This is an August 2007 copy of a website maintained by the Center for International Policy. It is posted here for historical purposes. The Center for International Policy no longer maintains this resource.

Last Updated:3/20/00
Harold Hongju Koh, assistant secretary of state for democracy, human rights and labor, speech, October 15, 1999

Harold Hongju Koh
Assistant Secretary of State for Democracy, Human Rights and Labor
Remarks at the at the U.S. and Colombia Coordinating Office Conference
Rayburn Congressional Office Building
Washington, D.C.
October 15, 1999

Colombia: Progress and Pitfalls on the Road to Human Rights

Thank you, for that kind introduction. Ambassador Moreno, Mr. Delahunt, honored guests and friends: I want to thank Alison, Barbara, and Cristina for the invitation and the opportunity to speak to you now on a topic that's as much on my mind as it is on those of many other decision-makers in Washington right now -- support for democracy and human rights in Colombia.

It's been just over six months since I last addressed a public gathering on human rights in Colombia. At that time, I was in Medellin, a beautiful city whose name was once synonymous with the tragic casualness of narco-violence. The speech I made on that day, at a conference on Human Rights sponsored by the U.S. Embassy, was entitled Bringing Human Rights Home. In it, I applauded the good will of both the Colombian people and the Pastrana administration in trying to restore the balance of their political and social system, beginning with the violence that pervades each waking moment in Colombia. I also outlined five urgent needs which would have to be filled before peace -- the sine qua non of reconciliation, rebirth, and prosperity -- could come to Colombia. These five needs frame my discussion today:

First, Colombians must find a way to end their long-standing civil war, for the U.S. fully supports President Pastrana's focus on peace as the number one priority for his country. Second, the Colombian Government should take steps to sever any and all ties between the paramilitaries and state security forces. Third, the government of Colombia must address the impunity with which state security forces have committed human rights violations, including extrajudicial killings and disappearances, in the name of prosecuting the counter-insurgency struggle. Fourth, the Pastrana administration needs to work with both the legislature and the judiciary to repair the dysfunctional judicial system. Fifth, the government must do more to protect human rights defenders from attack.

Six months on, what progress have we witnessed? Without undue optimism, I can say that the Pastrana administration has improved performance on human rights in a number of key areas. However, without undue pessimism, I can say that much remains to be done. To begin with, I can point to three items that speak well of the government's attempts to improve Colombia's human rights climate and strengthen its democratic institutions.

First, the Pastrana administration has increased human rights training for security forces and worked to increase both awareness and protection of human rights. I speak from experience when I say that we in the U.S. Government, using valuable information developed by Colombian and U.S. NGOs, as well as by the Colombian Government, work painstakingly to vet, unit by unit, the human rights record of those state security forces designated for assistance. We do this not just as a matter of law, but also as a matter of policy, recognizing this process as an important tool for inculcating respect for human rights.

In contrast, however, to the Colombian government's efforts to educate and professionalize its forces, the guerrillas continue to violate flagrantly international humanitarian law through their kidnapping and murder of noncombatants, forcible recruitment of children into their ranks, heavy-handed interference in citizens' freedom of religion, and violent displacement of thousands of peasants. Gross human rights abuses frequently have been authoritatively attributed to the guerrillas, most recently during the FARC offensive outside Bogota in early July, as well as at Barrancabermeja just a few weeks ago. Illegal paramilitary forces, the so-called autodefensas, however, are still committing the vast majority of abuses, regarding which I can only reiterate and amplify my April statement that they themselves must be the Colombian Government's targets for arrest and prosecution as narcotraffickers and violators across the entire spectrum of human rights.

Second, the government has made commendable headway in the prosecution or dismissal of high-ranking military officers implicated in colluding with paramilitary forces in human rights abuses. President Pastrana's forcible retirement of Brigadier General Alberto Bayardo Bravo, an officer tainted with allegations of willful inaction in the face of paramilitary massacres of civilians, unmistakably spoke to the importance of civilian control over the military, as did his earlier dismissal of Brigadier Generals del Rio, Millan, and recent retirement of General Uscategui. The conviction by a civilian court of Army captain Rodrigo Canas Forero to fifty years' imprisonment for his involvement in the Segovia II massacre was a noteworthy step towards repudiating the silent doctrine of impunity. The National Appellate Tribunal's confirmation of the 1998 conviction of five state security officers and four paramilitaries in connection with the original Segovia massacre was, likewise, a strong show of support for the rule of law.

Third and most important, the Pastrana administration has constructed a framework for the country's reconstruction -- the Plan Colombia -- which, for the first time, presents five interlocking themes--democratic and social development, judicial reform, economic development, counternarcotics, and the peace process -- in a comprehensive strategy. This strategy will help the Colombian Government, the Colombian people, and international donors pinpoint those areas where cooperation can be most effectively undertaken, as well as maximize the utility and impact of human and material resources. Specifically, the human rights component of Plan Colombia is designed, to improve human rights monitoring and protection in Colombia. We applaud the government's efforts and look forward to cooperating, both diplomatically and programmatically, in the implementation of this strategy.

These developments mark a significant improvement in Colombia's attitudes and actions regarding human rights. However, the country's situation, marked as it is by unacceptable levels of violence from all sides, and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of innocents, is still cause for serious concern. I would like to point out several areas where work remains unfinished or where good work has been undone.

First, the judicial system, the sick man of Colombia, remains inefficient, severely backlogged, and overburdened, with 90% of all crimes going unpunished. Such a weak institution cannot repair the damage done the country's polity by abuses of the past, nor can it serve as an effective deterrent to similar threats in the future. I understand that the deterioration of the judicial system did not occur overnight, nor can its problems be rectified in the blink of an eye. However, judicial reform and the unshakeable installation of the rule of law are critical to Colombia's democratic, economic, and social development. In support of this, I urge the Colombian Government to denounce unmistakably the culture of corruption and impunity by forwarding key legislative initiatives such as the reform of the ordinary penal code and the bill on forced disappearances.

Second, while Colombia has made some progress in civilian courts regarding the indictment of state security officials implicated in gross human rights abuses, the performance of the military tribunals continues to leave much to be desired. I urge the Colombian Congress to work to approve the implementing legislation required for the new military penal code to enter into force. The military court system should be a showplace for the rule of law in Colombia, not a safehaven for the most egregious abusers.

Third and finally, in Colombia, human rights defenders continue to endure systematic campaigns of intimidation, harassment, and violence--five were killed during the first 6 months of 1999. The recent murders of popular entertainer Jaime Garzon and of former government peace negotiator Jesus Bejarano spotlight the vulnerability of those who speak out on behalf of reconciliation and human rights. Others, hoping to preserve their lives and continue their struggle, have taken the bitter path of self-exile. With us today is Piedad Cordoba, chair of the Colombian Senate's Human Rights Committee, and a recent victim of a paramilitary kidnapping who has now had to flee Colombia because of death threats. Colombia will never enjoy true peace or true democracy as long as one of her Senators must choose between life in exile and death in the line of duty.

When I was in Bogota, Colombian Government officials outlined for me a plan to provide for the physical protection of human rights defenders through the provision of security to both individuals and their offices. Let me today once again urge the Pastrana administration to complete this vital mission as expeditiously as possible. Official support for human rights defenders transcends the concrete act of providing protection for those who daily risk assault and murder at the hands of extremists; it also attains a symbolic significance, as a visible manifestation of the government's pledge to protect and promote the rights of all of its citizens.

We have come here today to hear from those who strive and study and work to see Colombia fulfill its promise as a beacon of democracy, human rights, and the rule of law. In support of their work, and in memory of all Colombians who have sacrificed their lives in the struggle for these timeless and universal principles, the United States has committed itself to a renewed and mature partnership with the Colombian Government and the Colombian people. The Pastrana administration has produced a comprehensive and ambitious document that will serve as both agenda and instrument to galvanize and unify areas of endeavor that, in the past, lay dormant and dispersed. We welcome this bold initiative and, in turn, we will do our part to see this plan flower and flourish. Too many have died, too many have lost their homes, too many have been silenced for us to do any less. In that spirit, I am honored by the opportunity to open this conference, as I am humbled by the commitment and contributions that you and so many like you have made to this effort.

Thank you very much.

As of March 13, 2000, this document is also available at

Search WWW Search

Financial Flows
National Security

Center for International Policy
1717 Massachusetts Avenue NW
Suite 801
Washington, DC 20036
(202) 232-3317 / fax (202) 232-3440