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Colombia: Aid Suspension Decision Welcomed
(New York, November 21, 2002) The decision by the United States to suspend military assistance to a Colombian Air Force unit implicated in a serious violation of the laws of war is a positive step, Human Rights Watch said today. The decision marks the first time in Colombia that the United States has suspended assistance on human rights grounds.

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"It is particularly important for the United States to demand credible investigations when its weaponry and U.S. citizens are implicated in abuses."

José Miguel Vivanco
Executive Director
Americas Division
Human Rights Watch

“By suspending funding, the United States can be certain of getting the military’s attention,” said José Miguel Vivanco, Executive Director of the Americas Division of Human Rights Watch. “When there is impunity in Colombia, as in the Santo Domingo case, it is imperative that the Department of State follow its legal obligation to send precisely this kind of clear message. This decision strengthens the credibility of the policy and the rule of law.”

On December 13, 1998, a Colombian Air Force helicopter launched rockets during a prolonged clash with units of the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia-People’s Army (FARC-EP) near the village of Santo Domingo, Arauca. According to residents, several rockets hit civilian homes. Eighteen civilians died, among them seven children.

Instead of carrying out an impartial investigation, the military engaged in a cover up, blaming the incident on a FARC-EP car bomb. However, government investigators later determined that the shrapnel responsible for the civilian deaths came from a U.S.-made rocket launched from a helicopter assigned to the First Air Combat Command, based at Palanquero. The helicopter pilots told investigators that they received targeting coordinates from AirScan, a U.S. contractor working for the air force.

“It is particularly important for the United States to demand credible investigations when its weaponry and U.S. citizens are implicated in abuses,” Vivanco said.

Currently, U.S. authorities say they will continue to cooperate with the Colombian investigation. In addition, the U.S. Coast Guard has reportedly opened an investigation of one American allegedly involved, who may have been a Coast Guard employee at the time of the Santo Domingo incident.

The decision is based on U.S. legislation that requires the Secretary of State to suspend military aid to foreign security force units credibly alleged to be involved in human rights violations when there are no effective measures taken to investigate and punish those responsible.

In 2002, the U.S. government provided Colombia with $415 million in military aid and, in a new development, lifted restrictions preventing the Colombian security forces from using the funding to combat illegal armed groups. As of September 13, 2002, there were 138 temporary and permanent U.S. military personnel and 250 U.S. civilians retained as individual contractors in Colombia, according to U.S. government reports.