Administration mulls waiving rights restrictions in Colombia aid

WASHINGTON - For Colombia to get fresh U.S. drug-fighting aid, President Clinton likely will have to exempt the country from fine print that ties the money to improvements in its poor human rights record.

While no decision has been made, Clinton administration officials are signaling that human rights provisions in the Colombia package won't delay the aid, even though the State Department rates Colombia's human rights record as poor.

''You don't hold up the major objective to achieve the minor,'' said Brad Hittle, an official with the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy.

Human rights advocates, who pressed to get the language in the Colombia aid legislation, are braced for the setback of a presidential waiver.

''If they want the aid to go - and there's a lot of pressure for it to go - the only way they can do that is by invoking the waiver,'' said Andrew Miller of Amnesty International USA.

Hittle said the administration wants to comply with ''the spirit of the law'' and work with Colombia on human rights, but the top priority is ''to get the aid flowing'' to help Colombian authorities stop violence by guerrillas and paramilitaries.

He noted the aid includes about $50 million for human rights programs.

Colombia is receiving the bulk of a $1.3 billion aid package aimed mostly at helping its forces wrest control of cocaine-producing regions from leftist guerrillas and, to a lesser extent, right-wing paramilitaries protecting the drug trade. Colombia is the world's leading producer of cocaine and a growing supplier of heroin.

Rights groups have opposed the aid, fearing it will escalate the conflict and help paramilitaries tied to the Colombian army. The paramilitaries are accused of being the worst violators of rights in Colombia's civil war, torturing and killing civilians they believe linked to guerrillas.

Because of that, the anti-drug aid legislation requires the State Department to certify Colombia's progress in specific areas of human rights, such as whether soldiers accused of rights violations were being promptly suspended and whether paramilitary leaders were being vigorously prosecuted. The certification must be made 20 days before money is spent.

Rights advocates say Colombia isn't close to meeting those conditions.

''There's just no way that the administration can certify them with a straight face,'' said Lisa Haugaard, legislative coordinator for the Latin American Working Group, a coalition of more than 60 organizations.

The State Department's 1999 human rights report, released in February, described the Colombian government's rights record as ''poor.'' It said serious abuses by government forces had not improved over the previous year, security forces were rarely held accountable for rights violations and members of security forces sometimes collaborated with paramilitaries.

''Paramilitary forces find a ready support base within the military and police, as well as local civilian elites in many areas,'' the report said.

The waiver clause allows Clinton to bypass the certification requirement if he considers it to be in the interest of U.S. national security.

Two Democratic senators, Edward Kennedy of Massachusetts and Patrick Leahy of Vermont, wrote Clinton this week urging him not to waive the requirement, saying the conditions ''go to the heart of (Colombia's) human rights crisis.''

Some rights groups suggest the State Department might avoid using the waiver by certifying Colombia, based on President Andres Pastrana's commitments to improve human rights.

Pastrana has fired several top generals and recently signed legislation making genocide and forced disappearances crimes for the first time.

The groups see those as token measures.

''This is not a matter of discourse. This is not a matter of good will or nice attitudes or the right speech on human rights. It's a question of facts,'' said Jose Miguel Vivanco, executive director of the Americas Division of Human Rights Watch.


On the Net:

State Department information on Colombia aid:

Center for International Policy, which opposes the aid:


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