The State Department waited until after Colombia’s elections to announce its latest certification of the Colombian military’s human-rights performance. That is, it waited until the morning of the first working day after the elections to announce that it had made the certification decision late last week.
The Colombia human-rights certification requirement has been part of foreign aid law, in varying forms, every year since Plan Colombia began in 2000. The current version freezes 25 percent of Colombia’s military aid (not police aid, and not aid in the defense budget, leaving about $80 million frozen).
This aid can only be “unfrozen” twice each year, whenever the State Department issues a document to Congress certifying that Colombia has met six conditions having to do with progress on investigations of past human rights violations, cutting ties to paramilitaries, and respecting indigenous populations. Each time the State Department sends a certification document, half of that year’s frozen military aid (12.5 percent of the total, or about $40 million) is made available to Colombia. (To see the text of the Colombia certification requirement, read the 2006 foreign aid law here and find Section 556.)
There are no doubt many in the Bush State Department who despise this procedure; on several occasions we’ve heard comments like “you know, human rights is just one of many interests the United States has in Colombia” or “of course, we would rather not have any conditions attached to what we do.” But the whole State Department bureaucracy clearly does not feel that way. Some, particularly the Democracy, Human Rights and Labor bureau, have taken the legal conditions quite seriously, and the last few certifications have been delayed amid internal discussions.
The certifications have been delayed for so long that the decision announced this week frees up only the remaining 12.5 percent of 2005 military aid; all 25 percent of 2006 aid remains in the freezer. And in fact, the last two certifications appear to have been shaken loose only by important events unrelated to human rights. The last certification, in August 2005, coincided with President Álvaro Uribe’s visit to President Bush’s ranch in Crawford, Texas. The current one coincides with Uribe’s re-election.
But the delays owe to more than just bureaucratic disagreements. More importantly, the Colombian government has not been making it easy for the State Department to certify. Though punishment of past abuses would seem to be a fundamental element of the rule of law, the Uribe government has shown very little willingness to make it happen. Dozens of cases of alleged military human-rights abuse seem to exist only as piles of files in prosecutors’ offices. The few cases that come to trial are stuck in Colombia’s slow-moving courts, while others are quietly archived or never seem to leave the preliminary investigation stage.
Impunity is the rule, but there are also strong pressures to keep the military aid flowing. In order to issue some kind of certification – even one that does not pass the laugh test – State Department officials find themselves repeatedly asking the Colombians for some evidence of progress on a few key “benchmark” cases of human rights abuse.
Under President Uribe, who views military officers as heroes who must use all necessary means to protect the patria, the Colombian government has fiercely resisted the State Department’s entreaties to try or punish a few of the worst offenders. It has offered only the scarcest possible evidence of progress in punishing past abuses, and forced State Department officials to be very creative when drafting their justifications to Congress of how exactly Colombia has improved.
The latest justification document is not yet available (see the last few here, here and here), so we do not yet know what improvements in the Colombian military’s performance the State Department was able to cite. However, two very recent events probably made the certification possible.
- Colombia’s Procuraduría (sort of an internal-affairs agency that can fire or dock the pay of government employees, but not put them in jail) decided to fire seven army personnel, including four officers, tied to the August 2004 murder of three union leaders in Arauca.
- Colombia’s Fiscalía (the attorney-general’s office, which prosecutes criminal cases) has moved forward with arrest warrants for an officer and a soldier involved in a 2003 massacre in Cajamarca, Tolima.
It’s not clear what other cases the State Department can cite, beyond these two examples from the past week or two. The investigation into the February 2005 massacre of two families in San José de Apartadó, Antioquia, remains stuck (though the community’s refusal to talk to the Fiscalía offers the Colombian government a handy excuse to do nothing). Gen. Jaime Uscátegui’s trial for allowing the 1997 paramilitary massacre in Mapiripán continues to drag on. Nobody has been punished for the 1998 bombing of civilians in Santo Domingo, Arauca. The investigation of Operation Dragon, a plot against union leaders and other Cali activists revealed in 2004, has not moved a bit. The list goes on.
Worse, Colombia’s human rights climate appears to be getting more serious, which makes the decision to certify “improvements” especially poorly timed. The past two months have seen repeated e-mail threats sent to human-rights groups, break-ins at several human-rights defenders’ offices and homes, the murder of one human-rights activist’s bodyguard, the murder of an advisor to a senator who opposes Uribe, and iron-fisted responses to protests from indigenous groups and coca growers. Not to mention scandals surrounding paramilitary infiltration of the president’s security and intelligence service (the DAS), and the massacre of an entire police anti-drug unit at the hands of a military patrol.
The human-rights certification process is frustrating. It puts a “seal of approval” on a human rights record that is not improving, and may in fact be going the wrong way. It simply ignores the majority of outstanding cases of past abuse, cases that have gone nowhere. The focus on “benchmark cases” has put U.S. diplomats in an uncomfortable position – at times they appear to be demanding the heads of a few military personnel in exchange for aid money.
Nonetheless, the certification process is necessary. Lately, it seems to be the only bit of leverage available to bring past human-rights abuses to justice. By requiring some evidence of progress, each certification brings at least a few cases closer to judgment and punishment.
Moreover, the mere fact that the past few certifications have been delayed for so long shows why they are necessary. The delays reveal some important truths about the Colombian military’s commitment to human rights.
The failure to move forward on investigations and prosecutions reveals that when it comes to punishing abuses, Colombia’s security forces have yet to internalize human rights as an important value. The certification delays put a badly needed spotlight on that problem. They make painfully obvious how troubled the Colombian military’s human-rights performance remains. Despite improvements in training and some officers’ positive efforts, the overall record remains so bad that even the military’s main foreign benefactor, the U.S. government, cannot approve of it without a long, drawn-out argument.
The certification process is messy and pleases nobody. But as abuse investigations become ever more stuck and the overall climate worsens, it’s more necessary than ever.