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United Nations

The Bogotá office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Human Rights undertook invaluable work, visiting regions shaken by war and pressing Colombian government authorities on the dozens of recommendations made by U.N. rapporteurs and others that remained unaddressed. Presenting the office's blistering annual report, Mary Robinson noted that the situation "has deteriorated significantly. This is a sad and sobering comment to have to make, as I reflect back on my own visit to Bogotá in October 1998."

The report paid special attention to continuing evidence of ties between the military and paramilitary groups. The office noted that "disciplinary and judicial investigations reveal that direct links between some members of the Armed Forces and paramilitary groups persist" and described the government's efforts to break these links as virtually nonexistent.

However, a weaker message was sent in April, when the Commission on Human Rights issued an unusually mild chairperson's statement, drafted by the E.U. and adopted by consensus. The statement welcomed "the continued readiness of the Colombian Government to cooperate with the permanent office of the High Commissioner," ignoring the Bogotá office's reports to the contrary. Even as the Colombian government agreed to allow the office to remain until April 2002, U.N. staff noted a marked drop in cooperation by Colombian officials.

These concerns were echoed in July, when Secretary-General Kofi Annan expressed "deep concern" about human rights in Colombia, "particularly the high incidence of kidnapings and massacres of civilians."

The UNHCR continued to expand its presence in Colombia, and opened three field offices in 1999 and 2000, in Barrancabermeja, Apartadó, and Puerto Asís.

United States

The character of Colombia's conflict changed with the entry of the United States as a major investor. The $1.3 billion infusion of mostly military aid was meant to be only one part of Plan Colombia, a multinational proposal to assist the country; yet, as of this writing, there were few other contributions to what was meant to be support totaling $7.5 billion.

In response, the FARC announced rewards for the capture of combat pilots, increased attacks on military helicopters and airplanes, and reportedly began arming villagers in southern Colombia to resist the fumigation of drug-producing crops, meant to be a centerpiece of the U.S. effort. Guerrillas used mainly rifles and rocket-propelled grenades, and claimed to have downed at least one National Police helicopter in April. In September, a FARC spokesperson declared U.S. military personnel "legitimate targets" of guerrilla operations.

Debated heatedly yet passed overwhelmingly by the U.S. Congress, the Colombia package was the largest single military assistance program ever approved for a Latin American country. The plan included $519.2 million for the Colombian military, most designated for the purchase of UH-60 Black Hawk and UH-1H Huey helicopters, logistical support, intelligence, and training; $116 million for the Colombian National Police; $68.5 million for alternative development, crop substitution, and assistance for peasants who may be forced to abandon their farms; $58 million for law enforcement and judicial reform; $51 million for human rights programs; and $37.5 million for programs benefitting the forcibly displaced.

Among those actively supporting the aid were Occidental Petroleum, which has major drilling sites in Colombian war zones; Lockheed Martin, manufacturer of the P-3 "Orion" radar surveillance airplane used to track drug smuggling and included in the package; Texas-based Textron, which will make the UH-1H Huey helicopters included in the plan; and United Technologies, whose Connecticut-based subsidiary, Sikorsky, will make the UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters.

Although the package featured strict human rights conditions, President Clinton waived all but one for reasons of U.S. national security on August 22, allowing aid to go forward even as American officials acknowledged that the forces they were funding maintained ties to paramilitary groups, had failed to suspend or prosecute implicated officers, engaged in abuses, and refused to enforce civilian jurisdiction over human rights crimes. "You don' t hold up the major objective to achieve the minor," said a spokesperson for the office of White House adviser and U.S. drug czar retired Gen. Barry McCaffrey.

Human Rights Watch protested the waiver and single certification issued by the State Department, issued after President Pastrana signed a directive based on the entrance into law of a new military penal code. Along with Amnesty International and the Washington Office on Latin America, Human Rights Watch argued that the directive complied only partially with U.S. law, so should have resulted in a denial of certification.

The persistence of human rights abuses within the Colombian military was underscored in September, when the U.S. suspended aid and training to the army's Twelfth and Twenty-Fourth brigades. Both had previously passed the vetting process carried out by U.S. officials and mandated by the Leahy Amendment, which prohibits the United States from funding foreign security force units accused with credible evidence of having committed human rights violations.

Colombia's neighbors also expressed serious concern that the U.S. plan could push coca growing and drug trafficking across Colombia's borders, generate new refugee flows, and cause fighting to spread. During a visit to Colombia, Ecuadoran President Gustavo Noboa reportedly asked President Pastrana to notify his government of all military operations in southern Colombia so that the Ecuadoran army could prepare for repercussions. Brazilian leaders openly criticized the aid, and began to reinforce their border with Colombia.

In December 1999, the first U.S.-trained Colombian army battalion completed its training and was deployed. A second battalion began to train the following August. U.S. law mandated that fewer than 500 U.S. troops and 300 contractors be deployed in Colombia at any one time barring an emergency. But reflecting a global trend to "out-source" war, some analysts projected that as many as 1,000 U.S.-related personnel could be in Colombia on any given day, including retired U.S. special forces members employed by for civilian companies such as DynCorp Inc. and Military Professional Resources Inc. (MPRI), which were hired by the U.S. State and Defense Departments.

The department of Putumayo, along Colombia's southern border with Ecuador and home to 50 percent of Colombia's illegal coca crop, was to the be the first target in the U.S. strategy, which had as its centerpiece a "Push into Southern Colombia" to eradicate coca bushes, destroy cocaine laboratories, and disrupt supply and shipment routes. U.S. officials acknowledged that forced displacement was one likely outcome of the strategy, and proposed setting up government-controlled "temporary" camps to distribute assistance. However, groups working with the internally displaced protested, arguing that this strategy risked "fomenting the conflict, targeting innocent civilians, and substantially increasing internal displacement in Colombia."

The potential for new human rights abuses became clear as the U.S. strategy was implemented. Paramilitaries virtually took over Putumayo's urban centers, such as Puerto Asís, where armed fighters walked with guns in their belts, yet with no interference from either the army or the police. In September and October, an armed strike called by the FARC had left residents without food, gas, medicine, or telephone service, and combat between guerrillas and paramilitaries raged while government troops remained largely in their barracks.


European leaders proved deeply skeptical of the U.S. military build-up in Colombia even as the E.U. and member states supported negotiations with guerrillas and greater respect for human rights. Although President Pastrana asked the EU to contribute $1.5 billion to Plan Colombia, at a July donors' summit of twenty-six nations in Madrid, he came away with almost nothing. Of the E.U. member states, only Spain pledged $100 million. France's Le Monde termed the meeting a "crushing failure for Colombian diplomacy."

Prior to the meeting, 150 delegates representing Colombian and international nongovernmental organizations, academics, environmentalists, and human rights groups met in Madrid and called on the international community to fund peace initiatives, not the Colombian military. The E.U. found that argument persuasive, and in October announced that its $144 million contribution to Plan Colombia would go to nongovernmental, economic, and humanitarian aid programs focused on peace, human rights, and economic development.

The E.U. publicly denounced abuses by all sides and called on the Colombian government to address "persistent grave violations." After her September visit to Colombia, British cabinet minister Mo Mowlam, an architect of the Northern Ireland peace accords, said that the United Kingdom and most European countries would withhold individual donations to Plan Colombia unless the Colombian security forces reformed.

Five countries-France, Spain, Switzerland, Norway, and Cuba-pledged to help the Colombian government negotiate with the UC-ELN. Yet, even as some of these governments met with the UC-ELN leadership to discuss possible talks, the European Union exerted strong pressure to end kidnappings and release all hostages.

Relevant Human Rights Watch


The Ties That Bind: Colombia and Military-Paramilitary Links, 2/00

Human Rights Watch World Report 2000

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