US Human Rights Monitoring in Colombia

The Leahy law is intended to address the issue of US military aid to human rights abusers by refusing to supply, train or equip any military units who are shown to have committed gross violations of human rights. Since it’s inception in 1997, it has been expanded to encompass all forms of US global military funding. In particular the Leahy law has been used to monitor US military aid to Colombia, the third largest recipient of US military aid in the world, and a country with long-standing civil war between insurgents groups and the Colombian military and its clandestine paramilitary allies. In justifying US military aid to the Colombian military the US argues that its human rights monitoring prevents US aid from being used to commit human rights violations. The Leahy law is the principal mechanism for implementing this commitment. However, there are dangerous weaknesses in the implementation of this law that render it effectively useless.

First, instead of vetting older units in the Colombian military for soldiers who have committed human rights violations, “counter-narcotic” units have been formed from scratch. In this way, the emphasis in the Colombian military is on forming newly vetted units rather than investigating the bad apples in the older units. A second problem in the laws’ implementation is the fact that a soldier from a disbanded unit can still receive training if his personal record is clean. He can then go back to his unit and pass on training. In effect this means that tainted soldiers within banned units can still receive training as long as they are not present initially when US military advisers are giving it. Third, the Leahy Law relies on a large amount of transparency on the part of the US. Every year the US publishes the Foreign Military Training Report (FMTR). The Center for International Policy regularly monitors the FMTR and publishes research findings based on its information. They have shown that since 1999 the US has increased the classification of information contained in its earlier FMTR. This “prevents all without classified access from monitoring implementation of the ‘Leahy Law’ human rights restrictions” which had in reports prior to the increased classification shown that “vetted individuals from Colombian Army brigades banned from receiving unit-level assistance were being trained” in direct contravention of the Leahy Law.1 The now tighter classification of the FMTR thus makes it “impossible to oversee the US government’s implementation of the Leahy Amendment”.2 In short, due to the decreased transparency of the FMTR there is now no way of knowing whether this illegal training continues. Fourth, whilst the Leahy Law encompasses most forms of military funding, the version of Leahy applied to defense-department funded aid is much weaker than International Narcotic Control funding channels (the funding pipeline used for the $1.3 billion US military aid package called “Plan Colombia”). For example, monitoring of the US  Defense Department’s “Section 1004” funding does not apply to military exercises, arms sales, and some forms of intelligence-sharing.3 Fourth, in implementing human rights vetting in Colombia, the US solicits a list from the Colombian Defense Ministry of Colombian military personnel deemed to be free of human rights violations. However, in determining whether a potential trainee is free the Colombian Defense Ministry checks both the Colombian court system or Colombia’s Internal Affairs Agency. Importantly, this review ignores cases where credible evidence exists but has not yet resulted in any formal charges against the named individual. Human Rights Watch note that formal charges often take years to be filed under the Colombian judicial system largely because of underfunding and understaffing.4 When we couple this with the climate of fear that exists in Colombia and the frequent targeting of civilians who have accused Colombian military personnel of human rights abuses, this represents a serious weakness in US human rights monitoring in Colombia.

Lastly, the use of private contractors by the US obscures legal oversight and end use monitoring of training and arms. US mercenary companies like DynCorp Inc and Military Professional Resources Inc (MPRI) provide logistical support and training to the Colombian military. Not only has MPRI worked closely with the Colombian Government in performing a review of the Colombian military, but it continues to maintain a database of over 11,000 private individuals who can be called upon for temporary assignment in the field.5 This “public-private partnership” is convenient in a number of ways. It allows Washington to deploy military know-how in pursuing strategic objectives whilst avoiding congressional caps on official military personnel overseas. Privately outsourced contractors also circumnavigate the potential negative media coverage of US military casualties, and thus lessen governmental exposure risks. Also, private contractors are only accountable to the company that employs them. Thus, if anyone is involved in actions that may generate negative publicity, the US can plausibly deny responsibility. Myles Frechette, the former US ambassador to Colombia, outlined the utility of using private mercenaries when he argued that it is  “very handy to have an outfit not part of the US Armed Forces. Obviously, if anybody gets killed or whatever, you can say it’s not a member of the armed forces”. 6This private-public partnership thus seriously weakens the transparent operation of the Leahy law, which only covers public money and the use of official US soldiers and equipment, and provides a high-level of “plausible deniability” for US planners.

All these factors have very serious ramifications on US policy in Colombia, and in particular the monitoring of US military aid and its use by the Colombian military. Given the deep ties between the Colombian military and its paramilitary allies (who are responsible for over 80% of all human rights abuses in Colombia) in the absence of effective Human Rights monitoring US military aid is effectively going to the biggest terrorists in Colombia today.

1 Centre for International Policy, Training: Findings and Recommendations, date unknown. <>
2 Centre for International Policy, The Foreign Military Training Report, date unknown, <>
3 Adam Isacson, Center for International Policy, private correspondence with author, 3rd March, 2003.
4 Human Rights Watch, The ‘Sixth Division’: Military and Paramilitary Ties and US Policy in Colombia, Appendix Four, US Human Rights Vetting, September 2001. <>.
5 Todd Robberson, “Contractors Playing Increasing Role in US Drug War” Dallas Morning News, February 27, 2000. <>.
6 Frechette quote from Paul de la Garza and David Adams “Special Report: The War in Colombia”, St Petersburg Times, December 3, 2002, p.1.

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