A report released by U.S. NGO the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) finds an “alarming link” between Colombian military units that received U.S. funding and cases of extrajudicial killings or “false positives” — in which civilians were murdered and presented as guerrillas killed in combat — committed by those units.
John Lindsay-Poland, the FOR’s research and advocacy director, told Colombia Reports that the NGO undertook the two year research project on Colombia as a case to study, in order to evaluate the effects that U.S. military aid has on human rights.
To compile the report, the FOR drew on data from the Colombian Prosecutor General’s office, the Colombian Inspector General’s office and 20 human rights organizations, in order to study 3,000 cases of false positives committed by members of the Colombian armed forces since 2002. These cases were then cross-referenced with lists of more than 500 Colombian military units who received assistance from the U.S.
“What we found was that when there were increases in U.S. military aid [to Colombian military units], in those areas [where the units patrolled] there was an increase in killings. And more importantly, when U.S. aid decreased… the killings did too. This was not universal, there were some units where it was the reverse, but on average this was the case,” Lindsay-Poland said.
The FOR director added that in false positive cases in which the responsible military unit had not been identified, witness testimony suggests that “the brigade jurisdiction where a reported violation occurred is a reliable indicator of what unit committed it.”
Implications for the U.S.
U.S. legislation exists to prevent U.S. foreign aid from being used to commit human rights abuses. One of the principal pieces of legislation is the Leahy Amendment, which prohibits the U.S. from funding any foreign security unit for which there is credible evidence suggesting that the unit committed human rights abuses.
If the U.S. State Department is unaware of human rights abuses committed by a unit, then the American entity is not culpable for funding the unit. However, according to Lindsay-Poland, there is no way that the State Department could not have know about what the United Nations has labelled “widespread and systematic” false positive cases in Colombia.
“The legal standard is ‘credible evidence.’ The State Department has often said that added to that is the need for corroborating evidence,” Lindsay-Poland said, but added that NGOs have directly informed the State Department about certain cases. Furthermore, he said, regardless the State Department has an obligation to inquire into human rights situations in countries that receive U.S. aid.
“Whatever they didn’t know about before, they know about now,” the FOR director continued. “This report should give them the information they need to make a decision about extending aid.”
The FOR report recommends that in order for the Leahy Amendment to be legally implemented there must be a “suspension of assistance to nearly all Army fixed brigades and many mobile brigades.” The majority of Colombian army units have received U.S. military aid in the last ten years.
Impunity and the Colombian state
The Leahy Amendment allows the U.S. to continue to provide assistance to military units guilty of human rights violations in the event that “effective measures” are being taken to bring those responsible to justice. However the FOR says that according to the State Department’s documentation, only 1.5% of reported false positive cases have resulted in a conviction.
“The impunity rate is so high that what they [the culprits] will get is a couple of weeks off, chances are very very high that they wont be punished,” Lindsay-Poland said.
Lindsay-Poland recommends that the U.S. “do everything it can to pressure the Colombian government to bring these cases to justice… It should condition assistance to the [Colombian] Prosecutor General’s office and the Inspector General’s office on advances in investigation and prosecution, because those agencies receive a fair amount of aid.”
On a personal note Lindsay-Poland added he hopes the FOR report “increases pressure for justice in the 3,000 cases we studied and that Colombian and U.S. society doesn’t give up on that.”
The FOR recognizes that while its report does not “fix the causes of increased reports of killings after increases in U.S. assistance, our findings highlight the need for a thorough investigation into the reasons for this apparent correlation.” Lindsay-Poland called for the agencies that minister aid to investigate the FOR’s findings.
But what explanation is there for the link between U.S. funding and false positive cases?
“Some people have suggested, and I’m listening but don’t always know how to evaluate it, that units that got aid may have been under greater pressure to produce results… they may have also had a sense of legitimacy – if we’re being backed by the U.S. then we’re ok,” Lindsay-Poland said.
“My own analysis is that firstly, the measurement of victory was through body counts and secondly that the leadership in Colombia from [President Alvaro] Uribe and down, did not distinguish well between combatants and civilians,” he continued.
The director cited as an example the recent delegation sent to La Macarena, Meta, to investigate allegations of a mass grave found in the municipality. “Uribe called the people who went to La Macarena ‘spokespeople for terrorists’,” he said, referring to the delegation headed by Liberal Senator Piedad Cordoba.
According to the State Department, the country where the application of the Leahy Amendment has been most rigorous is in Colombia. Given that the U.S.’s role in Colombia’s internal conflict “is seen as a model for other counter-insurgencies, even in some cases as a model for human rights, held up as an example of what should be done in other countries, and exported to other countries such as Pakistan,” the Leahy Amendment’s application in Colombia needs to be carefully studied, Lindsay-Poland said.
As a result, one of the FOR report’s recommendation is that U.S. entities such as Congress and the White House take a look at military aid programs with comparable conditions to those in Colombia and examine if the Leahy Amendment is being applied.
“I hope that we can begin to interrogate American exceptionalism. We know there’s a problem in Colombia, we really want to take a look at what the U.S. role is in this phenomenon and apply that in other situations as well,” Lindsay-Poland said.
Looking to the future
“Modern wars produce this kind of thing, the false positives are a particularly perverse example of this kind of thing. Commitment to war on the part of the Colombian and U.S. governments is, I believe, a contributing factor. What we want and hope is that that will change, we don’t want to pursue a war scenario now,” Lindsay-Poland said.
He added that he hoped that with Colombian President-elect Juan Manuel Santos‘ incoming administration, which assumes power August 7, “new conditions will exist to take another path. It’s not going to be easy, there are a set of entrenched conditions.”
Plan Colombia, the U.S. financial and military aid program aimed at helping Colombia fight drug trafficking and leftist guerrillas, has donated $8 billion worth of aid to the Andean nation over the last ten years. Over the next year U.S. President Barack Obama’s administration will shift funding allocation from the fight against drugs to focus more on policies that seek economic, social, and institutional development in the Andean nation.
Virginia Staab, the U.S. State Department’s deputy public affairs spokesperson for Western Hemisphere Affairs, told Colombia Reports that the State Department was in the process of preparing a response to the FOR report.
Lindsay-Poland presented the report in Bogota on Thursday evening. For a summary of the report, titled “Report: Military Assistance and Human Rights: Colombia, U.S. Accountability, and Global Implications click here. Or download the full 51 page document.