WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
14 Nov 2014 | Commentary | News

This Report on Colombia’s Lessons Has a Lot of Problems

A U.S. military school’s report draws dangerous conclusions from inaccurate facts

Read a PDF of the article critiqued here, with more than 90 annotations in its margins from WOLA Senior Associate Adam Isacson.

“The conditioning of aid on human rights records undermined the Colombian security forces during the perilous years of 1996 to 1998, contributing to a succession of major defeats that put the country’s survival in jeopardy.”

That statement just isn’t true. It wasn’t until 1997 that Congress passed the “Leahy Law” prohibiting U.S. aid to military units with bad, unpunished human rights records, and there was very little such aid to hold up at the time. Human rights conditions on aid to Colombia didn’t appear until 2000, and these were waived at first.

You won’t know that, though, if you read this July report published by the Special Operations Command’s Joint Special Operations University. In Persistent Engagement in Colombia, authors Mark Moyar, Hector Pagan, and Wil R. Griego take aim at human rights defenders, and go on to propose some radical lessons from the past 20 years’ experience of U.S. military assistance to Colombia.

Among the report’s claims:

  • Human rights conditions applied to U.S. aid in the 1990s angered the Colombian military and hindered the effort to secure the country.
  • Guerrillas often planted false accusations of military human rights abuse, which biased NGOs went on to promote.
  • Colombian President Álvaro Uribe, a champion of human rights, fought to hold accountable any military personnel who committed abuses.
  • The Clinton administration allowed Colombia’s insurgency to strengthen because it viewed counter-insurgency as a civilian police mission.
  • The FARC was the largest threat and violator of human rights, while “some of the paramilitary organizations were indeed virtuous self-defense organizations.”

None of this holds up. A bit of scrutiny reveals these conclusions to be based on inaccurate facts, fictional straw men, and misremembered, often chronologically conflated events.

Persistent Engagement in Colombia came out in July. It seems to be rippling through Latin America policy circles. Colleagues inside and outside of government have been asking WOLA staff about it. The Heritage Foundation recently cited it to argue that aid for Central America’s security forces must go without human rights conditions.

Rebutting it proved to be a big job. By the time WOLA Senior Associate Adam Isacson—who has followed Colombia policy since the 1990s—got through the entire report, he had added 92 annotations to the PDF file. (Here is the annotated version.) Of these notes in the margins, many point out inaccuracies, with links to the correct answers. Others add context, or point out information that is missing.

Read that PDF for the full story. But here are some items that Persistent Engagement gets wrong.

1. Almost no U.S. aid was conditioned for human rights reasons in the 1990s. This is a central argument of the piece, but it is incorrect. Instead, aid in 1996–98 was held up by a State Department counter-narcotics “de-certification,” triggered by allegations that the country’s president had received drug cartel funds for his campaign. As troubled as Colombia’s record was at the time, almost no aid was held up for human rights reasons. It is wrong to blame the Colombian military’s humiliating late–1990s defeats on human rights conditions that either didn’t exist or were barely applied. By contrast, aid was conditioned during the post–2000 period that the article portrays as one of battlefield successes. During that period, the conditions rarely held up aid for long, but they did give leverage to reformers, both inside the armed forces and in Colombia’s justice system, who wanted to improve accountability for lawless behavior.

2. The 2002–2008 “false positives” scandal, in which military personnel allegedly killed at least 3,000 civilians outside of combat, gets almost no mention. It appears only in a paragraph portraying then-Colombian President Álvaro Uribe as acting proactively to snuff it out, having “ordered numerous investigations into suspicious fatalities.” This is far from what actually happened. In fact, Uribe insisted—even after the scandal broke—that the killings were fabrications. Instead of acknowledging the “false positives” and the troubled institutional culture that nurtured them, the JSOU report claims, without evidence, that “human rights violations, real and reported, fell sharply in the early 2000s”—the very years when the scandal worsened.

3. The U.S. government did not avoid supporting Colombia’s counter-insurgency in the 1990s because of “American aversion to military involvement in domestic affairs.” Policymakers did so because they knew the mission would be expensive and entangling, and because they doubted Colombian elites’ and armed forces’ capacities and commitment. They were right about the cost: U.S. support for Colombia’s counter-insurgency fight, which began after the September 11, 2001 attacks changed the political and budgetary climate, did end up costing many billions of dollars. Aid to Colombia since 2000 totals US$9 billion, plus likely a few billion more for CIA support of a “high-value target” strategy to kill guerrilla leaders. This sum would have been unthinkable in the 1990s.

4. The report alleges in several places, with no evidence or examples, that allegations of military human rights abuse were often false, and often originated with guerrillas or guerrilla-sympathizing NGOs. Yet the report also acknowledges the truth of one of the Colombian human-rights NGOs’ main allegations: “the Colombian military clearly did provide support for the paramilitaries.” It goes on to observe that the Colombian government was “highly reluctant to turn against paramilitary forces, given that it shared political objectives with the paramilitaries.” This, despite the undisputed fact that the paramilitaries were committing the lion’s share of massacres and extrajudicial killings at the time (and probably forced displacements, while the guerrillas dominated categories like kidnapping, indiscriminate bombings, child recruitment, and antipersonnel mine use).

It is a mistake to repeat, without evidence, the view that human rights NGOs’ allegations are part of a guerrilla plot, even though Colombian and international tribunals routinely issue guilty verdicts when given a chance to rule on them. This is a view associated with the most hard-line, retrograde factions of Colombia’s military and its political right wing.

One of the report’s main recommendations from the Colombia experience is that the United States “maintain a persistent Special Operations Forces presence in countries of strategic importance because effective capacity building requires decades of training, education, and support.” Taken to its logical conclusion, this would mean a long-term, semi-permanent presence of U.S. military Special Operators in dozens of countries worldwide. Military-to-military relations could come to be more robust than diplomatic relations in many parts of the world. This raises urgent questions about costs and resources, civilian control of U.S. diplomacy, and the face that the United States wishes to show to the world.

5. “The political situation is still sufficiently fragile,” the report warns, “that the FARC and other far-left groups could win electoral victories in the future.” It cites this among reasons why “it would be mistaken to conclude that the successes achieved to date warrant the discontinuation of U.S. assistance.” Why would the outcome of a free and fair election be a justification for U.S. military assistance? This is a politicized recommendation.

It is troubling that an educational institution of the United States’ secretive, growing, and influential Special Operations Forces published this report without fuller fact-checking. Though largely a discussion of strategy, its political agenda is evident. It resembles that of hard-right Colombian politicians and military factions, who appear to have strongly influenced the report’s authors.

Anyone who reads this report must do so with immediate access to a broader array of facts before drawing conclusions—facts that often contradict what the authors are arguing. For that reason, we offer this annotated PDF full of observations and links to other data and analyses.

As a closer look at these facts and contexts makes plain, Colombia’s conflict, politics, and human rights situation are intricately complicated. Institutions are not monolithic. Local dynamics often matter more than national policies. Interpretations of the same event or trend vary widely. The country has made important progress on security, but the complexity bedevils efforts to draw clean lessons that the U.S. government can apply to other crises around the world.

Colombia is not unique in this way. The world itself is similarly complicated. As elite, educated personnel trained for dealing with ambiguous situations, U.S. Special Operations Forces—represented here by their University—are supposed to know this. They are meant to understand and work creatively within that complexity. This report fails to do that.