Three days before Colombian President Uribe was scheduled to meet with President Bush on August 4th at his Crawford, Texas ranch, the State Department certified that Colombia met the human rights conditions in US law, the Latin American Working Group (LAWG) says.
‘This blatantly political decision was intended to clear the slate for Uribe’s visit and does not reflect adequate progress in human rights,’ adds LAWG.
The group represents the interests of over 60 major religious, humanitarian, grassroots and policy organisations to decision makers in Washington.
It adds that serious human rights abuses allegedly committed by the Colombian army, combined with pressure from concerned members of the US public and Congress, resulted in part of US military aid to Colombia being frozen since fall 2004 – the longest period since Plan Colombia began in 2000.
Since September 2004, the State Department had not issued a certification that Colombia meets the human rights conditions in law.
These require the Colombian government to carry out effective investigations and prosecutions of army and police members credibly alleged to have committed gross violations of human rights, and to make progress in breaking links between the army and abusive paramilitary forces.
12.5 per cent of assistance from financial year 2004 was on hold until the August 1st decision.
However, reports LAWG, on August 1st, the State Department decided not only to release the financial year 2004 aid, but also to release the first tranche of financial year 2005 aid.
It says: ‘We will continue to urge the State Department to insist upon far greater progress in trying specific cases, breaking links between the army and paramilitary forces, and ensuring that the Colombian army respect human rights so that innocent civilians do not continue to be targeted and killed.
‘While we are deeply disappointed in this decision, the half-year delay in certification, helped by your pressure, did result in the State Department raising specific cases with the Colombian government.
‘We need to keep the momentum going by letting policymakers know how disappointing this decision is, and keeping up the pressure for the next round.’
Each year, 75 per cent of US military aid can flow without being subject to the human rights conditions, according to the law.
The remaining 25 per cent is subject to two certifications which can take place any time after July 31.
Among the many cases of human rights violations implicating the army are:
• the massacre of two families in San José de Apartadó, allegedly by army soldiers;
• the killing of 5 members of a family, four of them minors, in Cajamarca, by soldiers;
• the killing of three trade union leaders in Arauca by members of the US-funded 18th brigade;
• a surveillance operation allegedly carried out by army intelligence, known as Operación Dragon, of union leaders, NGOs and politicians, several of whom also received death threats.
The State Department by law is required to consult with human rights groups regarding whether the conditions have been met.
Latin America Working Group Education Fund (LAWGEF) staff have been part of this process since 2000, when the law was put in place.
In a series of consultations and other meetings with State this year, LAWGEF, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and other groups have strongly urged State to hold up aid and insist upon substantial progress on these cases and others.
Grassroots efforts around the San José de Apartadó case significantly helped to increase pressure on State, which in turn has placed pressure on the Colombian government to make progress during the last few months.
On July 1, 22 members of the US Senate sent a letter to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice asking her to continue to withhold certification due to the lack of progress on a wide range of cases.
The signers were: Senators Feingold, Dodd, Leahy, Murray, Dayton, Harkin, Johnson, Reed, Kerry, Mikulski, Sarbanes, Carper, Cantwell, Bingaman, Jeffords, Kennedy, Corzine, Boxer, Wyden, Kohl, Lautenberg, Durbin.
Phone calls from constituents around the country who asked their senators to sign helped to make this strong letter possible.
The letter cited the following cases as evidence of lack of progress:
• The March 2004 dismissal of the case against Gen. Rito Alejo del Río for aiding and abetting paramilitary groups.
• The January 2005 dismissal of the case against Rear Admiral Rodrigo Quiñónez for the 2001 Chengue massacre.
• The November 2004 escape of Major Cesar Alonso Maldonado, convicted for trying to kill union • leader-turned congressman Wilson Borja, from a military brig.
• The lack of trials or sentences for the 1998 Santo Domingo bombings.
• The lack of progress in investigating ‘Operación Dragón’, an intelligence operation targeting union organisers and human-rights defenders in Cali and members of the Colombian Congress.
• Reports of continued military-paramilitary collaboration in Chocó department, and failure to prevent paramilitary massacres in zones of heavy military presence in Arauca and La Guajira.
With the intensified pressure, the Colombian government has produced two small steps forward:
1. On June 30th, the Attorney General issued arrest warrants for soldiers involved in the killing of five family members, four of them minors, in Cajamarca, more than a year after the incident took place.
2. On July 12, the Attorney General charged four soldiers and a civilian in the killings of the three trade unionists.
However, little progress has been made on the San José de Apartadó case.
LAWG says: ‘The Colombian government and State Department will claim that because witnesses refuse to testify, the case is stalled.
‘Yet Colombian government actions that blame the victims, accusing the community of harbouring guerrillas, and the large-scale police presence which has greatly frightened the residents, have made it much less likely that the witnesses will testify.
‘Moreover, many aspects of the case, including forensic evidence, collecting testimony from the many people at the crime scene who saw a soldier washing a bloody machete, and verifying the Defense Ministry’s claim that there was no military operation in the area, can be pursued without these witnesses.’