A web presentation from the Washington Office on Latin America

WOLA logo 15th Anniversary of Plan Colombia: Learning from its Successes and Failures

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Human Rights Conditions

From Plan Colombia’s inception, NGOs and many members of the U.S. Congress voiced concerns about the Colombian military’s human rights record. In order to minimize the possibility that U.S aid might contribute, even indirectly, to abuses, Congress placed conditions on U.S. military aid.

The first, a permanent global restriction called the Leahy Law (for Vermont Senator Patrick Leahy (D)), prohibits assistance to any security-force unit or individual credibly accused to have committed a serious human rights abuse with impunity. The second, attached to each appropriations bill, freezes a portion of U.S. military aid until the State Department can certify that Colombia is meeting several criteria, which have evolved over the years. The most consistent of these criteria has been that Colombia’s military is holding accountable, in civilian courts, personnel accused of serious rights abuses.

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Graphic shows text of human rights conditions and suggests correlation between these and improved accountability for violations

Every year, the State Department has issued a certification that Colombia is meeting these criteria, thus freeing up aid. (See most certification documents here and here.) But this was not always a “rubber stamp” process. Especially after human rights scandals like “false positives” broke, congressional pressure delayed State Department certifications, holding up tens of millions of dollars in military assistance, and thus strongly encouraging Colombia to allow its judicial processes to go forward.

The resulting leverage for Colombia’s civilian justice system (which also got U.S. assistance) helped guarantee landmark verdicts in cases like the Mapiripán, Santo Domingo, and “Operation Genesis” massacres, and many individual “false positives” crimes. Many—likely the majority—of active and retired officers with command responsibility for abuses remain free today. Nonetheless, Colombia’s justice system has convicted more senior officers for human rights crimes than have Mexico, Guatemala, Brazil, or Chile.

The struggle for accountability continues. Colombian military officers routinely insist that “false positives” and similar allegations are part of a “judicial warfare” plot to tie their hands on the battlefield. Civilian courts’ jurisdiction over human rights cases continues to be challenged, including through high-profile attempts to change Colombia’s constitution. As a source of leverage for civilian human rights investigators and prosecutors, the human rights conditions attached to U.S. aid continue to be a vital tool.

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