COLOMBIA IS burning, and the U.S. aid package called Plan Colombia is adding fuel to the fire. It is aggravating a serious humanitarian crisis that cripples Colombia and is now spilling into neighboring countries.
When President Bush welcomes his Colombian counterpart, Andres Pastrana, to the White House today he should seize the opportunity to douse the flames by changing U.S. strategy in Colombia.
The White House says the two leaders will discuss "the situation in Colombia and progress in implementing Plan Colombia." Unfortunately, "progress" is a notion the victims of the conflict in Colombia would not recognize.
A growing number of civilians there are being abused and killed by all parties to the conflict. A U.S. policy predicated on force is making matters worse. Plan Colombia targets coca plants, but incentives for peace and respect for human rights are being eradicated as well.
Three-fourths of the $1.3 billion package pays for military and police activity. The focus of the program is the aerial fumigation of coca plants. But in a decades-old conflict as complex as Colombia's, it is naive at best and unconscionable at worst to ignore the impact of increased military firepower on counter-insurgency efforts.
Plan Colombia strengthens the hand of a military not only guilty of gross and continuing human rights violations, but also closely tied to armed paramilitary groups identified with 75 percent of political killings of civilians.
Last month, Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the Washington Office on Latin America released a report detailing Colombia's failure to meet a single human rights requirement of Plan Colombia. Yet U.S. policy has been to continue to send aid despite these violations.
These requirements stipulate suspension from duty and trial in civilian courts for members of the Colombian armed forces who are "credibly alleged" to have committed gross violations of human rights or aided or abetted paramilitary groups. The plan requires Colombian military cooperation with civilian courts and deployment of professional legal investigators in the field. It also requires "vigorous" government prosecution of paramilitary leaders and their military collaborators.
Escalating violence from all sides in the conflict is shredding Colombia's already tattered social fabric. Local church workers tell of communities caught in the cross-fire and then denied the option of neutrality by the combatants. Their hopes shattered, more and more citizens join the ranks of the internally displaced -- now estimated at more than 2 million women, men and children.
Spraying herbicide from the air will push these numbers higher as livelihoods and food crops are destroyed. This strategy hits hardest at the small farmers at the bottom of the drug production chain. In the southern provinces, local officials and non-governmental organizations alike question the viability of switching to other crops when coca eradication is carried out by force, communities are not involved in the planning and soil fertility is low.
They rightly ask why the United States, contrary to its own market philosophy, denies that coca production will simply move elsewhere in order to meet the unrelenting demand from the north.
Moreover, Colombia's problems -- from weapons and warfare to drugs and dislocation -- are spilling into neighboring countries. The regional conflict that critics of Plan Colombia predicted last year is already taking place. Unrest along the Ecuadoran border is increasing, and Ecuador is asking the United States for $160 million (on top of $20 million already included in Plan Colombia) to help police its border with Colombia and resettle people who have fled incursions by Colombian guerillas.
Less than one-quarter of Plan Colombia funds have been designated for social investments, including aid to the displaced, human rights work, law enforcement and judicial reform. Unfortunately, the positive value of this support is undermined by the flawed objectives of the plan and disproportionate mix of military aid.
Mr. Bush's goal of a new era of cooperation with Latin America calls for a new U.S. policy toward Colombia. The symbolism of a fresh start, plus money to make it happen, would douse Colombia's flames and rekindle the hopes of its war-weary citizens.
"Colombia needs and merits international assistance," says a statement signed by many of Colombia's most respected human rights and humanitarian groups, "but it must be a plan based on a profound, immediate and effective respect for human rights and international human rights law."
U.S. policy toward Colombia must be recast to demonstrate an uncompromising commitment to human rights, deliver solid support for civil institutions and assure a firm focus on negotiated peace. Anything less will fan the flames of violence, and innocent women, men and children will keep getting burned.
Kathryn Wolford is the president of Lutheran World Relief, a Baltimore-based aid agency. She has just returned from Colombia.
© 2001 by The Baltimore Sun