|Don't aid Colombian rights abusers, U.S. urged|
from the Houston Chronicle
WASHINGTON -- An international monitoring group urged the Clinton administration Wednesday to ensure that its proposed aid package for Colombia does not finance military units linked to humanrights abuses.
The plea by Human Rights Watch was included in the group's report alleging that the Colombian military is continuing to support paramilitary units blamed in attacks on civilians.
The report was delivered to Secretary of State Madeleine Albright two days before the State Department is scheduled to release its annual compilation of human rights abuses around the world.
A year ago, the State Department reported that Colombian authorities committed "numerous, serious violations of human rights throughout the
In a letter to Albright, Human Rights Watch expressed concern that the $1.6 billion proposal to aid Colombia's fight against drug production does not require "clear, measurable steps to break links between the military and paramilitary groups."
"When an aid package of this size is debated in Washington, it's crucial that the facts be clear," Jose Miguel Vivanco, director of the group's Americas Division, said in the letter.
The report says paramilitary groups responsible for human rights violations receive support from several Colombian army brigades, including some
operating in areas slated to receive U.S. aid. The Clinton administration proposes funneling 80 percent of the aid to Colombia's military.
Human Rights Watch asserts that the military has supplied paramilitary groups with information that led to harassment and attacks against human
rights workers, government investigators and civilians involved in peace talks with guerrilla groups.
"The Colombian military should not get a clean bill of health until it severs ties to paramilitaries," Vivanco said. "U.S. assistance should not be provided either to those who directly commit human rights abuses or to those
who effectively contract others to carry out abuses on their behalf and with their assistance."
U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Thomas Pickering told a Senate committee Tuesday that army units connected with human rights violations would not receive U.S. aid.
Administration officials said any Colombian organization to receive aid -- if it is approved by Congress -- would be screened for human rights
As currently proposed, the administration's aid package complies with a congressional prohibition against financially aiding countries with human
rights abuses unless the government is taking steps to curb the problem.
During a visit to Washington last month, Colombian President Andres Pastrana told reporters that U.S. pressure would not help his country's effort to improve its human rights record.
"We are not going to respect human rights because the United States Congress imposes conditions on the aid," Pastrana said. "We are going to do it
because it is the policy of my government."
Paramilitary groups in Colombia go back to the 1960s when the country began arming civilians to help combat insurgent guerrillas, in part on the
recommendation from the U.S. military and CIA.
Today, human rights groups routinely denounce paramilitary organizations for atrocities committed in the course of fighting guerrillas.
White House drug czar Barry McCaffrey, in Bogota to promote the aid package, said Wednesday that complaints against the military have "dwindled to near zero." He said the police and army have a better image in Colombia than the Catholic Church -- something surveys in major cities have suggested.
Colombian military leaders called the new accusations unfounded and Pastrana, addressing the nation's governors, vowed stronger military efforts against paramilitary "barbarism, cruelty and cowardice."
McCaffrey said the military component of the U.S. aid package was necessary to clear a path through the rebels so that police can fumigate illegal drug crops.
But he stressed that one-fifth of the funds support human rights and justice reforms, as well as providing loans to help poor peasants grow legal crops instead of coca or opium poppies.
New CIA estimates show a 20 percent increase in cocaine production and a 23 percent rise in heroin production in Colombia last year. U.S. officials say the South American country now supplies 90 percent of the world's cocaine
and the majority of the heroin sold in the United States.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.
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