Pubdate: Tue, 26 Dec 2000
Source: New York Times (NY)
Copyright: 2000 The New York Times Company
Contact:  229 West 43rd Street, New York, NY 10036
Fax: (212) 556-3622
Author: Paul Wellstone


WASHINGTON - Earlier this month I traveled to Colombia to learn more about
this war-torn country, whose military is getting nearly $2 million per day
from the United States as part of an aid package that passed last June after
narrow approval in the Senate. I paid a visit to Barrancabermeja, an
oil-refining port city on Colombia's Magdalena River. "Barranca," a city of
210,000, is one of the most dangerous places in one of the world's most
dangerous countries.

This year so far, violence in Barranca has killed at least 410 people.

According to local human rights groups, most of those killed were the
victims of right-wing paramilitary death squads. These human rights groups
operate in the midst of a 40-year-old civil war now in one of its most
violent phases.

Every year, the violence in Colombia kills nearly 4,000 people, most of them
poor, powerless noncombatants. About 300,000 - more than half of them
children - are forced from their homes each year. Another 3,000 people are

Ransoms, extortion and the drug trade finance armed groups on the right and
left. In the name of the drug war, the American aid package approved this
year allocates approximately 75 percent of its resources to Colombia's
security forces. But Colombia's military is a deeply troubled institution,
even though it has recently taken important steps to improve its overall
human rights record. The State Department recently reported that "civilian
management of the armed forces is limited" in Colombia, and that in 1999
"the authorities rarely brought officers of the security forces and the
police charged with human rights offenses to justice, and impunity remains a
problem." Many members of the security forces continue to collaborate with
the right- wing paramilitaries, who commit about three-quarters of the
politically motivated murders in Colombia. The country's two main guerrilla
groups, the FARC and E.L.N., meanwhile, are supported in part by skimming
from the drug trade (as are the paramilitaries), and commit about a fifth of
killings while terrorizing the population. Yet even in these circumstances,
I met many individuals in Colombia who are working for peace as prosecutors,
investigators and journalists, and as workers in dozens of nongovernmental
organizations. These people have little room for maneuver.

A shocking number disappear, are assassinated or are forced to leave the
country. Now Washington has made their jobs harder.

As part of an antidrug strategy that has failed so far, the new aid package
is escalating the fighting and dealing a severe blow to President Andres
Pastrana's already troubled peace talks with the guerrillas. Before things
get any worse, the coming administration of George W. Bush would do well to
take our Colombia policy back to the drawing board.

A more effective approach has to include support for Colombia's peace
process, strong new protections for human rights defenders and initiatives
to make drug production less attractive to economically desperate peasants
by providing support for sustainable alternative crops. In the meantime, we
need to make short-term improvements in the policy.

The American aid package itself offers a guide. The Senate's version
included strong human rights conditions. It would have cut off military aid
until the United States government could certify that Colombia's armed
forces were disentangling from paramilitaries and punishing criminal conduct
in their ranks.

A House-Senate conference committee watered down this safeguard by giving
the president the ability to waive it - essentially making the human rights
conditions optional.

The State Department recognized that Colombia's military did not meet these
standards, but the administration took the easy way out and waived the
conditions in August. The waiver sent a terrible signal to Colombia's
military and to its beleaguered defenders of human rights.

The waiver eliminated what could have been an important source of leverage
with the government for those working for human rights. Next month, the
United States government must once again certify that Colombia's military
satisfies the conditions, so that delivery of antidrug aid can continue in
2001. This time, the Bush administration's State Department must take a
tough stance: no waiver and no aid until all human rights conditions are
met. Americans should not be supporting a partnership with a military that
does not meet these very basic standards.

Paul Wellstone is a senator from Minnesota.
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