WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
21 May 2012 | Commentary | News

House Bill Proposes Military “Training Laundering” Through Colombia

The House Appropriations Committee wants to give Colombia’s security forces US$18.6 million next year to train soldiers and police from third countries. That recommendation comes from non-binding language [PDF] accompanying the 2013 foreign aid bill, approved last Thursday by the House Appropriations Committee.

[T]he Committee recommends US$18,600,000 to support the efforts of the Government of Colombia to provide training and technical assistance to partners in the region and around the world.

This is a very poor idea for several reasons.

1. This is a lot of money. The foreign aid bill’s largest worldwide military training program is called International Military Education and Training (IMET). The Obama administration plans to spend US$14.4 million on IMET training for the entire Western Hemisphere next year. Why should Colombia get US$4.2 million more than that for its own, parallel IMET program in the region?

2. If Colombia has this much excess military capacity, why does it need so much aid? Colombia is by far the largest U.S. military and police aid recipient in the Americas, with aid expected to exceed US$260 million next year. Are Colombia’s conflict, security and drug-trafficking problems really so resolved that its security forces now have enough idle man-hours to devote to training third countries? (The same can certainly not be said for Colombia’s beleaguered justice system and social service network.) If so, this severely calls into question the need for continued large aid packages to Colombia.

3. Channeling funding through Colombia offers a way to evade human rights protections in U.S. foreign aid law. Nothing in U.S. aid law would stop Colombia from using this funding to train foreign military units that, due to their human rights records, are ineligible for U.S. aid.

  • This could include entire forces currently facing prohibitions on aid, like Guatemala’s army.
  • It could also include notorious units of foreign militaries that are not cleared to receive assistance under the Leahy Law human rights restrictions.
  • The vague allusion to “partners” could allow Colombia to train third-country non-military forces — police, paramilitary or intelligence services, for instance — normally subject to U.S. foreign aid prohibitions.

By “laundering” the training through Colombia, this US$18.6 million could support activities that U.S. forces may not directly carry out under current U.S. law.

4. Channeling funding through Colombia offers a way to evade transparency requirements in U.S. foreign aid law. With Colombia carrying out the training, U.S. citizens will have no legal recourse to learn what countries’ military personnel were trained with U.S. funds, what units they belonged to, how many they were, what lethal and non-lethal skills they learned, and what the training curricula looked like. It will be up to the Colombians whether they want to share this information. Extreme opacity will be the likely result.

5. The United States pays for the training, but does not control the curriculum. Accountability concerns make it troubling enough to see private corporations contracted to provide military training overseas. But in this case, the U.S. “contractor” is a foreign security force that continues to face numerous grave human rights and corruption allegations. If Colombia wishes to train third countries with its own funds, it is welcome to do so. But if U.S. funding is involved, it is an abdication of responsibility to leave training courses’ design and execution up to Colombia.