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Colombia: Human Rights Watch Testifies Before Senate
Urges Support For Human Rights in Colombia

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Crisis in Colombia

Testimony of José Miguel Vivanco, Executive Director
Americas Division, Human Rights Watch
Foreign Operations Subcommittee
Senate Appropriations Committee
Room 138, Dirksen Building

Wednesday, July 11, 2001

Chairman Leahy, Senator McConnell, Members of the Subcommittee:

Thank you for inviting me to convey to the Subcommittee our concerns about the human rights situation in Colombia and the implications of U.S. security assistance sent to Colombia to fight drugs. I know the Subcommittee is most interested in an exchange, so my remarks will be brief. I would like to submit, for the record, my written testimony. I also submit for the record a recent letter we addressed to the leader of the main Colombian rebel group about their violations of international humanitarian law.

Human Rights Watch believes that it is important for this Subcommittee to continue to support human rights in Colombia by including strong and workable human rights conditions in the legislation under consideration. Conditions create an effective and measurable mechanism to promote positive change for human rights in Colombia.

Secondly, we urge this Subcommittee to include increased funds for the Colombian institutions that have a proven record of success against human rights violators in Colombia, prime among them the office of the Attorney General (Fiscalía), the Internal Affairs agency (Procuraduría), and the Public Advocate (Defensoría). The aid proposal from the Administration displays a greater emphasis on funding civilian initiatives, which we welcome, but much more is needed and specifically for these critical offices.

For example, in 2000 and the first three months of 2001 -- a period of fifteen months -- the Attorney General's Human Rights Unit and advisers from the Internal Affairs agency received U.S. $65,763 from the U.S. Agency for International Development. Half was spent on flying prosecutors to the United States to learn about the American judicial system, a pursuit that does not address the desperate need for vehicles, travel funds, and other resources to investigate and prosecute a rising number of human rights violations. This works out to less than the amount of U.S. military assistance spent in Colombia in only two hours of a single day.

Finally, we urge this Subcommittee to press Colombia's leaders for real progress on stopping attacks against human rights defenders and ensuring accountability for past murders. Even as Colombian authorities continue to provide bullet-proof glass for the offices of threatened human rights groups and bullet-proof vests and body guards for human rights defenders who receive death threats, these brave individuals continue to be murdered by experienced killers who continue to count on impunity for their crimes.
Cases involving the murder of human rights defenders-among them the 1996 killing of Josué Giraldo Cardona; the 1997 killings of Mario Calderón, Elsa Alvarado, and Carlos Alvarado; the 1998 killings of Jesús Valle Jaramillo and Eduardo Umaña Mendoza; the 1999 killing of Julio González and Everardo de Jesús Puerta; the 2000 killing of Jaime Garzón and Elizabeth Cañas, just to name a few-languish, in the best of cases with only the gunmen arrested and not the people who planned and paid for the killings.

The human rights situation in Colombia has deteriorated markedly since Public Law (P.L.) 106-246 was signed last year. This deterioration is the result of at least three factors: the Colombian government's continuing failure to address continuing collaboration between its forces and abusive paramilitaries; continuing impunity for military officers implicated in gross violations; and international humanitarian law violations committed by rebels, principally the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia-People's Army (Fuerzas Armadas Revolucionarias de Colombia-Ejército del Pueblo, FARC-EP).

According to the Colombian National Police, the number of massacres they recorded in 2000 increased by 22 percent over the previous year, most the work of paramilitaries who continue to enjoy, at the very least, the tolerance of the Colombian Armed Forces. In the first six months of this year, the police report yet another increase, from 84 massacres registered in the first six months of 2000 to 98 massacres registered in the first six months of 2001, with a total of 568 victims.

Human rights defenders, trade unionists, journalists, and community leaders continue to lead the lists of people killed because of their work. Only on July 1, for example, did authorities discover the body of Alma Rosa Jaramillo Lafourie near the city of Barrancabermeja, Santander, long the home of a vibrant and broad-based human rights movement. Several days earlier, this human rights defender had been kidnaped by paramilitaries, who have been engaged in a deadly campaign against rights workers in the region. Jaramillo was a valued colleague of Father Francisco de Roux, a Jesuit priest who runs the Middle Magdalena Development and Peace Program. Some of you have met with Father De Roux, and are aware of his valuable and dangerous work in defense of local communities in the region.

Last year, an estimated 319,000 people were forced to flee their homes, the highest number of displaced persons recorded in a single year in the last five years. Thousands of Colombians are leaving the country, and there is a growing sense that violence will only continue to worsen in the latter half of 2001. Instead of bringing hope and expectation for the future, the millenium has brought terror and a spiraling sense of hopelessness to many Colombians.

Military-paramilitary ties
Human Rights Watch continues to document abundant, detailed, and compelling evidence that certain Colombian army brigades and police detachments promote, work with, support, and tolerate paramilitary groups, treating them as a force allied to and compatible with their own. At their most brazen, these relationships involve active coordination during military operations between government and paramilitary units; communication via radios, cellular telephones, and beepers; the sharing of intelligence, including the names of suspected guerrilla collaborators; the sharing of fighters, including active-duty soldiers serving in paramilitary units and paramilitary commanders lodging on military bases; the sharing of vehicles, including army trucks used to transport paramilitary fighters; and the coordination of army roadblocks, which routinely let heavily-armed paramilitary fighters pass.

In particular, officers at the brigade and battalion level and in some police detachments routinely flout, ignore, or circumvent orders from above to break ties to paramilitaries. In violation of the law and the directives of their superiors, these officers continue close and regular relationships with the groups responsible for most human rights violations in Colombia.

Rebel violations
In our July 10 letter to the FARC-EP, we document cases involving the killings and cruel and inhuman treatment of captured combatants, abductions of civilians, hostage-taking, the use of child soldiers, grossly unfair trials, and forced displacement of civilians. Further, FARC-EP forces continue to use prohibited weapons, including gas cylinder bombs that wreak indiscriminate havoc and cause appalling injuries, and to attack medical workers and facilities in blatant disregard of international law and the most basic standards of respect for human life.

In the area ceded to rebels by the Colombian government for talks, the FARC-EP has established a pattern of abducting civilians suspected of supporting paramilitary groups, many of whom are later killed. Unlike abductions carried out for financial reasons, these abductions are often kept hidden. The FARC-EP generally does not disclose the victims' fate or even acknowledge custody. Relatives of those who are seized by the FARC-EP in these circumstances frequently are unable to obtain any information from the FARC-EP about the fate or whereabouts of their loved ones, causing enormous suffering. The victims of these abductions have no protection under the law, let alone legal remedy against false accusations and abuse, nor can their relatives invoke legal remedies on their behalf.

We detail other violations committed by guerrillas in our letter, part of our continuing effort to hold all sides in this conflict accountable for their abuses.

The Colombian government
Some government officials - the Attorney General, the members of his Human Rights Unit, investigators in the Attorney General's Technical Investigation Unit (Cuerpo Técnico de Investigaciones, CTI), the People's Advocate, and the Colombian National Police (CNP) leadership -- have taken important action against paramilitaries. They have investigated their abuses, arrested paramilitary leaders, seized their weapons, and prevented some massacres.

It was largely due to the Attorney General's efforts, for instance, that Colombian law enforcement for the first time successfully impaired the paramilitaries' financial network. In May, a combined team of Attorney General prosecutors and CTI agents carried out an operation in the city of Montería that gathered evidence to be used to arrest and prosecute the people who finance paramilitary groups. For their security, this team was protected by an elite Colombian Army unit brought from Bogotá. This is a critical and positive development that demonstrates that paramilitary groups are vulnerable and can be brought to justice.

Unfortunately, this operation remains an anomaly. To date, the good work of the Attorney General's office has been consistently and effectively undermined, canceled out, or in some cases wholly reversed by actions promoted by the military-paramilitary alliance and inaction by the Pastrana Administration.

Despite its statements to the contrary, the Pastrana Administration has not moved aggressively to acknowledge military-paramilitary collaboration and take effective action to ensure respect for human rights. To date, efforts to break these ties have been ineffective or, in some cases, wholly absent. Even as President Pastrana publicly deplores successive atrocities, each seemingly more gruesome than the last, high-ranking officers fail to take the obvious, critical steps necessary to prevent future killings by suspending suspect security force members suspected of abuses, delivering their cases to civilian judicial authorities for investigation, and pursuing and arresting paramilitaries

Eyewitnesses, municipal officials, and even the government's own investigators routinely delivered to the security forces detailed and current information about the exact location of paramilitary bases; license plates, colors and types of paramilitary vehicles; cellular telephone and beeper numbers used by paramilitaries; and the names of paramilitaries. Yet despite dozens of "early warnings" of planned atrocities, paramilitaries advanced, killed, mutilated, burned, destroyed, stole, and threatened with virtual impunity, often under the very noses of security force officers sworn to uphold public order.
Just as routinely, the security forces, in particular the military, have not moved against paramilitaries or have engaged in actions that produced only delays and allowed paramilitaries to continue their activities with impunity. Again and again, troops arrived at the sites of serious abuses committed by paramilitaries only to count bodies, photograph damages, and make familiar excuses for their failure to protect civilians and capture the paramilitaries responsible for abuses. Meanwhile, hundreds of arrest warrants against paramilitary leaders issued by the Attorney General's office remain unenforced because the military chooses not to execute them.

According to the CTI, investigators attached to the Attorney General's office, they had over 300 arrest warrants against alleged paramilitary members pending in January 2001. Among them were at least twenty-two separate warrants against Carlos Castaño for massacres, killings, and the kidnaping of human rights defenders and a Colombian senator. Government investigators from four separate institutions consulted by Human Rights Watch agreed that the main obstacle to arrests was the Colombian military. The military, according to these investigators, refused to send troops to make arrests or else leaks arrest plans to paramilitaries, frustrating operations..

For its part, the military claimed that it has arrested paramilitaries. But civilian government investigators have insisted to Human Rights Watch that most of those counted as detained in military tallies were merely low-ranking fighters, not leaders and key organizers. The Attorney General's office, some times acting in coordination with the CTI and CNP, has a significantly better record of arresting paramilitary leaders.

Far from strengthening key government institutions that investigate human rights cases, the Pastrana Administration has significantly weakened them by cutting their budgets, failing to adequately protect prosecutors and investigators, and failing to provide adequate funds to protect threatened witnesses.

According to the Attorney General, decreases have been so extreme that they threaten key teams, like the Human Rights Unit, with paralysis. This was made dramatically clear to Human Rights Watch during a visit to the Human Rights Unit prosecutors in January 2001. During the interview, one prosecutor was frantically calling various officials to get a seat on an interior ministry helicopter for a colleague to investigate massacres in the department of Valle. Such incidents, he said, were commonplace.

U.S. policy
Human Rights Watch firmly believes that the United States has an important role to play in Colombia and can help to support human rights. There have been some positive developments in Washington and from the U.S. Embassy in Bogotá. The chapter on Colombia in the annual country reports on human rights issued by the State Department continues to reflect an accurate, albeit grim picture of the worsening human rights situation. As importantly, U.S. Ambassador Anne Patterson has begun a long-overdue policy of speaking out on the human rights situation, and expressing concern over specific cases. Her timely, personal interventions in recent cases have been a critical factor in spurring the Colombian authorities to act to address the paramilitary advance.

Nevertheless, it remains clear that much more needs to be done. U.S. law prohibits military aid from going to security force units engaged in abusive behavior until effective steps are taken to bring perpetrators to justice. Last year, the U.S. Congress wisely included human rights conditions specific to Colombia in P.L. 106-246. These were conditions that we strongly supported, and this Subcommittee in particular merits recognition for ensuring that they were made part of the law.

However, on August 22, 2000, President Bill Clinton signed a waiver that lifted these conditions, allowing security assistance to be provided to the Colombian military even as the State Department reported that these forces continued to work with paramilitary groups. With one signature, the White House sent a direct message to Colombia's military leaders that overshadowed any other related to human rights.

Judged by the Colombian military's behavior in the field - not by rhetoric or public relations pamphlets - its leaders understood this message clearly. Even as Colombia's high command has agreed to scrub a few units for human rights problems, the rest of the military appears to have a virtual carte blanche for continued, active coordination with the paramilitary groups responsible for most human rights violations in Colombia.

Human Rights Watch remains convinced that the most important way that the United States can contribute to improving human rights protections in Colombia is to enforce strict and workable conditions on all military aid. These conditions should not include a waiver. Enforcement of the conditions contained in Public Law 106?246 would have contributed greatly to improving human rights protection, in my opinion.