US Policies Consistently Undermine Human Rights
by Garry M. Leech
July 19, 2003
On Tuesday, July 1, the Bush administration announced it was banning military aid to some 50 countries because of their refusal to grant U.S. citizens immunity from prosecution by the International Criminal Court (ICC). President Bush signed waivers exempting 22 of these countries from the aid ban, but Colombia was not one of them. While it initially appears that such a ban would be catastrophic to a country that is the third-largest recipient of U.S. military aid, in reality it will have little effect on Colombia. The huge majority of Colombia's military assistance actually falls under counternarcotics programs and therefore is not affected by the aid ban. In fact, Colombia was only scheduled to receive $98 million in military aid in 2003 as part of the war on terror and most of it has already been spent, leaving only $5 million frozen under the new aid ban. Consequently, it was not necessary for the Bush administration to issue a waiver in order to continue its support for the Colombian military. Washington's response to ICC signatory countries such as Colombia that refuse to exempt U.S. citizens is consistent with other Bush administration policies that also undermine human rights.
One week after the military aid ban was announced, the Bush administration certified that the Colombian government had met U.S. Congress-imposed human rights requirements in order to continue receiving U.S. military assistance for counternarcotics programs (Note: U.S. counterterrorism aid to Colombia is not subject to the human rights conditions imposed by Congress on drug war aid). However, international human rights groups claim there is compelling evidence that Colombia failed to meet six of the seven requirements set by Congress, including the Uribe administration's failure to sever links between the Colombian Armed Forces and right-wing paramilitary groups.
According to José Miguel Vivanco, Executive Director of the Americas Division of Human Rights Watch, “The Bush administration has consistently argued that it couldn't hold up aid to the Colombian military over its collusion with human rights abusers. Now, it turns out that they're perfectly willing to suspend aid, but only when countries like Colombia resist granting immunity for possible crimes against humanity. This sends a perverse signal about American priorities.”
The Bush administration's policies are nothing if not consistent with regards to human rights in Colombia. While the farcical certification process allows the Colombian military to maintain its links to right-wing paramilitary death squads with impunity, the White House's decision to suspend military aid is intended to pressure Colombia into providing U.S. personnel operating in Colombia with immunity from the ICC. The military aid cut-off will have little effect on this year's funding, but it could affect next year's counterterrorism aid intended to protect the Caño Limon oil pipeline—partly-owned by Los Angeles-based Occidental Petroleum—in eastern Colombia's Arauca department.
The next fiscal year, however, does not begin until October, which gives Washington and Bogotá three months to settle the ICC issue. In fact, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe is already claiming that a 1962 bilateral agreement between Colombia and the United States provides immunity to U.S. citizens working for the U.S. government in Colombia. But the Bush administration wants a more comprehensive agreement that exempts all U.S. citizens, whether they work for the government or not, from prosecution before the ICC.
This discrepancy between Washington and Bogotá about the degree of immunity U.S. citizens should receive will likely affect the Bush administration's decision regarding the Colombian government's recent request that three U.S. citizens be extradited to Colombia. In December 1998, a Colombian military helicopter dropped a U.S.-made cluster bomb on the village of Santo Domingo in eastern Colombia killing 18 civilians, including seven children. Colombian investigators have obtained evidence that the U.S. crew members of a plane belonging to Florida-based AirScan Inc. aided the Colombian military in its battle against nearby guerrilla fighters and provided the coordinates for the fatal bombing. AirScan is a private security company contracted to protect Occidental Petroleum's interests by providing aerial surveillance of the Caño Limon oil pipeline, which is regularly bombed by leftist rebels.
There has been no immediate response from the Bush administration to the Colombian attorney general's request that the AirScan crew—Arthur McClintock, Jose Orta and Charlie Denny—be handed over to Colombian authorities for questioning about the bombing incident. It is unlikely that the White House will authorize the extradition of the three U.S. citizens without a guarantee of immunity for their role in the bombing despite the fact that Colombia routinely extradites Colombian nationals to the United States for drug trafficking, including 64 suspects over the past year. The Santo Domingo bombing case illustrates why the Bush White House is so eager to pressure the Colombian government into guaranteeing immunity to all U.S. citizens operating in Colombia, not only those working for the government.
The Bush administration's human rights policies towards Colombia have proven to be remarkably consistent and in line with its global policies: immunity for all those receiving U.S. aid and assistance in order to protect U.S. interests. While pressuring governments around the world to sign bilateral agreements that exempt U.S. citizens from the ICC for fear of politically-motivated prosecutions of U.S. military and civilian personnel, Washington continues to implement its own politically-motivated human rights policies. Instead of creating a permanent international court such as the ICC, the Bush administration would prefer to continue the strategy of establishing temporary tribunals that only prosecute enemies of the United States. Recent examples of such tribunals include the NATO trial of Slobodan Milosevic and his fellow Serbian henchmen and the U.S. tribunals for Afghans accused of terrorism.
Last year, President Bush removed the U.S. signature from the ICC treaty, which had been signed by former President Bill Clinton as one of his final acts before leaving office. This decision by the Bush administration clearly illustrated that Washington would only tolerate politically-motivated prosecutions that serve U.S. interests. By certifying that Colombia's human rights-violating armed forces can continue receiving military assistance for counternarcotics operations and by insisting that U.S. military and civilian personnel be provided immunity from the ICC, the Bush administration has once again undermined international human rights efforts.
Garry M. Leech is author of Killing Peace: Colombia's Conflict and the Failure of U.S. Intervention (INOTA, 2002), and is on the Board of Directors of the Information Network of the Americas (INOTA) in New York. This article first appeared in Colombia Journal. Please visit their website and consider supporting their vitally important work: http://www.colombiajournal.org