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Standing by Colombia

August 03, 2005

President Bush will welcome Colombian President Alvaro Uribe to his Crawford, Texas, ranch Thursday in a fitting recognition of the South American leader's status as one of Washington's steadfast allies in the region. Uribe has been an effective leader, and Colombia, a democracy engaged in a long-standing battle against armed groups financed by the drug trade, deserves continuing U.S. support.

Washington has provided more than $4 billion in aid to Bogota as part of the so-called Plan Colombia dating back to the Clinton years. This has helped strengthen the Colombian state and tilted the balance of power in favor of the democratically elected government in its war against leftist guerrillas and right-wing paramilitary armies.

The next challenge for Colombia is making good use of a legal framework that encourages the disarmament of an estimated 35,000 paramilitaries and guerrillas, and their integration into society.

The Colombian Congress has passed legislation toward this end, striking a balance between the conflicting interests of pursuing peace and justice.

The so-called Justice and Peace Law, which encourages members of armed groups to lay down their arms in exchange for lenient sentences for any crimes they may have committed, has been criticized by human rights group as erring too much on the side of promoting peace over justice.

Some of the criticism is justified. The law lacks penalties for incomplete or inaccurate confessions, and it places unrealistic deadlines on state prosecutors to bring charges and carry out their investigations.

Paramilitary leaders who settle with the government are also hoping that the law (which still faces review by the country's independent Constitutional Court) will shield them from possible extradition to the United States, and that little effort will be made to seize their ill-gotten gains.

The real test for the Uribe government is whether it can lure leftist guerrillas into the peace process and dissuade those demobilized from continuing to engage in crime.

Bogota must also continue to extradite drug cartel masterminds to face U.S. justice if the Uribe government wants to prove critics of the legislation wrong -- the extradition of 320 convicted Colombian drug dealers to the U.S. suggests that the double-jeopardy concerns about this law are surmountable.

It is appropriate for Congress and human rights groups to express their concerns to the Uribe government, but it would be a calamitous mistake for anyone in Washington to advocate an end to U.S. support. It would be an especially disingenuous position for American groups that have long argued that Colombia's conflict cannot be won solely by military means.

Colombia's democratic process has produced an innovative legal process to encourage an end to conflict, and the United States should support it and remain engaged as an advocate for both peace and justice in this strategically important Andean country.

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