More Money for Colombian Thugs

Colombia may be about to become one of the US’ top aid recipients — but it’s also one of the world’s worst human-rights abusers.

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President Clinton announced last week that he will be asking Congress to boost US aid to Colombia by $1.3 billion dollars over the next two years, which would make the war-ravaged country the third-largest recipient of US handouts. But aid is not the only list Colombia tops: It also ranks among the world’s leaders in human-rights violations.

According to the US State Department’s own latest human-rights report, Colombian “government forces continued to commit numerous, serious abuses, including extrajudicial killings.” According to the report, government forces were responsible for at least 21 extrajudicial killings; government forces also collaborated with right-wing paramilitary groups responsible for killing at least another 573 civilians. Human Rights Watch reports that the paramilitaries committed 78 per cent of all human rights violations in Colombia last year.

Despite its miserable record, the Colombian military may soon have a lot more firepower, compliments of US taxpayers. The lion’s share of the proposed aid would be spent on 63 combat helicopters designated for use in “counter-narcotics” operations. The US will also help upgrade some of Colombia’s existing air force equipment.

President Clinton said the massive aid package is necessary to keep illegal drugs from entering the US, and “to help Colombia promote peace and prosperity and deepen its democracy.” When pressed on the propriety of giving more than one and a half billion dollars in primarily military aid to a regime with such a deplorable human-rights record, State Department officials point to a law known as the Leahy amendment, named after Democratic Sen. Patrick Leahy of Vermont.

The Leahy amendment requires the US embassy in any country receiving military aid to insure that any military unit receiving US support has a clean human-rights record. State Department officials point out that the vast majority of the proposed Colombia package will be used by three new, US trained counternarcotics battalions.

But Leahy himself opposes the aid package. Following Clinton’s announcement, Leahy denounced the US aid boost to Colombia, calling the package a “dramatic ratcheting up of a counter-insurgency policy in the name of a counter-drug policy.” He called for the Colombian army to “thwart the paramilitary groups, who are responsible for most of the atrocities against civilians, and…to turn over to the civilian courts their own members who violate human rights.”

Leahy is not alone in opposing the aid package. Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch, and several other human rights groups have all issued statements condemning the aid increase. Human Rights Watch Executive Director Kenneth Roth recently slammed the administration for essentially circumventing the Leahy law. “The US has been willing to settle for the mere transfer of abusive members of (a) unit rather than their prosecution, which sends the signal that you can just… engage in a shell game and move people around.”

The administration is touting the package as desperately needed aid to an ally in dire straits. But more weapons are hardly the kind of help a country devastated by violence needs.

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