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United Nations
April 6, 1997 marked the official opening of the Bogotá office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights, led by Amb. Almudena Mazarrasa and staffed by five experts and a deputy director. In 1998, the office continued to press the government on human rights issues, including reforms to the military penal code and respect for international humanitarian law. Experts traveled throughout the country to document abuses and held regular meetings with government officials, representatives of human rights groups, and Colombians wishing to deliver complaints.

During the fifty-fourth session of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights, the office submitted its first report, which was considered hard-hitting. The report concluded that there was abundant evidence of continued joint military and paramilitary actions that ended with human rights violations as well as a disregard for the laws of war by all parties to the conflict.

In response, the Commission on Human Rights increased the number of experts in the Bogotá office from seven to twelve. Inaddition, High Commissioner Mary Robinson expressed her profound concern about Colombia and noted that most violations reported are attributed to paramilitaries often working with the tolerance of the security forces. Robinson also noted that many attempted killings, among them the so-called social cleansing operations against street people and homeless children, continued to occur. During her visit to Colombia in October, Robinson spoke out forcefully in defense of human rights defenders and against the impunity for officers that continues to reign in the tribunals run by the military.

European Union
Some European embassies and diplomats adopted a high profile in attempting to lessen political violence and the suffering it causes. For its part, the E.U. continued to press Colombia to improve its human rights record by issuing strong statements criticizing impunity and calling for the implementation of the recommendations of the U.N. Commission on Human Rights. After the murders of human rights defenders Jesús María Valle Jaramillo and Eduardo Umaña, the European Parliament passed resolutions condemning the killings and calling on the Colombian authorities to investigate, “take urgent, effective and preventive measures to protect and safeguard the activity of those campaigning for human, social, trade union and peasant rights and political leaders,” and dismantle paramilitary groups.

United States
The United States pursued a two-pronged policy in Colombia. On the one hand, the Clinton administration made human rights an important part of U.S.-Colombia relations and supported peace negotiations. At the same time, the war on drugs remained the centerpiece of U.S. policy. In fiscal year 1998, Colombia was slated to receive at least U.S.$119 million in U.S. counternarcotics assistance, including military equipment and training. The final budget for 1999 was expected to increase substantially with the addition of six Black Hawk helicopters for the National Police.

In 1998, the State Department issued its most detailed and critical human rights report ever on Colombia, concluding that “the armed forces committed numerous, serious human rights abuses.” In addition, the report noted, “the Samper administration has not taken action to curb increased abuses committed by paramilitary groups, verging on a policy of tacit acquiescence.” Addressing impunity, the report noted, “At year’s end [1997], the military exercised jurisdiction over many cases of military personnel accused of abuses, a system that has established an almost unbroken record of impunity.”

This report was followed by an April letter from Secretary of State Madeleine Albright to Sen. Patrick Leahy, co-sponsor of an amendment that placed human rights conditions on antinarcotics aid provided by the State Department. The so-called Leahy Amendment prohibited these funds from being provided to any unit of the security forces of a foreign country if the secretary of state had credible evidence that the unit had committed gross violations of human rights, unless the secretary determined and reported to the congressional appropriations committees that the government involved was taking effective measures to bring the responsible members of the security forces unit to justice.

In her letter, Secretary Albright announced that the spirit of the amendment would be applied to most antinarcotics aid, including monies suspended after Colombia was “decertified” a second time in a row in 1997 for failing to meet U.S. goals in fighting drugs. By mid-1998, only one Colombian army unit had been fully cleared to receive aid. U.S. officials asked the Colombian army to transfer out two officers belonging to an additional unit under consideration, the Twelfth Brigade, because of outstanding human rights allegations against them.

Human Rights Watch and other groups protested the idea that a simple transfer would satisfy the amendment, since it called for “effective measures” to bring the responsible members of the security forces unit to justice. In general, the way in which the United States vetted security force units for human rights violations before they received aid remained largely secret, precluding full accountability.

In a welcome move in May 1998, the U.S. revoked the visa of Gen. Iván Ramírez to travel to the United States, allegedly because of his longstanding ties to drug traffickers, paramilitaries, and human rights violations. The Washington Post also reported that he had been a paid informant for the CIA, a charge he denied.

For its stand on the Leahy Amendment, the administration was harshly criticized by some Republicans in the U.S. Congress, who argued that human rights concerns hampered the drug war. Led by the International Relations Committee and its chair, Rep. Benjamin Gilman, Republicans attempted unsuccessfully to remove the Leahy Amendment from the 1998 foreign operations bill. Instead, the Leahy Amendment was included in Section 570 of the Foreign Operations Appropriations Act, significantly expanding its scope to included all antinarcotics assistance authorized under this legislation.

Nevertheless, the Central Intelligence Agency and U.S. Defense Department continued to work with Colombian security force units that had not been reviewed for human rights abuses, since aid is authorized under separate legislation that does not include human rights conditions. According to the Washington Post , U.S. officers continued to train Colombian units in “‘shoot and maneuver’ techniques, counterterrorism and intelligence-gathering, even though their members have not been vetted.” After similar programs in Indonesia and Rwanda were reported, Senator Leahy proposed legislation that would bar the Pentagon from holding joint exercises with human rights abusers unless the secretary of defense finds an extraordinary need to waive the law. The legislation had not been enacted as of this writing.

After a series of army defeats at the hands of the FARC in the first months of 1998, U.S. officials began speaking of Colombia as a threat to regional security and in need of direct counterinsurgency assistance for the military. In testimony before the House International Relations Committee on March 31, 1998, Gen. Charles Wilhelm, head of the U.S. Southern Command, called Colombia“the most threatened country in the United States Southern Command area of responsibility.” Rather than discussing the country’s serious human rights situation, however, after a visit to Colombia that same month Wilhelm told journalists that criticism of military abuses was “unfair” and that guerrillas abused human rights more frequently than the security forces or paramilitaries, an assertion that not only displayed a profound misunderstanding of human rights law, but also seriously misrepresented the facts, contradicting even the State Department’s grim assessment.

Far from continuing to keep human rights at the top of the U.S. Embassy’s agenda, new Amb. Curtis Kamman imposed a virtual blackout on public statements in support of human rights after assuming the post in March, a step backwards. Although embassy officials claimed that human rights remained on the private agenda, the net effect was negative, lowering the issue’s profile and impact in Colombia at a crucial moment.

Relevant Human Rights Watch reports:
War Without Quarter: Colombia and International Humanitarian Law , 10/98;













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