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US: Colombia Has Made 'Real Progress' on Human Rights - 2002-05-01

The Bush administration has certified that Colombia's military is complying with human rights requirements set by the U.S. Congress, and it is freeing more than $60 million in military aid to that country. A further certification will be required for the release of more aid later this year.

The decision by Secretary of State Colin Powell to certify compliance with the Congressional mandate capped a lengthy U.S. study of the Colombian military's human rights performance.

Announcing the move, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said there had been "real progress" by the Colombian armed forces, though the decision was not a blanket endorsement of either the military's or the government's human rights performance.

He said while the "vast majority" of rights abuses in the country are committed by leftwing rebels and far-right paramilitary groups, he said both U.S. and Colombian officials recognize that the Bogota government can do more to address problem areas.

"The government of Colombia has also assured us of its understanding that the protection of human rights is a special responsibility of government and they believe, as we do, that a secure, prosperous and democratic Colombia cannot be achieved if human rights abuses and impunity for human rights abusers is allowed," he said. "So there will be more work to be done in these areas, although we were able to certify at this point, based on the specific criteria."

In approving U.S. military aid to Colombia for the current fiscal year, Congress made disbursement of the money conditional on the Colombian military taking action against personnel credibly suspected of human rights abuses, or of colluding with the paramilitaries.

A senior State Department official who briefed reporters here said the Colombian armed forces had among other things, suspended 19 members, including several officers, accused in recent months by civilian authorities of rights violations.

He also said highest-ranking officer of the Colombian marines had been restricted to administrative duties because of what he termed his "poor reputation" with regard to human rights.

Wednesday's decision frees up only 60 percent of the $104 million approved by Congress for the Colombian military in December.

A second certification will be required later this year to release the remainder of the funds as a way to insure the official said that the military's efforts to punish rights violators and cut ties to the paramilitaries are progressive and ongoing.

The United States has provided Colombia with more than a billion dollars in aid over the past two years. The funds are for use against narco-traffickers.

The Bush administration has asked Congress for authority to also allow the Colombian military to use U.S. military aid and equipment in the fight against the leftwing insurgent groups FARC and ELN, and against the paramilitary umbrella group, the AUC.

All three groups are officially listed by the State Department as foreign terrorist organizations.