Colombian national police.
And the war effort is just getting underway.