The visit of U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell to Colombia on December 3 and 4 marks an important opportunity to advance human rights and the rule of law in that country.
In recent weeks, the United States has taken a number of steps towards that end. The U.S. has indicted top leaders of Colombia's paramilitary and guerrilla organizations implicated in grave human rights abuses as well as drug trafficking. It has suspended the U.S. visa of Colombian Admiral Rodrigo Quiñones, who has been repeatedly linked to serious abuses, leading to Quiñones' resignation as Colombia's military attache to Israel. And it has suspended assistance to a Colombian air force unit implicated in a serious violation of the laws of war that was never properly investigated.
These actions have sent a welcome message that Colombia must fully and finally break remaining ties between its armed forces and paramilitary groups, and that its armed forces and law enforcement institutions must pursue and prosecute paramilitaries and guerrillas with equal vigor.
Secretary of State Powell should reinforce that message to President Álvaro Uribe and to the Colombian armed forces by stressing that U.S. military assistance to Colombia can only be maintained if Colombia wages its struggle against armed groups within the rule of law. In particular, Secretary Powell should express concern about the record of Colombian Attorney General Luis Camilio Osorio, who has sought to undermine investigations by Colombian prosecutors of ties between senior military officers and paramilitaries. In the sixteen months since Osorio took office, at least twenty-six prosecutors and investigators working on such sensitive cases have been fired or forced to resign; many had received training from the United States.
Finally, Secretary Powell should also stress that if the Colombian government engages in peace negotiations with the paramilitaries or the guerrillas, it should not offer amnesties to combatants who have committed atrocities against Colombian civilians.