The State Department has just announced a new certification that Colombia’s armed forces are improving their human rights performance. The September 8 action is the first such certification since July 28, 2008.
The certification, required by law, frees up 30 percent of military (not police) aid in the foreign aid bill (not the defense bill), which is put on hold every year until the State Department certifies that Colombia is improving its human rights record according to several specific criteria.
(To view the 2009 text of the law requiring a State Department human rights certification to free up aid, go here and scroll to [or search for] the text “(b) Assistance for the Armed Forces” .)
The amount freed up today, according to State Department sources, is $32.1 million – 30 percent of military aid in the 2009 State Department and Foreign Operations bill. This certification does not affect aid on hold from previous years. (Last time we heard – in early June – the amount on hold from previous years was $72 million.) Edit as of 8:45 September 14: a journalist source tells me that $53 million of that $72 million was “unfrozen” since June. The total of previous-year aid currently on hold is $19 million.
We’ve been promised a copy of the lengthy document that the State Department sent to Congress justifying the decision to certify, but have not received it yet, so we’re relying on today’s State Department press release to understand the decision. The release acknowledges that Colombia’s security forces face “several disquieting challenges” where human rights are concerned, particularly extrajudicial executions and revelations of wiretaps and surveillance by the presidential intelligence service (DAS). However, the document points to several recent arrests, and convictions in the case of the 2005 San JosÃ© de ApartadÃ³ massacre.
There has been an increased number of arrests of military personnel for human rights abuse cases – especially extrajudicial executions – during 2009 (a few examples are linked here). Yesterday’s arrest of former 3rd Brigade chief Gen. Francisco Pedraza for aiding and abetting paramilitaries who carried out the 2001 Alto Naya massacre was another positive step.
However, we will be looking closely at the State Department’s justification document for examples of actual verdicts and punishments for military officers involved in human rights abuse. With the exception of San JosÃ© de ApartadÃ³, we know of no significant recent cases that have come to a verdict and penalty. While a large majority of outstanding cases are now being tried in Colombia’s civilian justice system – a positive step – nearly all are moving slowly, or not at all, toward resolution.
The difficulty of reaching verdicts, regular new revelations about the “big three” scandals (parapolitics, extrajudicial executions and DAS), and President Uribe’s ad hominem verbal attacks on human rights defenders combine to call today’s certification decision into question.