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Last Updated:6/19/02
Speech by Rep. John Conyers (D-Michigan), May 23, 2002

Mr. CONYERS. Mr. Chairman, I move to strike the requisite number of words.

Mr. Chairman, I rise in support of the McGovern-Skelton amendment and I want to particularly salute the gentleman from Missouri (Mr. Skelton), the ranking member of the Committee on Armed Forces.

Let me begin by saying I believe that every Member here cares about Colombia and wants to see peace for our South American neighbor. There is this disagreement which leads to a discussion about how to get there.

I argue for not rushing to a change of policy. That is all this amendment does. Because if we do, it will be hard to undo. Because in such a short time, Colombia will have a new president and congress. And so, my friends, the prudent and commonsense course of action would be to wait until after the Colombian presidential elections and the new administration is installed in August. Can we not wait until August to find out who is going to be running the country? Of course we can. At that time it would be perfectly appropriate to discuss strategy and commitments that the new government is willing to make regarding human rights, judicial reform, alternative development and peace efforts. Then let the Congress consider it fully after, and not before, we know who will make up the Colombian government, because we have got some problems there. We have got paramilitary getting elected to this democratic form of government.

There is an unknown aspect of this conflict about Afro-Colombians that I would like to raise, not well known. Afro-Colombians, my friends, make up 26 percent of Colombia's 40 million people. There are few in the Congress who are aware that Afro-Colombians have constitutionally protected cultural and territorial rights. Their Federal Law 70 of 1993 sets out a land titling process by which Afro-Colombian communities may be granted collective title to lands that they have traditionally lived on. Yet they suffer immensely and are often neglected. They make up a disproportionate number of displaced persons in Colombia. Some say they make up half of the two million to three million internally displaced persons in that country. They have been forced to flee, mostly by the paramilitaries, sometimes in collaboration with the Colombian military, and sometimes by apparent neglect by the Colombian military. Some question why these Afro-Colombians are being pushed off the land, which brings me to the May 2 church massacre already referred to by the gentleman from New York, the church massacre in Bellavista, Choco, the Colombian province with the greatest percentage of African-descended Colombians. At least 119 people died. A third were children, 95 wounded, 40 missing, and now thousands displaced. All of the victims were of African descent. The bomb that burned the church was thrown by the FARC guerillas in a battle with the AUC paramilitaries. I deplore the actions of both of these illegal and armed groups. But what is disturbing and more alarming was the inaction of the Colombian government. Despite repeated warnings of imminent violence issued by the Colombian Human Rights Ombudsman's office beginning in July 2001 and up until a week in advance of the massacre, the Colombian armed forces did nothing.

The warnings were echoed by the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights in Colombia. Yet the Colombian armed forces did not even arrive until three days after the massacre.

[Begin Insert]

Mr. Chairman, I rise in support of the McGovern-Skelton amendment. Let me begin by saying that I believe that every member cares about Colombia and wants to see peace for our South American neighbor. There is disagreement on how to get there.

First, we should not rush into a change of policy that will later be hard to undo. Why? Because in such a short time, Colombia will have a new president and congress. The prudent and common sense course of action would be to wait until after the Colombian presidential elections and the new administration is installed this August. At that time, it would be appropriate to discuss strategy and the commitments the new government is willing to make regarding human rights, judicial reform, alternative development, and peace efforts. Then let Congress consider it fully, after, not before, we know who will make up the next Colombian government.

Second, the situation of Afro-Colombians is not a well-known aspect of the Colombian conflict. Afro-Colombians make up 26% of Colombia's 40 million people. There are few in the Congress who are aware that Afro-Colombians have constitutionally protected cultural and territorial rights. And, Law 70 of 1993 sets out a land titling process by which Afro-Colombian communities may be granted collective title to lands they have lived on traditionally.

Yet, Afro-Colombians suffer immensely and are often neglected. They make up a disproportionate number the displaced persons in Colombia. Some say they make up more that half of the 2-3 million internally displaced persons in Colombia. Once displaced, many Afro-Colombians face the double discrimination of being black and displaced. They have been forced to flee mostly by paramilitaries, sometimes in collaboration with the Colombian military, and sometimes by apparent neglect by the Colombian military. Some question why the Afro-Colombians are being pushed off their land.

Which brings me to the May 2, church massacre in Bellavista, Choco, the Colombian province with the greatest percentage of African-descendants. At least 119 people died, a third were children, 95 wounded, approximately 40 are missing, and now thousands are displaced. All of the victims were African descendants. Yes, the bomb that burned the church was thrown by the FARC guerillas in a battle with the AUC paramilitaries. I deplore the actions of both of these illegal armed groups. But what was perhaps more alarming was the inaction of the Colombian government. Despite repeated warnings of imminent violence issued by the Colombian Human

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Rights Ombudsman's office beginning in July 2001, and up until one week in advance of the massacre, the Colombian Armed Forces did nothing. The warnings were echoed by the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights' office in Colombia. Yet, the Colombian Armed Forces did not arrive in the area until after
May 5th according to a report in El Tiempo, Colombia's largest daily newspaper.

In fact, 24 members of Congress and I signed a letter to President Pastrana asking him what happened. We give Colombia money to develop an early warning system to prevent such atrocities. But early warning does not work if it is not followed by early action by the Colombian government. Ambassador Anne Patterson called my office immediately upon receiving the letter. We have yet to hear from the Colombian government. This is not an encouraging example of Colombia's commitment to protect its own citizenry. To top it off, there were reports of paramilitary and Colombian military collusion. The Colombian government invited the UN to investigate this tragedy. Then according to El Tiempo, high officials in the Colombian government criticized the UN Commissioner for Human Rights in Colombia, Mr. Anders Kompass, when he mentioned reports of the collusion between the Colombian military and the AUC paramilitaries, who are a US-designated foreign terrorist organization.

The UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson defended the work of the Commission in Colombia and said it was lamentable that the Colombian government questioned their work. The UN Commission just completed its report and found the FARC and the AUC responsible for the massacre because of their fighting near civilians. The Commission also found the Colombian government responsible due to its inaction and what looks like collusion with the paramilitaries. The paramilitaries traveled by air and boat in the area and were not stopped by government forces.

Again, the situation of Afro-Colombians is not well known. Some question why the Afro-Colombians are being pushed off their lands. Afro-Colombian territories are strategically located and rich in resources. Law 70 requires that Afro-Colombian communities be consulted regarding projects that may impact their lands. This is not happening, if people have had to flee. Also, a number of displacements and massacres occurred shortly after collective titles were granted. This land-terror aspect of the Colombian conflict needs to be investigated. So, before we change our policy in Colombia, I would like to know what commitments the next government will make to protect its citizens, in particular Afro-Colombians. I would like to know how their territorial rights are being protected and if the government has a plan to ensure people's safety so that they can return to their lands. We all know the Colombian government does not have a perfect human rights record. Given the past, there are many important questions to ask of the next administration.

In addition, President Pastrana wrote an op-ed that was published in the Herald on May 1, 2002, the day before the Bellavista massacre. In it he wrote that ``for the first time, the Colombian military is capable of defeating the terrorists on the battlefield,'' and that his administration is spending more

money on defense. If that is the case, where is the emergency? And, where was this capable army after the early warnings in Bellavista?

This is a nearly 40 year-old civil conflict. In 1967, 35 years ago, Dr. Martin Luther King spoke of the use of American helicopters against rebels in Colombia in his anti-Vietnam War speech, exactly one year before he died. And this war is still going on. Where is evidence that Colombia has a winning solution now? The House Defense Authorization bill grants Secretary Rumsfeld a waiver allowing him to lift the 500-person cap on US military personnel in Colombia in the name of national security. He then only has to inform Congress within 15 days after the fact. Colombia begins to look like more like Vietnam every day. There are no Al Qaeda cells in Colombia. But, the State Department admits that the Colombian Armed Forces still collaborate with the AUC paramilitaries, a US-designated foreign terrorist organization. Why would we give lethal aid to a government that works with one terrorist group to fight another? Where is the consistency in our policy?

The military leader of the AUC paramilitaries, Salvatore Mancuso, recently claimed that their candidates received more than 35% of the seats in Colombia's March legislative elections. If Mullah Omar claimed that Taliban candidates received more than 35% of the legislative elections in Afghanistan, you can bet that would be investigated. Also, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, Mary Robinson has expressed concern about this claim. She also is concerned that the leading candidate has spoken of arming one million civilians and warned that the civilian population should not be dragged into the conflict.

We are told peace is our goal in Colombia, yet the House has not even had one hearing on the Colombian peace process. Why are we seeking a military solution in such haste? What is the hurry in going down what appears to be a slippery slope? And what ever happened to our own homeland security in the War on Drugs? Why is there no money in this bill to fund substance abuse? The administration and some members of congress are obsessed with taking drug money away from guerillas, but don't share the same obsession when it comes to helping the American people who need drug treatment. The Office of National Drug Control Policy spends millions of dollars on television ads trying to persuade our citizenry that those who do drugs in the United States are supporting terrorism. So, in this ``Global War on Terrorism'', should it not be a priority to help our own people overcome their addictions?

To change our policy before knowing who the next government will be would be premature, imprudent, and nai 4ve. The common sense course of action is to wait until we know who we are dealing with and what commitments they are prepared to make.

Vote yes on McGovern-Skelton.

Note--Even though the authority granted in this bill would run out September 30, 2002, that still would give an unknown government 54 days to wage war. A lot can happen in 54 days.

As of June 19, 2002, this document was also available online at http://thomas.loc.gov/cgi-bin/query/B?r107:@FIELD(FLD003+h)+@FIELD(DDATE+20020523)

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