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Statement of Jose Miguel Vivanco, executive director, Human Rights Watch Americas Division, before the Western Hemipshere Subcommittee of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, February 25, 2000
Statement of José Miguel Vivanco, Executive Director

Americas Division, Human Rights Watch

Given before the United States Senate Foreign Relations Committee

419 Dirksen Senate Office Building

February 25, 2000

Chairman Helms, Senator Biden, Members of the Committee:

It is a pleasure to be with you today. Thank you for inviting me to convey to the Committee our concerns about the human rights implications of U.S. security assistance to Colombia. I know the Committee is most interested in having time for an exchange, so my opening remarks will be brief. I also have submitted, for your record, a copy of our most recent report on Colombia, entitled "The Ties That Bind: Colombia and Military-Paramilitary Links."

I would like to thank the Committee, on both sides of the aisle, for taking the time to examine in detail the proposed aid package to Colombia. Today, the United States has a unique opportunity to reach out to Colombia and support a democracy in peril. Many Colombians have risked their lives to defend their nation from many threats. Some who have chosen public service have even lost their lives to political and criminal violence.

Certainly, the United States has an interest in helping Colombia's elected leaders regain control of the regions now contested by armed groups on the right and the left. Illegal drug trafficking fills the pockets of all sides in this war, and contributes significantly to the level and scope of violence.

But Colombia's predicament is too complicated for simple solutions. Any aid proposed for Colombia should reflect not only its intricate history, but also the many agents of violence at work there, among them paramilitaries, guerrillas, and drug traffickers.

Unfortunately, there is another major source of violence in Colombia, one that should deeply concern this Committee. That is the State itself, through its security forces. Human Rights Watch, the State Department, the United Nations, and other independent groups have long reported on the abusive behavior of Colombia's military and police. Colombia's security forces have been linked to serious violations, among them massacres, extrajudicial execution, torture, forced disappearance, and death threats.

I would like to first discuss the human rights situation of Colombia's National Police. The police continue to be implicated in violations. There have been cases where officers capture and execute suspected guerrillas. In areas where paramilitaries are present, police have been implicated in joint army-paramilitary actions and have sometimes supplied information to them to assemble death lists. For instance, government investigators concluded in 1998 that police in La Ceja, Antioquia, organized and deployed paramilitaries considered responsible for at least thirty killings in 1996 and 1997.

Police have also stood by while paramilitaries select and kill their victims. Over a four-day period in October 1997, for instance, the Anti-Narcotics Police based in Miraflores, Guaviare failed to apprehend or even question the paramilitaries who killed at least four people. Police frequently and publicly describe whole populations as guerrillas or sympathetic to them and withdraw police protection, in part as punishment for their perceived allegiance. This is especially apparent after guerrilla attacks on towns.

It is important to note, however, that these activities do not, for the most part, go unnoticed or unpunished. According to our research, Gen. Rosso José Serrano and the National Police have taken human rights concerns seriously and do not tolerate abusive officers in the ranks. To date, 11,400 officers implicated in human rights abuses, criminal activity, and other crimes have been discharged from the force and put at the disposition of Colombian courts for trial and punishment. Using Decree 573, passed in 1995, General Serrano can summarily fire officers accused of abuses if there is convincing evidence against them.

Unfortunately, the same cannot be said for Colombia's military. Military leaders have yet to take the firm, committed action necessary to clean up their forces and ensure that human rights abusers do not act with tacit or open state approval. Human Rights Watch has detailed, recent, and compelling evidence of continuing close ties between the Colombian Army and paramilitary groups responsible for gross human rights violations, which we have submitted to this Committee.

Far from moving decisively to sever ties to paramilitaries, Human Rights Watch's evidence strongly suggests that Colombia's military high command has yet to take the necessary steps to accomplish this goal. Human Rights Watch's information implicates Colombian Army brigades operating in the country's three largest cities, including the capital, Bogotá.

If Colombia's leaders cannot or will not halt these units' support for paramilitary groups, the government's resolve to end human rights abuse in units that receive U.S. security assistance must be seriously questioned.

Together, evidence collected so far by Human Rights Watch links half of Colombia's eighteen brigade-level army units to paramilitary activity. These units operate in all of Colombia's five divisions. In other words, military support for paramilitary activity remains national in scope and includes areas where units receiving or scheduled to receive U.S. military aid operate.

That is why it is crucial for this Congress to place tough conditions on all security assistance to Colombia. These conditions should require explicit actions by the Colombian Government to sever links, at all levels, between the Colombian military and paramilitary groups. Abuses directly attributed to members of the Colombian military have decreased in recent years, but over the same period the number and scale of abuses attributed to paramilitary groups operating with the military's acquiescence or open support have skyrocketed.

The following are the actions that Human Rights Watch believes the U.S. should require the Colombian government to take before receiving aid:

devising and implementing a comprehensive and public plan to investigate, pursue, capture, and bring to justice paramilitary leaders, one that provides sufficient resources and guarantees the necessary political support to accomplish these goals;
providing a significant increase of funding for the Attorney General's Human Rights Unit, including increased support for the Witness Protection program, travel, communications equipment, increased security, and improved evidence-gathering capability;
establishing the ability at the regional and local level to respond to threats of massacres and targeted violence, including the creation of a rapid reaction force to investigate threats and killings, and to take steps to pursue and apprehend alleged perpetrators in order to bring them to justice;
Research done by Human Rights Watch shows clearly that intelligence-sharing remains the most pervasive and common method of collaboration between the Colombian military and paramilitary groups, with grave consequences for human rights. Intelligence is by definition a central function of any army, and is clearly so in the case of the Colombian military. Addressing the problems such information-sharing poses defies a unit-by-unit approach. Therefore:

  • bserving the aim of the Leahy Amendment, the United States should apply human rights conditions to all intelligence-sharing, to ensure that information is neither shared with human rights abusers nor with those who will pass it to paramilitary groups that violate human rights;
  • for the purposes of compliance with the Leahy Amendment, the United States should make it clear that aiding and abetting any paramilitary group would result in a unit being disqualified for receipt of further U.S. aid or training until effective measures are taken to investigate and punish violations;
    any increase in security assistance should mean a proportionate increase in civilian staff assigned to the U.S. Embassy and State Department to oversee compliance with human rights conditions. Staff should be required to meet frequently with not only military and government sources of information, but also independent human rights groups, the church, and aid organizations. The goal must be to gather as much information as possible about reported human rights violations;
  • a report on monitoring activities in countries where the Leahy Amendment applies should be a regular part of the State Department's annual report on human rights and should be available for independent review.
  • The "effective measures" set out in the Leahy Amendment should be interpreted to include, among other measures, the rigorous application of the August 1997 ruling of Colombia's Constitutional Court, which requires that crimes against humanity allegedly committed by military personnel be investigated and tried in civilian courts. Neither the military nor the Superior Judicial Council charged with resolving jurisdictional disputes have abided by this ruling to date.
  • as a condition of U.S. security assistance, the Government of Colombia should first require the military to respect civilian jurisdiction in cases involving credible allegations of human rights abuse by military personnel, including cases where officers are accused of conspiring to commit or facilitate murders and massacres by paramilitary groups. In this way, President Pastrana can ensure that such cases are sent to civilian courts, best equipped to investigate them impartially and guarantee due process.
  • We have additional recommendations that we include in the report submitted to the Committee today.

I would like to conclude by noting that I believe that the United States has a positive message to send Colombia. By supporting President Pastrana in his efforts to fortify democracy while at the same time combatting the illegal groups that cause so much terror and suffering, the United States sends a powerful message that the rule of law applies to all whether they wear a uniform or dress in civilian clothes.

Thank you and I would be pleased to try to answer any questions.

As of April 1, 2000, this document was also available online at http://www.hrw.org/campaigns/colombia/jmvtest2.htm

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