WASHINGTON — Earlier this month I traveled to Colombia to learn more about this war-torn country, whose military is getting nearly $2 million per day from the United States as part of an aid package that passed last June after narrow approval in the Senate.
I paid a visit to Barrancabermeja, an oil-refining port city on Colombia's Magdalena River. "Barranca," a city of 210,000, is one of the most dangerous places in one of the world's most dangerous countries. This year so far, violence in Barranca has killed at least 410 people. According to local human rights groups, most of those killed were the victims of right-wing paramilitary death squads.
These human rights groups operate in the midst of a 40-year-old civil war now in one of its most violent phases. Every year, the violence in Colombia kills nearly 4,000 people, most of them poor, powerless noncombatants. About 300,000 — more than half of them children — are forced from their homes each year. Another 3,000 people are kidnapped. Ransoms, extortion and the drug trade finance armed groups on the right and left.
In the name of the drug war, the American aid package approved this year allocates approximately 75 percent of its resources to Colombia's security forces. But Colombia's military is a deeply troubled institution, even though it has recently taken important steps to improve its overall human rights record.
The State Department recently reported that "civilian management of the armed forces is limited" in Colombia, and that in 1999 "the authorities rarely brought officers of the security forces and the police charged with human rights offenses to justice, and impunity remains a problem." Many members of the security forces continue to collaborate with the right- wing paramilitaries, who commit about three-quarters of the politically motivated murders in Colombia.
The country's two main guerrilla groups, the FARC and E.L.N., meanwhile, are supported in part by skimming from the drug trade (as are the paramilitaries), and commit about a fifth of killings while terrorizing the population. Yet even in these circumstances, I met many individuals in Colombia who are working for peace as prosecutors, investigators and journalists, and as workers in dozens of nongovernmental organizations. These people have little room for maneuver. A shocking number disappear, are assassinated or are forced to leave the country.
Now Washington has made their jobs harder. As part of an antidrug strategy that has failed so far, the new aid package is escalating the fighting and dealing a severe blow to President Andrés Pastrana's already troubled peace talks with the guerrillas.
Before things get any worse, the coming administration of George W. Bush would do well to take our Colombia policy back to the drawing board. A more effective approach has to include support for Colombia's peace process, strong new protections for human rights defenders and initiatives to make drug production less attractive to economically desperate peasants by providing support for sustainable alternative crops.
In the meantime, we need to make short-term improvements in the policy. The American aid package itself offers a guide.
The Senate's version included strong human rights conditions. It would have cut off military aid until the United States government could certify that Colombia's armed forces were disentangling from paramilitaries and punishing criminal conduct in their ranks. A House-Senate conference committee watered down this safeguard by giving the president the ability to waive it — essentially making the human rights conditions optional. The State Department recognized that Colombia's military did not meet these standards, but the administration took the easy way out and waived the conditions in August.
The waiver sent a terrible signal to Colombia's military and to its beleaguered defenders of human rights. The waiver eliminated what could have been an important source of leverage with the government for those working for human rights.
Next month, the United States government must once again certify that Colombia's military satisfies the conditions, so that delivery of antidrug aid can continue in 2001. This time, the Bush administration's State Department must take a tough stance: no waiver and no aid until all human rights conditions are met. Americans should not be supporting a partnership with a military that does not meet these very basic standards.
Paul Wellstone is a senator from Minnesota.
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