The United States, which has long lectured Latin American countries on human rights abuses, is now pressuring a number of those countries to sign bilateral agreements granting immunity to U.S. citizens from prosecution by the new International Criminal Court.
A number of Latin American and Caribbean leaders have refused, and the Bush administration has punished 14 of these by suspending military aid.
Alienating its closest neighbors makes no sense for Washington.
In punishing Colombia and other nations that are U.S. allies in the fight against drugs and terrorism, the United States is potentially undermining the security of the hemisphere.
The Bush administration insists the immunity is needed to prevent politically motivated prosecutions. European nations have insisted that the fear is groundless, since the court can step in only if a country fails to dispense justice itself.
The situation is most shocking in Colombia. President Alvaro Uribe was the only Latin American president to support the U.S.-led war against Iraq. He has also followed U.S. guidelines to spray coca crops in an effort to stop the flow of cocaine into the United States.
Yet Uribe's allegiance meant nothing when he didn't sign the U.S. immunity agreement. Now about $135 million in U.S. military aid is at stake. The Bush administration has withheld the first $5 million and threatens to suspend the full package. The first installment was destined for a Colombian Army unit protecting an oil pipeline operated by Occidental Petroleum, a U.S. company.
Washington has provided $2.5 billion in aid to Colombia since 2000, when the Clinton administration enacted Plan Colombia, a program aimed at reducing illegal drug production by 50 percent by 2005. Now, according to the Colombian government, that program is potentially jeopardized, as is the U.S.-supported Colombian war on terror.
Caribbean nations, which also depend on U.S. aid to fight drugs, recently declared in a statement: "The punitive action from the U.S. will weaken U.S. efforts to protect its own borders and security in the region."
Carlos Vallejo, president of the Ecuadorian parliament's National Defense Committee, called the U.S. decision a "moral offense" and warned that if military aid was suspended, it must include the withdrawal of U.S. troops from the Manta Base in Ecuador used by the United States to control drug trafficking.
It is time for Washington to reconsider its war against a court that serves to defend human rights around the world. It is time for the Bush administration to start focusing on the pressing issues confronting the Americas - terrorism and drug-trafficking, serious economic and social problems and crises of governance - and stop nonsensical sanctions against countries that have taken a stand for human rights.
The writer is a Colombian journalist and fellow at Harvard University's Center for Public Leadership at the John F. Kennedy School of Government.
Copyright © 2003 the International Herald Tribune