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Throwing Money at Colombia Will Only Make Things Worse

Commentary

August 23, 2000|PAUL D. WELLSTONE | Paul D. Wellstone (D-Minn.) is a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee

President Clinton faces a major human rights challenge this week on the issue of counternarcotics aid to Colombia. Will his administration certify that the Colombian government has met the human rights requirements set by Congress as a precondition to releasing a $1.3-billion U.S. military aid package to the country, or will he suspend the aid until the requirements are met? Will Clinton waive the human rights conditions--an admission that the human rights situation in Colombia remains a disaster--and release the funds regardless?

Whatever his decision, it will help define his legacy and our country's international standing and foreign policy for years to come.

As the president considers his decision, the Colombian government pledged to investigate a recent Colombian army operation that left dead six schoolchildren who had been on a hiking trip. Over the past weekend, authorities reported that paramilitaries, often working closely with the Colombian military, killed 10 farmhands in two villages in northeastern Antioquia province.

Next week, President Clinton makes a one-day visit to Colombia to spotlight the administration's assistance package, the bulk of which will be used to train and equip special counternarcotics battalions for the Colombian army and to supply them with at least 60 Huey and Blackhawk helicopters.

Releasing these funds, either by certification or by waiver, will do harm to the American claim of leadership on the issue of international human rights.

Many members of Congress expressed concern about human rights abuses in Colombia but reluctantly supported the package because they trusted the certification process to ensure no aid would be delivered to an abusive military.

After an honest and objective assessment of the human rights situation in Colombia, it should be clear to all that certifying Colombia today is impossible: The military maintains links to the paramilitaries; the government of Colombia has not vigorously pursued members of paramilitaries; many members of the armed forces who are credibly accused of human rights violations have not been suspended; the military continues to challenge the jurisdiction of civilian courts; and the president of Colombia has not issued a written order for human rights cases to be tried in civilian courts.

The only responsible alternative for the administration is to deny the military aid to Colombia. Waiving the human rights conditions would be a profound mistake. It would send a dangerous message to the Colombian army and to the civilian leadership that the U.S. commitment to human rights does not go beyond rhetoric.

Instead of throwing taxpayers' dollars at a war neither side can win and aligning ourselves with a questionable military, I believe that the U.S. should play a more effective role by helping create genuine economic alternatives for the peasant farmers and others involved in the Andean drug trade. And it should better combat drug abuse here at home by funding drug treatment and education programs.

A landmark study of cocaine markets by the Rand Corp. found that, dollar for dollar, providing treatment to cocaine users is 10 times more effective than drug interdiction schemes and 23 times more cost effective than eradicating coca at its source. We must make a commitment to reducing demand in the United States.

Since 1989, virtually all U.S. assistance to Colombia has been related to counternarcotics efforts, helping the police and military fight illicit drug cultivation, production and trafficking. But the administration's own estimates show a 140% increase in Colombian coca cultivation over the past five years. Given this record, had the drug war been evaluated like most other federal programs, I believe that we would have tried a different strategy long ago.

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