Last Updated:3/20/00
Letter from Josť Miguel Vivanco, executive director, Americas Division, to Rep. Sonny Callahan (R-Alabama), March 15, 2000
March 15, 2000

Representative Sonny Callahan
United States House of Representatives
Chairman, Subcommittee on Foreign Operations
The Capitol, H-150
Washington, DC 20515

Dear Mr. Chairman:

I am writing to correct the record regarding an amendment introduced by Rep. Sam Farr during debate on the Emergency Supplemental for Colombia on March 9. In a letter to you, Gen. McCaffrey said that if passed, this amendment may infringe upon the independent powers of the judiciary.

On the contrary, I strongly believe that Rep. Farr's proposal would have strengthened and supported the rule of law, not jeopardized it, as Gen. McCaffrey asserted. During the upcoming debate, we strongly urge you to support Rep. Farr's amendment as an essential benchmark to ensure that U.S. aid is used in a way that supports human rights protection.

There is, in fact, an overarching judicial body in Colombia that operates analogous to the United States Supreme Court. It is the Constitutional Court, which ruled in August 1997 that cases of alleged human rights violations by members of the security forces should never be heard by military courts. The court argued that such violations cannot be considered "acts of service," and therefore belong before civilian courts.

The Colombian military continues to defy this ruling and disobey the law. That must stop if the United States is to be sure that its security assistance is not used to fund continuing human rights violations.

It is essential for the U.S. Congress to make it clear that it fully supports the rule of law in Colombia. We believe the U.S. Congress should require, according to the amendment language, that the Colombian government provide written assurances to the United States government that personnel who are credibly alleged to have committed gross violations of human rights will be brought to justice in Colombia's civilian courts, in accordance with the 1997 Constitutional Court decision.

As written, this language would simply reinforce what is already law in Colombia. Unfortunately, it is a law that the military refuses to comply with, in defiance of the courts and the country's elected leaders.

Given his stated commitment to human rights, President Pastrana, who is also commander-in-chief of the armed forces, could easily satisfy this condition by ordering the military to cease disputing jurisdiction in cases involving credible allegations of human rights abuse. They are his subordinates and must abide by his order.

This would in no way compromise the integrity of Colombia's separation of powers or the independence of the executive and judiciary. To the contrary, it would uphold the judiciary's power by obligating the military to abide by civilian rule and the law.


José Miguel Vivanco
Executive Director
Human Rights Watch, Americas Division

cc Rep. Sam Farr
Gen. Barry McCaffrey
Amb. Luis Moreno
Interested members of the U.S. Congress

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