A different plan

August 14, 2005

THE REMAINS of scores of Colombians unearthed in recent months are a cautionary, and hardly surprising, backdrop to the current debate about U.S. foreign policy in that South American country.

The exhumations are allowing the victims' relatives to speak publicly, for the first time, about the disappearances of 3,500 loved ones and to challenge the Colombian government to come to terms with their murders at the hands of right-wing paramilitary groups. The process is also rightly raising questions about the level of human rights guaranteed by the Colombian government, the beneficiary of generous U.S. financial support, and whether it should receive more aid without making significantly more progress.

One way for the Bush administration to clearly signal its support for human rights for the Colombian people is to designate more of next year's proposed $700 million aid package for building social and civilian institutions as counterweights to the Colombian military. More than 80 percent of $4 billion provided over the past six years has gone to the military, yet last year, 12.5 percent of the military aid was frozen because of lack of progress in resolving cases of illegal executions and other abuses by the Colombian military, according to the Latin American Working Group. An even larger portion of the aid should be withheld next year unless further progress is made this year.

The exhumations illustrate what can happen when there is political will to seek the truth, reconcile past atrocities and pursue justice for those harmed. This is good for the survivors of those murdered as well as for a government trying to shore up its human rights record.

Colombia still has a very long way to go, however. The government's notion of justice is turning out to be quite different from American practices. Arrested leaders of the murderous paramilitary groups may get lenient sentences simply for agreeing to disarm under a new so-called Justice and Peace Law that does not require them to account for their crimes and gives prosecutors just 60 days to press charges and build cases against them. Last month, 22 U.S. senators urged Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice not to certify the Colombian government as meeting human rights conditions, making it ineligible for military aid. Ms. Rice, who said she shared the lawmakers' concerns and would work with Colombian authorities to address them, approved the certification nonetheless.

The Bush administration says the Colombian government needs U.S. support to demobilize some 20,000 paramilitary militiamen and to weaken the 40,000 members of Marxist guerrilla groups. The State Department should insist that the Colombian government support a strong judicial system and independent human rights monitoring in return.

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