Even as the Bush administration moves for the first time to overtly intervene in Colombia's decades-old civil war -- previous US assistance has been officially limited to counternarcotics missions -- a trio of high-powered human rights watchdog groups have blasted the Colombian government's compliance with human rights conditions attached to US military assistance packages.
In what would represent an ominous shift in US policy, the 2003 budget proposed by the Bush administration on Monday allocates funds to assist the Colombian military in fending off rebel attacks on a US-owned oil pipeline. Until now, US policy has officially focused on eradicating drugs and the drug trade. The $98 million dollar appropriation is part of the $731 million budgeted for next year's installment of Bush's anti-drug Andean Initiative, the bulk of which will go to Colombia.
As a high-ranking US delegation met in Bogota with Colombian officials, its members began making the case for the new, more aggressive posture. "We are not saying this is counterdrug, this is different," said one official to reporters at a Bogota hotel on Tuesday. "The proposition we are making to the government of Colombia and our Congress is that we ought to take an additional step."
"Oh, no," said Cristina Espinel, co-chair of the Colombian Human Rights Committee (http://www.igc.org/colhrnet/). "I am a human rights activist from Colombia and I am amazed that the US wants to promote more war in my country," she told DRCNet. "We don't want any more war, we don't want more military aid, we don't want more guns to kill people. We need peace and social development, but the US government only wants to promote more violence."
Some of Espinel's concerns are being shared by prominent American politicians. "For the first time, the administration is proposing to cross the line from counternarcotics to counterinsurgency," Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-VT), head of the foreign operations subcommittee, told the New York Times. "This is no longer about stopping drugs, this is about fighting guerrillas."
"This is not what was debated in Congress when Plan Colombia was passed," said Sen. Paul Wellstone (D-MN). "We are getting deeper into this conflict."
In so doing, the Bush administration is making a travesty of the human rights certification requirement, according to Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA). In a brief delivered to the State Department on February 1, the three human rights groups slammed the Colombian government for failing to comply with basic human rights conditions, such as removing members of the armed forces accused of atrocities, subjecting soldiers accused of human rights abuses to civilian instead of military trials, and breaking ties between the military and the right-wing paramilitaries. In an irony apparently lost on Washington, the paramilitaries, who are officially designated a terrorist group by the State Department, are allied with the Colombian forces ready to fight the war on terrorism with US military assistance.
"[We] conclude that Colombia's government has not, to date, satisfied these [human rights] conditions," wrote Amnesty, Human Rights Watch and WOLA. "So far, the Colombian government has not suspended security force officers against whom there is credible evidence of human rights abuse or support for paramilitary groups, including extra-judicial killings, or to have aided or abetted paramilitary groups; nor has the Colombian Armed Forces demonstrated that they are cooperating with civilian prosecutors and judicial authorities in prosecuting and punishing in civilian courts those members of the Colombian Armed Forces, of whatever rank, who have been credibly alleged to have committed gross violations of human rights; nor has Colombia's government, including the armed forces, taken effective measures to sever all links at the command, battalion, and brigade levels, with paramilitary groups, and execute outstanding orders for capture for members of such groups."
Secretary of State Colin Powell must certify to Congress by the end of this month whether Colombia is complying with those conditions. In so doing, he will have to explain away the 92 massacres recorded there in the first ten months of 2001. As the human rights groups note, "Most were linked to paramilitary groups working with the tolerance or support of the security forces."
He will also have to explain away "five massacres carried out by paramilitaries in 2001 and January of 2002 in which there is credible evidence that Colombian military units either took direct part or allowed the killings to take place and the perpetrators to escape."
And he will have to explain why "certain military units and police detachments continued to promote, work with, support, profit from, and tolerate paramilitary groups, treating them as a force allied to and compatible with their own. At their most brazen, these relationships involved active coordination during military operations between government and paramilitary units; communication via radios, cellular telephones, and beepers; the sharing of intelligence, including the names of suspected guerrilla collaborators; the sharing of fighters, including active-duty soldiers serving in paramilitary units and paramilitary commanders lodging on military bases; the sharing of vehicles, including army trucks used to transport paramilitary fighters; coordination of army roadblocks, which routinely let heavily-armed paramilitary fighters pass unchallenged; and payments made from paramilitaries to military officers for their support."
The US government is spending a billion dollars a day in its war against terrorism, which it has repeatedly made clear is directed not just at terrorists themselves, but those who support terrorism. Only courageous action in Congress can fend off the dire prospect in which, if the logic of the anti-terror struggle were to be pursued, the Pentagon would have to bomb itself.
(Visit http://www.hrw.org/press/2002/02/colombia020502.htm for the press release and certification briefing provided by the three human rights groups.)