Report: Military Assistance and Human Rights: Colombia, U.S. Accountability, and Global Implications

Sep 22, 2010 | Human Rights, Impunity and Justice, News, US Drug Wars and Military Aid

U.S. military aid flowing to Colombia is having a direct, negative effect on the human rights of Colombians. Though the “Leahy Law” prohibits aid to military units that have committed gross violations, the United States continues to support such units in Colombia. Worse, areas where Colombian army units received the largest increases in U.S.assistance reported increased extrajudicial killings on average.

You can read the executive summary below, browse our recommendations, or download the full report (PDF, 1.4 MB).

Executive Summary

The scale of U.S. training and equipping of other nations’ militaries has grown exponentially since 2001, but there are major concerns about the extent to which the U.S.government is implementing the laws and monitoring the impact its military aid is having on human rights. This report by the Fellowship of Reconciliation (FOR) and U.S. Office on Colombia examines these issues through a detailed case study of U.S. military aid, human rights abuses, and implementation of human rights law in Colombia.

28U.S. Military Assistance to the Colombian ArmyThe experience of US military funding to Colombia shows alarming links between Colombian military units that receiveU.S. assistance and civilian killings committed by the army. To prevent similar errors in Afghanistan and Pakistan, relevant Congressional committees and the State Department Office of the Inspector General must thoroughly study the Colombia case and implementation of U.S. law designed to keep security assistance from going to security force units committing gross human rights violations.

While researching this report over a period of two years, we drew on a rich set of data about more than 3,000 extrajudicial executions reportedly committed by the armed forces in Colombia since 2002 and on lists of more than 500 military units assisted by the United States since 2000. (Download lists of units: 2000-2007 and 2008-2009.) FOR found that U.S. officials neglected their duties under the Leahy law, and that many Colombian military units committed even more extrajudicial killings during and after the highest levels of U.S. assistance to those units. Whatever correlation may exist between assistance and reported killings, there are clearly other factors contributing to high levels of killings. Yet, while we could not fix the causes of increased reports of killings after increases in U.S. assistance, our findings highlight the need for a thorough investigation into the reasons for this apparent correlation.

20U.S. Aid and Subsequent Abuses in Colombia (2000-2006)A number of U.S. laws are designed to protect against the use of U.S. foreign aid to commit human rights abuses. A principal one is the Leahy Amendment, which prohibits assistance to any foreign security force unit if the State Department has credible evidence that the unit has committed gross human rights violations. The country where application of the Leahy law has been the most rigorous ”” according to the State Department ”” is Colombia. Yet our analysis strongly suggests that implementation of Leahy Law in Colombia requires suspension of assistance to nearly all Army fixed brigades and many mobile brigades. Most military training in Colombia is funded by the Defense Department.

How should embassy personnel determine whether units should receive assistance where there are high numbers of reported violations for which the responsible unit has not been identified? The data shows that the brigade jurisdiction where a reported violation occurred is a reliable indicator of what unit committed it. Moreover, in Colombia, extrajudicial killings reportedly occurred in nearly all Army brigade jurisdictions, which puts in doubt the legality of assisting any such brigade.

22U.S. Aid and Extrajudicial Executions in ColombiaThe Leahy Law includes an exception on the prohibition of assistance if “effective measures” (or “necessary steps” forDOD-funded training) are being taken to bring those responsible for a violation to justice. Yet the State Department’s documentation illustrates that only 1.5% of the reported extrajudicial executions have resulted in conviction.

As the data in this report indicate, after November 2008, the number of reported killings of civilians by the Colombian armed forces dropped precipitously, apparently due to an institutional decision to address the practice. The decrease in killings attributed to the armed forces has been accompanied by a steep climb in the number of reported killings by paramilitary successor groups. The implications of reduced reports of civilian killings for continued U.S. assistance under the Leahy Law, however, are minimal, since the law requires not simply an end to the killing, but “effective measures” to bring those responsible to justice before new or continued assistance to the armed forces is lawful.

24U.S. Aid and Subsequent Abuses in Colombia (2005-2008)If U.S. assistance were having a positive effect on the human rights conduct of assisted units, we would expect to see low numbers of reported extrajudicial killings by the army in those areas where aid to the army is concentrated. In order to isolate the relationship between assistance and subsequent executions from other potential factors, we identified the brigade jurisdiction/years when units in the jurisdiction received the largest increases in U.S. assistance. We found that reported extrajudicial killings increased on average in areas after the United States increased assistance to units in those areas. For the 16 largest increases of aid from one year to the next to army units operating in a specific jurisdiction, the number of reported executions in the jurisdiction increased an average of 56% from the two-year period prior to the increase to the two-year period during and after the increased assistance. In other words, when there were significant increases in assistance to units, there were increases in reported killings in the periods following the assistance in the assisted units’ areas of operation.

26Human Rights Vetting of the Colombian ArmyOn the other hand, in years after levels of assistance were most reduced for units operating in a jurisdiction, the number of executions reportedly committed by units operating in the jurisdiction fell, also by an average of 56%. Overall, regions with the biggest increases in military aid generally experience a greater increase or a smaller decrease in the number of extrajudicial executions than do regions with the biggest decreases in military aid. Those jurisdictions where the number of reported killings was the highest after receiving increased assistance all had reported multiple army killings of civilians in the period before the increase. This suggests that a problem that was ignored in deciding to increase assistance to a unit tended to become worse afterward.

There are significant gaps in our knowledge to help us understand and interpret the causes for what we found. Nevertheless, we believe it is important to consider potential explanations and interpretations of our findings, and our report makes preliminary reflections on several hypotheses. We also considered possible explanations for why the Leahy Amendment has been inadequately implemented in Colombia, including insufficient staffing and prioritization, lack of information on reported violations, and differing interpretations of “credible evidence.” Profiles of fourteen brigades and battalions and two Army commanders give more detail to the analysis.

We also reviewed the multi-billion-dollar U.S. military assistance program and human rights violations in Pakistan. It is unclear whether the Frontier Corps and other Pakistani military units trained and equipped by the United States are participating in the country’s extensive human rights violations. However, where there is credible evidence of gross abuses committed by an assisted institution, the Leahy Law requires suspension of aid to the “smallest operational group in the field that has been implicated in the reported violation.” The Frontier Corps is credibly implicated in serious violations. If the State Department cannot determine a smaller unit responsible for these violations, then the Leahy Law requires suspension of assistance to the Frontier Corps itself.

Furthermore, DOD-funded assistance and reimbursements should not be exempt from the Leahy Law human rights vetting requirement. The use of funds to reimburse a foreign government for specific military operations, effectively making that military a proxy for U.S. policy, does not remove the goals of the Leahy Law: to prevent U.S. funds from being used to support militaries committing gross abuses of human rights.

30U.S. Aid to and Extrajudicial Executions by Colombian PoliceIn Colombia, U.S. military assistance continues at a high level. If Colombia represents the most rigorous application of the Leahy Law, what can be expected elsewhere? Moreover, the U.S. record in Colombia is seen as a model for policy in Afghanistan and other countries. Any evaluation of military assistance should not be limited to whether it complies with Leahy Law, since suspension of aid to specific units under Leahy Law does not alter or reduce the overall amount of military assistance. Consideration of military assistance should address the broader context of U.S. human rights goals and obligations.

Because such a large proportion of training and other assistance to Colombia comes under DOD authority, it is especially important that such assistance be transparent, considered by Congress as part of the appropriations cycle, and regularly evaluated for its human rights impacts. We also recommend further study of several phenomena in Colombia that we were not able to examine, including collaboration between paramilitary forces and officers and members of the armed forces, and the relationship between forced displacement, reported extrajudicial killings, and units that received U.S. assistance. Finally, apart from Leahy Law implementation, the increase in reported civilian killings by Army units after they received U.S. assistance raises serious ethical questions about such assistance in Colombia and in other nations where similar conditions of widespread impunity and warfare pertain.


TAKE ACTION: Help implement these recommendations by sending a free fax to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton today!

  1. Congress should require the State Department to document the human rights records of units receiving U.S.assistance, and evaluate the human rights impacts of such assistance. The results should be unclassified and posted to the Department’s web site.
  2. The Department of State must fully implement Leahy Law in Colombia. At a minimum, this requires suspending assistance to brigades for which there is credible evidence of extrajudicial executions committed by its members, until and unless those killings are fully investigated and the civilian justice system reaches a judgment. Such evidence exists for all army divisions and nearly all brigades.
  3. Relevant Congressional committees, the National Security Council and the State Department Inspector General should give increased scrutiny of U.S. military assistance in nations where conditions similar to Colombia’s prevail (high levels of security force abuses, high levels of impunity, high or institutional levels of U.S.assistance), including Colombia, until policy-makers provide Congress with a credible explanation for negative human rights impacts and vetting failures in Colombia, and demonstrate concrete changes to ensure these impacts and failures are not replicated.
  4. Because the failure to apply the Leahy Law has led to United States to assist brigades that have committed large numbers of extrajudicial executions, the United States has the responsibility to do everything possible to ensure justice for these cases. U.S. aid to Colombian judicial and oversight agencies should be tied to concrete results in reducing impunity.