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Clinton OKs Colombia aid package despite country's human rights abuses
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- U.S. President Bill Clinton has set the stage for the release of a $1.3 billion aid package for Colombia's anti-drug efforts -- certifying that the war-torn nation has met minimum human rights requirements and waiving conditions it has yet to meet, said an administration official.
Human rights groups say Colombia's human rights record does not merit a waiver. But the Clinton administration believes that stance is undercut by Colombia's need to gain the upper hand in its drug war.
"There clearly is an urgency in providing assistance to Colombia," said the administration official, who asked not to be named. "This gets the money going so that Colombia can deal with its counter-drug effort."
The official noted that Congress had only recently mandated human rights requirements, so it was not surprising that Colombia had not yet demonstrated complete compliance with those criteria.
"We fully expect before the next certification period that Colombia will be able to demonstrate further compliance," he said.
Civilian courts to try military abuses
The official said that Clinton on Tuesday night waived five of the human rights requirements and certified two conditions, including one that was met when Colombia President Andres Pastrana recently issued a directive that any military personnel accused of human rights abuses would be tried in a civilian court.
The official said the current aid package includes "a great deal of support" for human rights programs in Colombia and for additional security for human rights workers.
Another official told CNN on Tuesday that the administration was eager to begin spending a first allotment of the funding before the fiscal year ends on September 30.
Legislation requiring the administration to certify that Colombia has met certain human rights reforms was passed by Congress earlier this summer, when it approved the aid package.
U.S. Secretary of State Madeleine Albright recommended to Clinton on Friday that he waive six of the seven requirements, a senior official told CNN. The official said most of the requirements could not have been met "under any circumstances," leading Albright to ask simply for a written promise from President Pastrana to try any military personnel suspected of violating human rights.
The official said Colombian law lacked the authority to carry out such investigations and prosecutions in full. "There have to be changes in the law which will accommodate that," he said.
Human rights groups criticize waivers
Human rights groups have criticized the waiver as unearned and say they fear a "sea change" in human rights in the South American country.
"A waiver speaks to the lack of political will on the part of the U.S. with regard to human rights," said Carlos Salinas, acting director of government relations for Amnesty International.
Salinas insisted that Colombian law does provide for the conditions to be met. "I can't see how the U.S. can possibly certify Colombia on human rights grounds or any other grounds."
He said he believes the requirements are reasonable and could have become "a powerful tool which could radically alter the landscape in Colombia."
The waiver allows the Clinton administration to spend some of the $1.3 billion aid package approved by Congress last month to help Colombia's battle against illegal drugs, before the September 30 cutoff.
Colombia would have been obligated to total elimination of all coca and opium production by the year 2005, a feat that another senior State Department official said would be a "real tough one to meet -- ever."
'Hundreds' of soldiers suspected
The congressional mandates also would have required Colombia to suspend and prosecute soldiers caught violating human rights. A State Department official said there are "hundreds" of soldiers suspected of such violations.
Earlier this month, a senior State Department official noted a "fairly strong expectation" the conditions would be waived, in order to proceed with spending some of the money authorized.
But, he added, the activists, including over 80 Colombian-based human rights groups, "made very clear" they were "very much opposed" to the aid package, on the basis that the current conflict in Colombia is a "military-heavy counterinsurgency which will lead to thousands of displaced Colombians and cause the death of hundreds of innocent civilians."
"It is a difficult line to draw," he said of the potential for casualties. "But the paramilitaries, rebels in the area, have become targets because they are involved in drugs."
A U.S. delegation met with Colombian leaders earlier this month to discuss the aid package, under which the United States would dispatch 90 Army helicopters to Colombia's armed forces. U.S. military authorities would train their Colombian counterparts to use the aircraft to eradicate drug crops and combat Marxist rebels, who control roughly 40 percent of the country and have ties to Colombian drug traffickers.
The creation of a human rights monitoring system is also expected to be a first priority.
Colombia military chief expects war with drug traffickers
Drug Enforcement Administration
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