by Jim Lobe
(IPS) WASHINGTON --
major U.S. human rights groups said they strongly object to the State Department's announcement that the Colombian government has met Congressional conditions for receiving U.S. military aid.
In a rare joint communique, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch (HRW), and the Washington Office on Latin America (WOLA) declared the Colombian army had failed to sever ties with right-wing paramilitary groups responsible for some of the worst atrocities of the multi-faceted civil war in the Andean nation.
"Contrary to the Department of State's assertions that effective measures have been taken to break links between the Colombian Armed Forces and illegal paramilitary groups, the certification provides no evidence of arrests or actions against key paramilitary leaders or high-ranking members of the Armed Forces credibly alleged to have collaborated with paramilitary groups," the groups said.
Their statement followed by two hours the State Department's announcement that the government of outgoing President Andres Pastrana had met the three conditions Congress had imposed for further disbursements of military aid to Bogota.
The decision will permit the administration of President George W. Bush to provide some $62 million of at least $100 million budgeted for the Colombian army so far this year.
The certification, which was delayed by two months, comes at a critical moment in the war and Washington's role in it.
The collapse in February of peace talks between the Pastrana government and the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC) strengthened hawks within both the Bush administration and Congress.
The virtual certainty that Pastrana's successor will be much more eager to prosecute the war against the FARC and the National Liberation Army (ELN) after the May elections has also bolstered those who had been pressing for some time to permit the Colombian army to use U.S. military aid -- both training and equipment -- as part of its general counter-insurgency, or "counter-terrorist," efforts.
Until now, U.S. military aid could be used only to support the government's efforts to combat drug production and trafficking, particularly in areas controlled by the FARC and other armed groups that allegedly profit from the trade.
But in April the Administration submitted a bill, currently being considered by Congress, that would permit the aid to be used "to support a unified campaign against narcotics trafficking, terrorist activities, and other threats to (Colombia's) national security."
At the same time, Washington has asked Congress to approve some $500 million in new military and police aid for Colombia for fiscal year 2003, which begins next Oct. 1, the largest amount since the year 2000, when the Clinton administration began training three army counter-drug battalions and equipping it with a large fleet of helicopters.
While there is considerable support in Congress for the administration's requests, even among some Democrats who were strong backers of Pastrana's peace efforts, concern about the human rights consequences of an expanding war and an army which has long cooperated with right-wing paramilitaries responsible for some of the worst abuses of the conflict remains a major factor in the debate here.
"The administration is proposing millions (of dollars) in counter-terrorism aid to Colombia even as the Colombian military refuses to break ties with a designated terrorist group," said Jose Miguel Vivanco, head of the HRW's Americas Division.
Indeed, the paramilitary Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) is listed by the State Department as a terrorist group, along with the FARC and the ELN, with the result that Washington expects the army to fight the paramilitaries as well as the guerrillas.
To press it to do so, Congress last year made all U.S. military aid conditional on the army's suspending military officers alleged to have committed serious rights abuses or have aided paramilitary groups; cooperating with civilian prosecutors and judicial authorities in prosecuting and punishing such officers in civilian courts; and taking effective measures to sever links with the paramilitaries, including executing orders to capture and submit them to justice.
In its certification, the State Department insisted that these conditions were being complied with, although, at the same time, it recognized that the situation "needs improvement."
"Human rights are central to our policy in Colombia," said spokesman Richard Boucher, "and we are committed to continue working with the Government of Colombia on concrete measures it should take to make further progress in improving the human rights performance of its Armed forces, including ending military-paramilitary collaboration."
In response, the three human rights groups, who had received a briefing on the certification before the announcement, stressed that U.S. officials had indeed pressed the Colombian government for concrete improvements over the last few months.
However, they added, they were unimpressed with the progress cited by the State Department and insisted that Bogota had failed "to take even minimal steps to meet the conditions."
They pointed in particular to the case of Gen. Rodrigo Quinones whose transfer to a diplomatic post abroad was cited as evidence of progress by the certification. Quinones, according to the three groups, has been implicated by Colombian prosecutors and independent human rights monitors in two major rural massacres by paramilitaries, as well as the murder of no less than 57 trade unionists, human rights workers, and community leaders.
"The idea that sending a murderous general into diplomatic exile constitutes progress in human rights is patently ridiculous," said WOLA Director Bill Spencer. "It's good that he may not be able to order assassinations from abroad, but to think that this would merit hundreds of millions of dollars in military assistance is really appalling and offensive."
The State Department also cited the dismissal and resignation of several hundred soldiers and officers over the last two years, but the groups that were no records to document whether their departure was related to human rights abuses. On the contrary, some of those who left the army did so precisely to join the paramilitaries.
The three groups also voiced great concern about developments in the office of the attorney general, which under Alfonso Mendez had made important advances in fighting the paramilitaries. When his term ran out last July, however, his successor, Luis Osorio, forced the resignations of several high-ranking officials who had been particularly vigorous in investigating and prosecuting members of the AUC.
While the groups admitted the army and police captured more AUC members last year, many have been released, including Victor Carranza, the highest-ranking paramilitary leader in the government's custody.
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