Wednesday, September 24, 2008

Certifying Impunity

There are plenty of arguments that one could (and I would) make for ending all U.S. military aid to Colombia, many of which are based upon human rights concerns. Given the unlikelihood of that in the near future, however, folks like me concerned about the involvement of U.S. policy in human rights abuses and continued violence in Colombia sometimes make use of a provision of U.S. law that does attempt, at least in part, to link the release of a portion of U.S. military funding to human rights protection. Unfortunately, it doesn't work all that well.

The Leahy Amendment, as the law is known, is a 1997 law that makes foreign military aid contingent on human rights conditions; if performance on the various human rights conditions is deemed satisfactory, the funds are certified for release. Sounds great, right? But the certification process leaves much to be desired, including the fact that the State Department does the certifying. Particularly with an administration in the White House like the one we have, the stamp of approval for aid to Colombia gets handed out way too easily.

On July 29th, the Bush administration certified the release of more that $180 million in military funding for the Colombia armed forces, money to be used for everything from helicopters to training. To those of us living, be it temporarily or permanently, in this country renowned for the impunity of human rights violations committed by the military, that's a whole lot of cash that just might mean the death of a neighbor or family member. In this case, the 130-page certification document highlights improvements, for example reductions in impunity via prosecutions of military personnel for human rights abuses (like the ongoing prosecutions I described in a recent post). 

But is prosecuting a few soldiers enough to warrant to release of $18 million in military aid? Consider the following: 17 out of 955 extrajudicial killings by the army have been prosecuted to a criminal conviction and sentence – an impunity rate of 98.2%. This is, granted, an improvement from the 99.2% impunity rate from the last round of certification, but, really, are either of those numbers, or the barely-noticeable improvement rate, enough to warrant the release of $180 million?

Over the 18 month period reviewed for certification, the Army reportedly carried out more than 400 "extrajudicial executions," or murders of civilians outside of combat, according to data compiled by Colombian human rights groups and shared with State Department officials less than a week before the certification was issued. Those killings represent a 48% increase over those reported in 2006. An improvement? Hardly. And it's not too far-fetched to say U.S. funding played a role in those murders: according to a report, cited quite a few times in the press recently, by Fellowship of Reconciliation (the organization with which I work here in Colombia), at least 47% of the extrajudicial killings committed in 2007 were carried out by army units that had been specifically scrutinized by the US state department, and subsequently trained, equipped or funded by the United States.

Instead of military aid, how about aid to actually prosecute the abuses? A recent article by Adam Isaacson of the Center for International Policy describes the decrepit state of the judicial system in many corners of Colombia, which greatly hinders the prosecution of such human rights violations. Interviewing a judge in the department of Guaviare, Isaacson writes, "If the United States has an interest in helping Colombia to govern a violent, drug-producing region like Guaviare, then our assistance must help ensure that the local justice system…has more of the tools it needs to be effective. Justice is one of the most important ingredients needed to help Colombia establish a state in long-ungoverned territories."

Judicial reforms are just one way U.S. aid to Colombia can be modified to serve the needs of Colombians, not just the extremely-problematic Colombian military, and end human rights violations. Such reforms must be accompanied by political will to implement them, in order to have a substantial effect in how violations are actually addressed. In the short term, proper use of the Leahy Amendment is needed. In the long term, however, I hope to see the new administration that enters the White House in January to make real reforms: end U.S. military aid to Colombia completely.

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