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Last Updated:8/8/05
Backgrounder: Human-rights certification
By CIP Fellow Winifred Tate, August 3, 2005

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told Congress on Monday that the State Department was certifying the Colombian government's compliance with the human rights conditions contained within U.S. legislation. Twice-yearly certification is required to release 12.5% of funds for assistance for the Colombian Armed Forces. After a six month delay because of controversy over the Colombian government's failure to advance in human rights investigations, this certification covers 12.5% of aid from 2004, and the first required certification of 2005. This announcement comes two days before Colombian President Alvaro Uribe's visit to President George Bush's Crawford, Texas ranch tomorrow.

"The U.S. should expect more from such a close and well funded ally," said CIP Fellow Winifred Tate. "Despite millions of U.S. dollars to improve the Colombian judicial system, and professionalize the military, human rights cases still languish with little progress in investigations, with witnesses intimidated and killed while the implicated officers advance through the ranks."

During an August 3 conference sponsored by the InterAmerican Dialogue, U.S. State Department Undersecretary for Political Affairs R. Nicholas Burns announced the certification as a measure of the confidence the Bush administration has in Colombia's progress. He mentioned action on three specific cases of particular concern to the United States: the July 13 indictment of individuals involved in the killing of three union activists in Arauca in August 2004; the opening of an investigation by the Inspector General (Procurador General) against two generals and two colonels for their role in failing to prevent violent attacks against the peace community of San Jose de Apartado from 2000-2002, and the change of venue of the trial of (ret.) General Uscategui in the 1997 massacre in Mapiripan.

Unfortunately, rather than examples of progress, each of these cases demonstrate the particular weakness of the Colombian judicial system, and the Colombian government's failure to seriously investigate and prosecute members of the military involved in human rights abuses.

Members of the Colombian Army's 18th Brigade killed three unarmed union activists in Saravena Arauca, then claimed that the three were guerrillas who fired on them first. A month later Colombia's attorney-general's office found that story to be false, and arrested a second lieutenant and two soldiers for murder. Cases of peasants, activists and community leaders assassinated and then presented by the military as guerrillas killed in combat are on the rise. This case, one of the few in which even low ranking military officers and soldiers have been arrested, does not address the issue of ongoing military cover-ups in such cases.

The Inspector General's announcement that it is opening an investigation into the failure of two generals and colonels from 2000-2002 is welcome news, but long overdue. Why did the Colombian justice system require as long as five years to gather sufficient evidence to open an investigation (which may drag on for years before final resolution)? The Inspector General's office does not conduct criminal investigations, punishable by jail time, but disciplinary investigations, punishable by official rebuke. What about the corresponding criminal investigations for the hundreds of killings that occurred in the area of San Jose de Apartado during that time? Community leaders from the peace community of San Jose highlight the failed efforts of a special investigative commission that was formed to following the June 8, 2000 massacre of six community members in La Union (part of the larger peace community of San Jose), allegedly by members of the 17th Brigade. The commission gathered more than 100 witness testimonies, but no one was ever charged for the crimes and the case was closed. Witnesses in this and other cases who provided testimony faced severe reprisals, including threats and in some cases assassination. No advances have been made in the investigations into allegations that members of the 17th Brigade were involved in the February 2005 massacre of eight peace community members.

The issue of venue - whether cases are tried within the civilian ("ordinary") justice system or the military justice system - is a serious problem in human rights cases, which by definition should never be considered in the military court system. The United States has spent more than a million dollars trying to create a JAG (Judge Advocate General) system in Colombia similar to that in the U.S. There have been some advances, such as reform of the military penal code which mandates a separate chain of command for such cases - commanding officers are not longer the investigating judges charged with overseeing allegations of misconduct by troops under their control. But the Mapiripan case, as many others, simply should never have been within the military court system to begin with. In this case and many others, however, the Colombian military demanded jurisdiction, taking the Attorney General's Office (which conducted the initial investigation) to court. Colonel Orozco, on of the main witnesses in the case who reported his commanding officer's failure to respond to repeated requests for assistance from local officials during the three day massacre, asked that his trial by transferred to the civilian judicial system. His request was denied, and he was sentenced to three years in prison for "failing to carry out military duties."

Colombian and U.S.-based human rights groups have listed numerous cases demonstrating that the Colombian government has not met the minimum certification requirements (for a summary of some of the main cases presented by Colombian human rights groups during their meeting with the Colombian embassy, see http://www.ciponline.org/colombia/050729cip.htm).

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