Human rights laws in the way? Use Colombian trainers

Latin America and the Caribbean

WOLA staff and colleagues have written on a few occasions about the U.S. government’s increasing employment of Colombian police and soldiers to train other countries’ security forces, especially in Latin America. Each time, we express concern that, if Colombians are doing the training, human rights protections in U.S. foreign aid law–that is, limits that keep us from aiding the most abusive, unaccountable security forces–will be weakened.

U.S. officials, in the State and Defense departments, as well as congressional staff, have assured us that this will not happen. Nothing about the use of Colombian trainers, they say, will violate the Leahy Law (which prohibits aiding military units credibly alleged to violate rights with impunity). Colombian trainers, they say, will not provide aid otherwise halted by laws holding up aid to Mexico, Guatemala, or Honduras pending action to investigate and punish past abuses.

Last week, though, a top official threw those assurances into serious doubt.

Gen. John Kelly commands U.S. Southern Command, which manages U.S. military activities in most of Latin America. On April 29, he told a House hearing that Colombia is providing him a great service by training personnel that he’s “restricted from working with” because of U.S. human rights laws.

Video is above, the transcript follows.

    "We’re not focusing in the same way on countries that are, today, very close to going over the edge, where Colombia was in the 90s. They’re just a few inches away from falling off the cliff. Yet we’re restricted from working with them, for past – ‘sins,’ in the 80s.

    "The beauty of having a Colombia – they’re such good partners, particularly in the military realm, they’re such good partners with us. When we ask them to go somewhere else and train the Mexicans, the Hondurans, the Guatemalans, the Panamanians, they will do it almost without asking. And they’ll do it on their own. They’re so appreciative of what we did for them. And what we did for them was, really, to encourage them for 20 years and they’ve done such a magnificent job.

    “But that’s why it’s important for them to go, because I’m–at least on the military side–restricted from working with some of these countries because of limitations that are, that are really based on past sins. And I’ll let it go at that.”

This raises three urgent points.

  1. 1. Gen. Kelly said pretty clearly here that he views Colombian trainers as a way to get around U.S. human rights law. If the Colombian trainers are getting U.S. funds to train “banned” units and individuals, it is probably illegal. If the Colombian trainers are using their own funds at Gen. Kelly’s strong suggestion, then the legality is disputable. Either way, this statement demands investigation.

  2. 2. Gen. Kelly’s comment about “past sins” refers to massive abuses carried out in Central America’s 1980s civil wars, though human rights defenders can name several “recent sins” in each country. In Guatemala, whose army still cannot receive funds from the U.S. foreign aid budget (some comes from the Defense budget), the military massacred tens of thousands in just a few years. Nearly all of these killings have gone uninvestigated and unpunished. Last year, when a judge dared to find an ex-dictator guilty of genocide for what happened during that period, her sentence was immediately overturned, she was banned from practicing law for a year, and the attorney-general who allowed the prosecution to go forward had her term cut short. Because they remain beyond accountability, these “sins” are still very present.

  3. 3. It remains very difficult to get information about the Colombian security forces’ training of third countries, even when it is U.S.-funded. Gen. Kelly’s comments underscore the need to make available the amounts the United States has given Colombia for third-country training, the number of trainees from each country, the courses taught, and the identities of the units giving and receiving the training.