Op-Ed, 544 words

U.S. Military Aid to Colombia Violates Human Rights Law

We'd be better served by a policy that redirected funds to drug prevention education and treatment in the United States.

Mark C. Johnson

A “false positive” diagnosis causes relief when it means earlier signs of cancer were wrong. In Colombia, a “falso positivo” deepens grief, for it means the suspicion that a murdered youth belonged to the guerrilla forces was a mistake. Usually, the murderer likely knew that already.

The Fellowship of Reconciliation recently released a report that calls on the U.S. government to address how U.S.-funded Colombian Army units have been proven to kill innocent civilians. It also examines “false positives” across Colombia, and explores the relationship between U.S. foreign military aid and increases in civilian killings.

Cocaine TradeThe connection between U.S. foreign military aid and human rights abuses is alarming on humanitarian grounds. It’s especially alarming in Colombia, the largest recipient of U.S. military aid in the hemisphere since 2001. That country is in its fifth decade of civil war and has the second-largest internally displaced population in the world. Despite the fact that U.S. aid to Colombia is an utter failure, Defense Secretary Robert Gates called it an “exporter of security” because Colombia sends military trainers to Afghanistan and Mexico.

Congress enacted legislation in 1997 prohibiting aid to foreign military units if there’s credible evidence they’ve committed gross abuses, until corrections are made. It’s called the Leahy Law, and the requirement appears to be rarely enforced in Colombia.

The Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) has monitored the impact of military aid to Colombia for several years. Since 2002, we’ve placed international volunteers whose presence, backed by networks that offer political support for human rights, discourages attacks in “peace communities.” These communities are attempting to stay neutral in the face of ongoing threats from armed groups.

We now know from interviews and testimony in legal cases that soldiers were lured with promises of leave and bonuses to deliver bodies of guerrillas who were, in fact, civilian murder victims. Young men were “recruited” for employment, only to be discovered killed and dressed in guerrilla uniforms in another region within days. There have been thousands of such cases since 2002.

These are consequences of a failed policy called Plan Colombia that was supposed to reduce cocaine traffic between Colombia and the United States. Ten years and more than $6 billion into this policy, higher grades of cocaine–in larger quantities and at cheaper prices–are available throughout the United States and can be traced to Colombia. Anti-guerrilla paramilitary forces, frequently complicit with the state, continue as drug mafias that still seek to control territory and communities through violence.

At a time when the federal government is slashing spending on education, support for the unemployed, maintenance of our public infrastructure, and health care–including treatment programs for drug addicts–we’d be better served by a policy that redirected funds to drug prevention education and treatment in the United States.

And given Plan Colombia’s failure, it shouldn’t be exported to Pakistan and Afghanistan, where it would also fail. There’s already growing and gruesome evidence of extrajudicial killings in that region, which is getting more and more U.S. military aid.

We should urge our elected officials to ensure that the Leahy Law is rigorously applied. The notion that these policies are effective in Colombia is a tragic “false positive” that threatens all of us as misguided policies spread across the globe like cancer.

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Mark C. Johnson is executive director of the Fellowship of Reconciliation (www.forusa.org).