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Human Rights Watch's Robin Kirk on abuses in Colombia
(CNN) – Three leading human rights organizations urged President Bill Clinton to insist on the protection of human rights in his meetings with Colombian leaders on August 30. They have called for a withholding of U.S. aid until Colombia's President Andres Pastrana takes action to curb the paramilitary militias reported to be responsible for 17 deaths in two separate massacres August 27.
Robin Kirk is a Colombia researcher in the Americas division of Human Rights Watch. Last week, the organization said that President Clinton's decision to waive human rights conditions on the $1.3 billion military aid package to Colombia would encourage violent abuses.
Chat Moderator: Thank you for joining us today, Robin Kirk, and welcome.
Robin Kirk: Thank you for the opportunity to discuss a very important issue.
Chat Moderator: Why is the situation in Colombia described as a crisis?
Robin Kirk: I don't really agree with the word crisis. Things have been bad for a long time. Only now is the United States really paying attention. However, it is true that the situation now appears especially grim. There is fighting throughout Colombia and a broad range of abuses committed by all of the fighters -- guerrillas, paramilitary and state forces.
Question from JrTyD: Robin, how much of the current abuses of human rights are related to the drug trafficking?
Robin Kirk: Human rights abuses are related to trafficking because much of the money Americans and Europeans spend on cocaine and heroin goes into the pockets of the rival armies. Guerrillas tax drugs, as do the paramilitary forces. Much of this money comes direct from the USA.
Question from Fungus: I have heard that Colombia is misusing our aid, using the military aid to fight political opposition and not the drug dealers. Comment?
Robin Kirk: I'm not sure that misuse is the right term. There is no legal restriction on U.S. aid. In other words, the Colombian military earmarked to receive this aid can use it in a variety of ways, including against Marxist guerrillas.
There is the idea that the aid is for counter-drug purposes only but, in fact, they can use it for whatever they want as long as it remains within the broad framework of "combating drugs." That is why U.S. policymakers use the term "narcoguerrilla" so much -- it is essential to broaden the scope of the war.
Question from Cartagena: Who supports these armies?
Robin Kirk: The armies are supporting themselves. What they do is tax the drug trade, thus profiting from America's consumer habits. Paramilitaries also tax the trade, thereby collecting the funds they need to wage war.
Question from JrTyD: Robin, where is the line between "human rights abuse" and "war"?
Robin Kirk: There are essentially two bodies of law that are of concern in conflicts like Colombia's: human rights and international humanitarian law, also known as the laws of war. They agree to some extent: It is wrong to kill civilians; it is wrong to torture, etc.
Where they disagree is on the act of killing. Human rights principles are against killing under any circumstance, at least according to the current interpretation of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. The laws of war allow killing as long as the victim is a combatant and has not surrendered or been taken prisoner and executed without trial.
Question from Moose: Robin, how safe is it for Americans to travel in Columbia these days? What advice can you offer travelers?
Robin Kirk: It is not safe for any Americans to travel in Colombia without taking serious precautions. Many -- both guerrillas and professional kidnappers -- see Americans as cash cows or good leverage for ransoms. There is also a lot of street crime.
Question from Fungus: Aren't the "Marxist" guerrillas actually Indian tribes fighting for equal rights with the majority?
Robin Kirk: The Marxist guerrillas are mainly Mestizos, with a very small number of indigenous -- read Native American -- membership. Most of the guerrilla leadership is Mestizo or white intellectual.
Question from Tom3: What's to stop Colombia from being another Vietnam for the U.S.?
Robin Kirk: Nothing.
Chat Moderator: What is the general attitude of Colombians toward the United States?
Robin Kirk: Most Colombians admire parts of the U.S., but remain deeply suspicious of imperialist trends. I think they desperately want help but also desperately want peace, which means they have a serious problem. The U.S. aid is not going to bring peace, but threatens much more war.
Question from Jco: Tell us a little about what you think are the roots of the problem in Columbia.
Robin Kirk: I think the roots are complex and deep but, for the sake of this chat, I think it is safe to say that Colombia's political system has been closed for too long, preventing a changing and growing nation from being able to adequately and convincingly listen to its populace. Frustrations have in part led to armed actions.
Also, the money at stake is tremendous! Not just drug money, by the way, but also money from oil, coffee, etc. Colombia is rich, but not many get a piece of the pie.
Question from JrTyD: Robin, the U.S. has a hideous record in Central America. Is the mess in Columbia partly our fault? How can we, as a nation, help?
Robin Kirk: The mess in Colombia would be there without us, but we have contributed the money to make the war much more lethal. Unlike Kosovo, we didn't provide the money for the bullets and guns and uniforms. In Colombia, we do this through the purchase of cocaine and heroin. Now we are giving Colombia even more money, this time through our taxes and aid to the military.
Question from Moose: Robin, do you have a sense of how George W. Bush and Al Gore differ regarding Columbia?
Robin Kirk: They don't differ at all. The money was approved with bipartisan support. Neither party has let the reformers -- both have intelligent, thoughtful people who effectively question the whole rationale of the war on drugs -- have a role in changing this harmful policy.
Question from Fungus: What about Triton Energy's role. Did the rebels in Colombia blow up their oil pipeline?
Robin Kirk: I'm not sure about this company, but the National Liberation Army (ELN) blows up oil pipelines, as is now known, as part of its scheme to extort money from the companies.
Question from Guest: How then do you combat the corruption, the guerrillas, the narcotraffickers and the paramilitary?
Robin Kirk: Through enforcement of the law, which is possible. As one journalist recently noted – in today's Washington Post -- there are a lot of laws in Colombia, but there is no law. What's needed is the political will, with international support, to enforce the rule of law.
Question from Iopi: Robin, why does the U.S. have a military and economic interest in Columbia?
Robin Kirk: It is close, it affects the Andes and therefore a large neighbor and trading partner, and can potentially destabilize much of Latin America. Oh, and there are the drugs!
Question from Moose: Robin, are there any positive forces in Columbia that offer much hope? Or, is it a totally bleak picture there?
Robin Kirk: There are many positive forces among Colombia's community leaders, journalists and peace activists and even some brave politicians, prosecutors and judges. But they need support against an indifferent political class and a military that remains wedded to a Cold War idea of the communist menace.
Comment from Cachaos: Columbia as well as Mexico and other Latin American countries complain that the "drug" problem is created through the massive demand for the product by American users. The Latin American leaders say that if the U.S. eliminates the demand, there will be no supply.
Robin Kirk: I'm with the Latinos on this one. We have the problem that they serve. What other options do they have in the increasingly fierce global marketplace?
Question from How: How do you imagine Colombia 20 years from now?
Robin Kirk: I think there may be some kind of partition and an international military force.
Chat Moderator: Do you have any final thoughts for us today, Robin Kirk?
Robin Kirk: I would just ask my fellow Americans and others concerned about this new turn in American policy to call your Congress people, write your newspapers, do something to force the United States, and hopefully Europe, to rethink our policies on illegal drugs. I don't have the answer, but I am concerned that we are continuing with a failed policy that will have a devastating impact on human rights.
Chat Moderator: Thank you for joining us today, Robin Kirk.
Robin Kirk: Thank you to all who took part.
Robin Kirk joined the News Chat via telephone from North Carolina. The above is an edited transcript of the chat, which took place on Sunday, August 27, 2000.
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