The Bush administration certified Tuesday that the human rights performance of the Colombian military is good enough to merit the release of more than $31 million in U.S. military aid. The conclusion came under immediate criticism from human rights groups.
The determination was made by Secretary of State Colin Powell, who told Congress the Colombian military is meeting the criteria set by U.S. legislators on respecting human rights and severing ties with the country's paramilitary groups, blamed over the years for severe rights violations.
The action by Mr. Powell releases to Colombia more than $31 million in U.S. military aid - about one-eighth of this year's total military aid package of over $250 million.
A final $31 million installment of the program remains undelivered and will require an additional certification by Mr. Powell, before the current fiscal year ends September 30.
Congress has made some aid deliveries to Colombia dependent on several human rights conditions.
These include the suspension and prosecution of members of the Colombian military found to have been involved in, or to have abetted, human rights violations, and the severing of ties between Colombian military and police units with paramilitary groups listed by the United States as terrorist organizations.
A State Department spokesman said the U.S. review found "notable progress" by the Colombian military in meeting the terms, though he said more needs to be done to improve its human rights performance, including ending collaboration with the paramilitaries.
The decision to certify drew immediate criticism from human rights monitoring groups including Amnesty International and Human Rights Watch.
Jose Miguel Vivanco, head of the Americas division of Human Rights Watch told VOA that while the general human rights situation in Colombia has shown some improvement, the Colombian military continues to cooperate on at least local levels with the far-right paramilitary groups, who are seen as allies in the long-running conflict with leftwing insurgents.
"Indeed there have been less cases of massacres, as well as attacks against union leaders in Colombia," she said. "However the military aid to Colombia is specifically conditioned to some human rights benchmarks, for instance effective arrests of leaders of paramilitary organizations, or senior members of the armed forces for a poor human rights record, or connection or complicity with paramilitary groups. On those grounds, in terms of the relationship between the military and paramilitary groups, unfortunately we have not seen any serious progress in the last seven months in Colombia."
A spokesman for Amnesty International USA called the certification "shameful," given what he said were some 4,000 political killings in Colombia last year and the displacement of hundreds of thousands of people due to civil warfare
A senior State Department official who briefed reporters here said Colombian President Alvaro Uribe and his government have made "significant progress" in its parallel struggle against armed groups and drug traffickers since Mr. Uribe took office nearly a year ago.
He said several dozen people belonging to or associated with Colombia's security forces have been suspended, dismissed or are facing trial in human rights cases over the past year, and that President Uribe suspended a senior general only a month ago.
Colombia has received about one billion dollars in overall U.S. aid in each of the last three years, most of it earmarked for anti-narcotics programs. It ranks as the third largest U.S. aid recipient, after Israel and Egypt.