US Policy Contradictory on Colombia
Military Intervention and Talk of Human Rights
by Alison Giffen and Charlie Roberts
Resist newsletter, July / August 1999
This is a critical year in Colombia and for US policy toward
Colombia. The new Colombian administration of President Andres
Pastrana has engaged the largest guerrilla group in Colombia,
the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia (FARC), in unprecedented
peace talks. While preliminary peace talks have gradually proceeded
between the FARC and the Colombian Government, US policy has grown
increasingly contradictory, including a mix of militarization
and initiatives to support peace and human rights.
US policy in Latin America has continued to grow more militaristic
under the guise of the war on drugs. The drug war is taking precedence
over US foreign policy objectives of peace, respect for human
rights, and support for stable and democratic institutions. Colombia
is the best example, in Latin America, of the discrepancy between
the pursuit of these foreign policy objectives and the waging
of the drug war. Although Colombia will receive $240 million in
military assistance in 1999, the United States Agency for International
Development (USAID) has allocated only $6 million for development
assistance for the year 2000, $5 million for alternative development,
and $1 million for human rights and justice reform.
How do we know that these contradictions in US policy are
undermining peace and human rights? On March 24, Jack Leonard,
Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for the Western Hemisphere,
recognized in his testimony before a Senate foreign relations
subcommittee that a purely military solution to the Colombian
conflict is not possible; however, he emphasized that a strong
military effort will be necessary to achieve peace. Ambassador
Leonard also testified that certain initiatives by the Colombian
government to achieve peace such as the demilitarization of a
region in southern Colombia for the purpose of holding peace talks-are
undermining drug war objectives.
War on Drugs Thwarts Peace Efforts
This argument ignores several realities of political violence
in Colombia. First of all, Pastrana is facing resistance to his
conduct of the peace process from military officers. When he announced
the withdrawal from the demilitarized area would be for an indefinite
time, the defense minister resigned and 14 generals and colonels
followed suit. Yet Pastrana refused to accept the officers' resignations,
instead affixing the time period of six months to the withdrawal.
In this context, Mr. Leonard's testimony to the Senate to the
effect that the peace process is undermining the drug war would
appear to be placing yet another obstacle in the way of the peace
Also, US policy attempts to reduce the problem of international
drug control to eradicating various plant species and "enforcing
the law" against persons involved in drug-related activities.
Consequently, human beings are turned into military targets, and
the issue is framed in terms of military tactics and strategy,
rather than in terms of the social and human problems at the root
of the expanding coca crop in southern Colombia.
Moreover, the dimensions of the humanitarian consequences
of contemporary violence in Colombia are severe. More than 300,000
Colombians were forcibly displaced from their homes last year,
bringing the total to 1.3 million since 1990. Political killings
average 10 to I 1 per day for over 10 years running, with an upward
trend in recent years. Given these realities, the Clinton Administration
would be well-advised to analyze the extent to which the military
side of US policy is bound to make peace efforts among Colombians
all the more difficult.
Even while the US pumps millions of dollars into the war on
drugs, the Clinton administration has been more vociferous in
its support for President Pastrana's peace initiatives, and in
condemning attacks on human rights defenders. Statements made
by top State Department officials have come at critical times
to free kidnapped human rights defenders and peace advocates as
well as to support President Pastrana during serious political
The contradictions among different parts of the Clinton Administration,
and between the Administration and Congress, can be exploited
by those concerned to effect a change in US policy to be more
supportive of human rights and the peace process.
Violence Worsens in 1999
Since the start of the peace talks, violence has increased,
as the armed actors struggle for the upper hand, straining the
delicate negotiations. The various actors, including the guerrilla
forces, the Colombian armed forces, and the paramilitary groups,
have increasingly targeted civilians. In January, over 140 people
were killed in less than two weeks by paramilitary groups, in
an attempt to show political power. Moreover, violence directed
at human rights defenders and persons working for peace has intensified.
The incidents of violence are so frequent as to make it very
difficult to convey a sense of how bad political violence has
become. Some recent events include:
* The kidnapping by paramilitary forces of four staff of the
Medellin-based Instituto Popular de Capacitacion on January 29.
* The January 31 assassination of two human rights workers
from the Comite de Solidaridad con Presos Politicos.
* Early March: FARC guerrillas kidnapped and murdered three
US citizens, indigenous rights activists Lahe'ena'e Gay, Ingrid
Washinawatok, and Terence Freitas.
* Early April: a paramilitary group entered the neutral zone
of San Jose de Apartado and killed three people in each of two
separate incidents, three days apart.
* In late April, a leader of the EmberaKatio indigenous community
in the northern department of Cordoba was assassinated; his people
have been fighting a large hydroelectric project that has already
disrupted the ecology of their traditional lands.
* Late May/early June: Paramilitary forces murdered dozens
in an offensive in the Catatumbo region of Norte de Santander,
near the border with Venezuela. 3,000 peasants fled the region
to Venezuela; at least 600 were forcibly returned by Venezuelan
Paramilitary groups have caused massive forced displacement,
in large measure to clear areas that certain business interests
intend to exploit in major infrastructure projects such as energy,
and a long-discussed "dry canal" parallel to the Panama
Canal, in the Uraba region in northwestern Colombia. Threats continue
to be made against human rights activists throughout Colombia;
over 30 have been assassinated in the last three years. The paramilitary
groups work closely with the military, as both consider the guerrillas
to be their main enemy.
Guerrilla forces have stepped up kidnappings of civilians,
a long-standing practice used to finance their operations. Most
dramatic have been the April 12 hijacking of a domestic Avianca
airlines flight to a remote jungle airfield, and the May 30 mass
kidnapping of approximately 140 people from a Cali church during
Sunday mass. Colombians from all walks of life have roundly condemned
all actions by armed groups that make civilians victims, particularly
kidnappings and killings. The latest round of violence has renewed
calls for all parties to the conflict to respect international
humanitarian law, which absolutely forbids any actions targeting
Human Peace vs. Drug War
Against this backdrop of violence-in which approximately 75%
of political killings last year were attributable to paramilitary
groups, 20% to the guerrillas, and 5% to official Colombian forces-US
policy has purportedly sought to promote foreign policy goals
of peace and democracy accompanied by greater military intervention.
On the one hand, certain policy makers in the administration
and Congress have publicly supported peace initiatives. Late last
year, the State Department met with FARC leaders to encourage
negotiations and convey concerns, issued strong condemnations
of the deteriorating human rights situation in Colombia, and urged
the Colombian government to make progress on human rights. In
May, during a political crisis that pitted Colombia's military
against the Pastrana administration, President Clinton spoke out
in continued support of Pastrana and his peace initiatives.
On June 21, 68 members of the US House of Representatives
urged Pastrana to continue preliminary peace negotiations and
support protection measures for human rights defenders who have
come under increasing threat.
Yet, at the same time, certain policy-makers focused on the
drug war, including members of Congress Sen. Dewine (R-OH), Rep.
Gilman (R-NY), Rep. Burton (R-IN), and Rep. Hastert (R-IL), have
pressured the Clinton administration to increase aid to the Colombian
police and military. State Department anti-narcotics officials
and Pentagon officials have also persistently advocated greater
militarization of Colombia and the surrounding region.
As a result, last October the United States increased military
assistance to Colombia in the amount of $240 million, making Colombia
the third-largest recipient of US military aid and training after
Egypt and Israel.
In December, Defense Secretary Cohen announced US support
for the establishment of a joint counter-narcotics battalion in
the Colombian Army made up of 800 to 1,000 Colombian soldiers
trained and equipped by the United States; training would be at
a military intelligence base at Tres Esquinas, in Caqueta (southwest
Colombia). In March 1999 Sen. Dewine introduced the Drug Free
Century Act (S. 5). If this legislation passes, $1 billion in
anti-narcotics aid to the Western Hemisphere will be allocated
over the next two years. This package includes further military
assistance in addition to the aid already allocated to Colombia.
During this uncertain time in Colombia, the United States
should promote in words and deeds the only answer to Colombia's
long-running internal conflict, a negotiated settlement. Moreover,
it is essential that US policy demand respect for human rights
and international humanitarian law.
An ever-widening coalition of policy, grassroots, religious,
cultural, humanitarian, and human rights groups in Washington,
DC and around the United States is working on two fronts to achieve
these goals; short-term initiatives to respond to a situation
exacerbated by US militarization of the conflict and long-term
approaches that prepare the public and policy makers to examine
and revise US policy.
In the short term, the coalition mobilizes existing grassroots
networks and encourages policy makers to write letters and publicly
denounce acts that violate international human rights and humanitarian
law resulting from the internal conflict. This international public
pressure, particularly from the United States, has proven successful
in encouraging the release of human rights defenders and public
officials who have been kidnapped, as was illustrated in the release
of four human rights defenders kidnapped by paramilitary forces
in January and the release of Colombian Senator Piedad Cordoba
kidnapped by paramilitaries in late May.
In the long term, this diverse coalition educates US public
officials on the current situation in Colombia, as well as bringing
Colombian human rights defenders and peace advocates to educate
press and policy makers. In order to be successful in the long
run in changing US policy trends toward Colombia and elsewhere,
the coalition is working to inform the general public, mobilize
grassroots networks, and develop national grassroots strategies.
Alison Giffen is the Director of the US/Colombia Coordinating
Office, a project of the Colombia Human Rights Committee. Charlie
Roberts is co-editor of Colombia Update, the newsletter of the
Colombia Human Rights Network, which received a grant from Resist
in 1999. For more information, contact the US Colombia Coordinating
Office, 1630 Connecticut Avenue NW #200, Washington, DC 20009;
www.igc.org/colhrnet, colhrc@igc. org.