Last Updated:6/1/01
Letter from Reps. William Delahunt (D-Massachusetts) and Sam Farr (D-California), May 17, 2001

Congress of the United States
Washington, DC 20515

May 17, 2001

Hon. Manuel Ramiro Velásquez
Hon. María Eugenia Jaramillo
Hon. Mario Alvarez Celis
Hon. José Gentil Palacios
Hon. Benjamín Higuita
House of Representatives
Santa Fe de Bogotá, Colombia

Honorable Representatives:

We are writing as supporters of Colombia in the U.S. Congress and with genuine reluctance to comment on internal Colombian affairs. However, as fellow parliamentarians who share your deep commitment to the future of Colombia, we are obliged to alert you to our grave concern about the potential bilateral impact of Senate Bill 81, now pending before the Colombian Congress.

Because the legislation may come before you imminently, and because we are so disturbed by the consequences of its possible passage, we appeal to you to consider our thoughts carefully and quickly. The prospect of its approval is so disturbing to us that we want to make sure you are fully and personally aware of our views.

As we interpret it, the legislation would turn back the clock on the significant progress that Colombia - to its great credit - has made in strengthening human rights safeguards. In the process, it could unnecessarily complicate ongoing reviews in Washington of proposals for renewed aid to Colombia.

It is obviously the prerogative of the Colombian Congress alone to determine how best to strengthen democracy and ensure the rule of law. It is our view, however, that by weakening civilian power and jeopardizing civil liberties safeguards, this legislation could seriously undermine Colombia's international credibility in these areas.

Specifically, as you know, Senate Bill 81 would confer on Colombian security forces the power to arrest citizens without warrant or clear criteria. The bill also grants broad new powers to impose military control over democratically elected authorities.

Under the bill, only the Procuraduría Delegate for the Military Forces could henceforth investigate alleged human rights violations by the military forces, and such investigations could essentially be suspended by the commander of the operation in question. In addition, security personnel would be exempt from prosecution if the allegations concerned a "legally ordered" operation aimed at "criminal" entities.

Finally, the measure essentially authorizes the nationalization of private security units and allows the security forces to press civilians into quasi-military service; at the same time, the legislation would transfer substantial authority over national security from the President to the Commander General of the Military Forces.

During last year's debate within the U.S. Congress, a cornerstone of our argument on behalf of aid to Colombia was the tangible progress of the Colombian government - and particularly the military under the leadership of General Tapias - in reducing human rights abuses. The credibility of the $1.3 billion aid package itself derived from repeated commitments to sustain, if not accelerate, that momentum.

It is for these reasons that we express reservations about Senate Bill 81. Taken together, the bill's various provisions appear to put these commendable strides - and the global respect President Pastrana and the Colombian Congress have earned for this progress - at unnecessary risk.

Normally, we would not presume to volunteer our views about legislation pending in the Colombian Congress; and healthy democracies, including our own, thrive on lively debate and disagreement. In this case, however, we could not responsibly remain mute. This proposal threatens the strong Colombian tradition of civilian control of military activities, blurs the line between civilians and combatants, retards the oversight of human rights abuses, and encourages paramilitary involvement in security force operations. If it becomes law, moreover, this legislation would make it more difficult for us, as advocates for Colombia's cause in the U.S. Congress, to prevail in current discussions of future U.S. aid.

Despite the challenges and frustrations of the peace process, the conflict in Colombia will never be resolved except by a negotiated peace accord. This dynamic takes enormous patience and steadfast commitment to the democratic institutions and principles. In our view, Senate Bill 81 will lead Colombia further from - rather than closer to - these objectives.

Again, we hope it is clear that we write today as professional colleagues working in our own national legislature to advance your efforts toward Colombian stability and opportunity. We all know that signals can be missed or misinterpreted at this distance, and would of course welcome further clarification of these questions from your perspective. Likewise, we felt it was essential to alert you, as clearly as we are able, to the depth of our concern about this proposal, as we understand it.

As friends who care deeply about enhancing stability and opportunity for the people of Colombia, therefore, we respectfully urge you to shelve Senate Bill 81. As always, please let us know how we can offer our services in the course of your work.


William D. Delahunt
Member of Congress

Sam Farr
Member of Congress

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