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A Slap Colombia Deserves

January 15, 2003

Four years ago, the village of Santo Domingo, Colombia, received the sort of "aid" that has, over the decades, made many people in impoverished nations question the United States' claim to geopolitical righteousness: a thunderous blast that killed 18 civilians, including several children. On Monday, the U.S. State Department gave Colombians a better, if belated, present by announcing it would suspend assistance to the Colombian air force unit accused of negligently dropping what the FBI has identified as an American-made, 20-pound AN-M41 fragmentation bomb while chasing guerrillas near the border with Venezuela.

Polls show that most Colombians want the government to fight the drug-trafficking leftists who have made life miserable in parts of the country for almost 40 years. But by ending the aid the U.S. is telling Colombia's government that the link between receiving help and respecting human rights is real -- that anyone who thinks the U.S. will look the other way in such situations is wrong.

The suspension cuts off training and part of the $2 million in fuel that is delivered annually to the air force unit -- not much considering that Colombia's total aid package from the U.S. over the last few years is close to $2 billion.

So far, the Colombian government's reaction has been weak. Defense Minister Marta Lucia Ramirez pointed out that there was an ongoing investigation. But impatience with the investigation is what made the U.S. pull back the aid.

How long should it take to solve a case that does not seem to be that complicated? Since the beginning, the most credible version of the incident indicates that a Colombian air force helicopter fighting leftist rebels near Santo Domingo dropped the bomb that killed the villagers. Instead of launching a serious investigation, however, the air force denied involvement and accused the leftist rebels of having activated a car bomb. Then the cover-up began. The investigation remains at an impasse.

Though the Colombian military has improved its record on human rights in recent years, Human Rights Watch's annual report, issued Tuesday, says there are continuing joint operations between the Colombian military and paramilitary armies, some of them guilty of human rights abuses.

The Bush administration needs to use this week's aid suspension to prod Colombia to straighten out its military across the board, to make it clear throughout the ranks that civilian populations are to be protected, not abused -- or bombed. The United States' image is less than glistening in many places at the moment, so the message that aid from the U.S. and human rights go hand in hand will be good for the world to hear.

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