The Miami Herald
Fri, Sept. 11, 2009

US certifies Colombia's rights record

Associated Press Writer

The United States said Friday it has made a legal certification of an improvement in Colombia's human rights record that allows $32 million that Washington had withheld to be used to fight gangs and drug smugglers.

State Department spokesman Ian Kelly said Colombia must still make progress on human rights, and he described in a statement "several disquieting challenges," including allegations of soldiers murdering civilians and illegal surveillance.

But, he said, the country has "made significant efforts to increase the security of its people" that justify the certification to Congress that Colombia is meeting legal criteria on human rights and paramilitary groups and that the funds can be made available.

Colombian officials insist they are trying to stamp out human rights abuses, but critics say abuses remain widespread in the country, where the government has been battling a leftist insurgency for years.

The International Trade Union Confederation says Colombia is the deadliest country for labor rights activists, with 49 killed in the South American nation last year, up from 39 in 2007 but down from 78 in 2006.

A U.N. human rights investigator reported separately in June that soldiers had killed hundreds of innocent civilians, falsely identifying them as guerrillas slain in combat to boost body counts. Officials have vowed to eliminate that practice and punish those responsible.

"There is no question that improvement must be made in certain areas," Kelly said. "Revelations of extrajudicial killings are evidence that the Armed Forces' far reaching reforms have not fully taken hold."

Under the State Foreign Operations Appropriations Act, the U.S. government will provide about $545 million to Colombia this fiscal year, the State Department said.

Maria McFarland, senior Americas researcher at Human Rights Watch, said the decision was disappointing and that Colombia's government has only responded to abuse allegations after intense pressure.

The certification comes as the United States tries to reassure Latin America that a proposal to give U.S. forces greater access to Colombian military facilities will not create permanent U.S. bases.

Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez has called the plan a serious threat to the region.