03.05.09

Statement On Colombia

MR. LEAHY.  The abuses perpetrated against civilians by the Revolutionary Armed Forces of Colombia, popularly known as the FARC, are too numerous to list.  From kidnappings to bombings, torture and summary executions, the FARC have lost whatever credibility and popular support they may once have had.  They are a criminal enterprise, despised by the vast majority of Colombians, funded with proceeds from the production and sale of cocaine, who show no respect for the laws of armed conflict. 

The FARC have kidnapped hundreds of people, many of whom remain in their custody, their health and welfare unknown.  From what we have learned from the few who have escaped or been released, they suffer severe hardship and deprivation. 

The FARC have also targeted Colombia’s vulnerable indigenous people, whose traditional lands are often located in conflict zones.  They have also been victimized by other armed groups, including the Colombian army. 

Two recent incidents illustrate the dangers these people face.  According to the National Indigenous Organization of Colombia, on February 11, 2009, the FARC killed 10 members of the Awá tribe in Nariño department.  This followed the killing of 17 Awá on February 4, also in Nariño, and also reportedly carried out by the FARC.  There are reports that an unknown number of Awá have been abducted. 

The killing of defenseless indigenous civilians can best be described as a crime against humanity.   It is utterly without justification, and those who engage in such atrocities should pay for their crimes. 

For years I have worked to help improve respect for human rights in Colombia and to strengthen Colombia’s judicial system.  I have also supported efforts to protect the rights of Colombia’s indigenous people.  When we get reports of the FARC attacking and summarily executing members of the Awá, including women and children, we are reminded how much remains to be done to protect these vulnerable groups and before real justice and peace can come to Colombia.  

In recent years there have been notable improvements in security in some parts of Colombia, particularly Bogota, Medellin and other cities.  There has also been progress in expanding the presence of the state into areas which previously had been ungoverned.  We are seeing some promising results from projects that provide coca farmers with titles to land, technical assistance to grow licit crops like coffee and cacao, and access to markets, in return for voluntarily stopping growing coca.  These projects deserve our continued support.

But many rural areas remain conflicted or controlled by the FARC or other armed groups, some of whose members are demobilized paramilitaries.  After more than $7 billion in U.S. aid and eight years since the beginning of Plan Colombia, the amount of coca under cultivation is close to what it was before.  It is now grown in smaller, more isolated plots, in many more parts of the country.  More than 200,000 rural Colombians were displaced from their homes as a result of drug related violence last year alone. 

Another issue that requires the attention of the Colombian Government is reparations for victims of the conflict.  There are tens of thousands of people who had members of their families killed or injured by paramilitaries, the FARC, or the army.  Many had land or other property stolen by paramilitaries who often had the active or tacit support of the army.  The Colombian Government established mechanisms for returning stolen assets, but for the most part it has not yet happened.  Very little of the land has been returned to its previous occupants.  This process needs to be urgently invigorated if reconciliation is to succeed in Colombia.

Whether a family member was killed or their property stolen by the FARC, paramilitaries, or members of the army, the loss is the same.  The judicial process in Colombia is wholly incapable of adjudicating the large number of cases or claims.  It is critical that, as was finally done in the U.S. when Congress appropriated funds to compensate victims of the Japanese internment camps during World War Two, the Colombian Government take the necessary steps to provide reparations for the victims so they can rebuild their lives. 

The issue of extra-judicial killings, or “false positives” as they have been called, is another major concern.  Human rights groups warned repeatedly that Colombian soldiers were luring poor young men with the promise of jobs, summarily executing them and then dressing the bodies to appear as FARC combatants in order to obtain higher pay, time off, promotions, or other benefits.  I also expressed concern about this.  Instead of investigating, top Colombian officials, including the President, responded by accusing the human rights groups of being FARC sympathizers.  After the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights confirmed these crimes and it was revealed that they were the result of official army policy, the government acknowledged the problem but the verbal attacks against human rights defenders and journalists who wrote articles about the issue have continued. 

To his credit, the Minister of Defense has taken some steps to address it, including issuing decrees disavowing the policy of rewarding body counts and dismissing army officers who were implicated in some cases.  But few if any have been prosecuted and punished, and there are reportedly hundreds of these cases.

Throughout this period, despite report after report that these atrocities were occurring, former Secretary of State Rice continued to certify that the Colombian army was meeting the human rights conditions in U.S. law.  That was as shameful as the Colombian Government blaming human rights defenders.  The Congress had no responsible alternative to withholding a portion of the military aid for Colombia.  Whether or when those funds are released will depend, in part, on how thoroughly the government addresses the problem of false positives, whether the officers involved are held accountable, and whether those who had the courage to report these crimes continue to be the target of government attacks. 

I also want to mention the recently appointed Army Chief of Staff, General González Peña, who replaced General Montoya.  General Montoya resigned under pressure due to the false positives scandal and was “punished”, as too often occurs in Colombia, by being appointed an ambassador.  Not long ago, General González Peña commanded the 4th Brigade in Antioquia which has one of the worst rates of reported extra-judicial killings.  It is difficult to believe that he was unaware of what his troops were reportedly doing, and it raises a concern about his qualifications for such an important position.   

This year, the Appropriations Committee will again review our aid programs in Colombia.  We want to continue helping Colombia because we share many interests – in addition to stopping the traffic in illegal drugs to the U.S. which has not succeeded to the extent some had predicted.  We need to determine what has worked and deserves continued U.S. support, whether the Colombian Government is meeting the conditions in U.S. law, and what costs should be shifted to the Colombian Government as U.S. aid is ratcheted down in the coming years.

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