Dear Chairman Hyde,
Recently the leaders of Catholic Religious communities from North and South American held an annual meeting that we attended as the presidents of our respective Conferences, representing the nearly 100,000 vowed sisters, brothers, and priests in the United States. The leaders present represented the 250,000 Catholic vowed sisters, brothers, and priests of this hemisphere. Members of the US religious congregations that we represent also have missionaries in Colombia, a country of long commitment for US Catholic religious as well as local provinces and regions there from who we receive firsthand reports.
During this meeting we learned of the great concern the Religious of Latin America, Central America, and the Caribbean have for the deterioration of the situation in Colombia, reinforcing our own growing concern about U.S. policy there. In recent weeks President Pastrana announced that he was ending the peace talks, the Armed Forces of Colombia-People’s Army (FARC-EP) kidnapped and allegedly killed Colombian Senator Gechem Turbay and kidnapped Senator Ingrid Betancourt, the Colombian military has taken control of what was once considered a safe haven for peace talks. Our own people there and the religious of Colombia inform us that the worst violence on non-combatants continues to be perpetrated by the long-standing paramilitary groups throughout the countryside, a group not being referred to in the current U.S. public debate about the crisis there. Our people lived and died with the dramatic consequences of uncontrolled paramilitary groups in the years of the Central American wars.
Without exception, we condemn the violence and oppression that is taking place in Colombia. The only solution to the crisis in Colombia is a return to peace talks. But there can be no peace without justice and we re-emphasize what we and others have been saying for years: without stabilizing the human rights situation in Colombia and working to overcome blatant political and economic injustice, the acceleration of spending on arms and military will only continue to backfire into spirals of uncontrolled violence.
At this time of crisis in Colombia, we are greatly concerned that talk about shifting U.S. foreign policy regarding Colombia will have severe negative implications for future peace initiatives. For several years Congress has been firm in limiting the amount and type of foreign aid authorized for Colombia. Currently, U.S. aid to Colombia is restricted to stopping the production and export of drugs, a policy that was always problematic in its implementation on the ground. In addition, Congress has also imposed strict human rights conditions on the Colombian military and had required the Administration to report on the Colombian government’s compliance with human rights standards in order for the funds to be released. We protested to Congress and the Clinton Administration when President Clinton proceeded to release funds with a waiver of these human rights standards two years ago.
There are indications from the Administration that it would like to lift even these restrictions and expand the military aid to Colombia, increasing the amount of aid, and providing more military equipment and increased training for the Colombian military. We believe that this would be a dangerous expansion in the “war on terrorism” that seems to have no clear boundaries or goals. Administration officials and some members of Congress have started referring to the rebel forces as “terrorists,” a clear indication that a shift in policy and the “packaging” of policy is underway.
We are also concerned that U.S. commitments to human rights are weakening all over the world as the scope of the war on terrorism escalates. The recently issued Department of State Human Rights Report and independent reports from Amnesty International, Human Rights Watch and the Washington Office on Latin America all bear witness to the human rights abuses by both the Colombian military, government-sponsored paramilitary groups, and the rebels in particular. In all of these reports, it is clear that the government has not met the requirements set out by Congress to receive military aid. Our current policy will only make that situation worse and provides no clear path for bettering a governance of Colombia that can provide social order with a stability rooted in justice and peace. Our religious lived through a similar short-sighted and tragic policy in Central America. We can tell you from experience that it will not work. As in Central America throughout the years of the wars, our religious are on the front lines of human rights work, the providing of the most basic human services, supporting efforts among the people to build a more humane nation in Colombia. A military solution from U.S. policy will only make it all worse. Using the mantra of terrorism to foment fear and recollections of September 11th in support of selling a public policy that would extend the war against Al Quaida to Colombia would not only be a reprehensible lack of public leadership. It could dangerously descend into a tragic war in Colombia for which there would be no public support and few if any exits.
Recently, the boards of our two conferences issued a joint statement reaffirming our commitment to promoting paths of peace and justice in a rapidly changing world. We concluded the statement saying:
In his own time, Jesus, speaking to a people under occupation by a military power, said, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they shall be called children of God.” Today, as we live in an era of unprecedented violence, we commit ourselves to seek new paths of peace and justice, to address the many forms of violence in our midst and to forge new bridges of understanding that give birth to hope and human dignity.
Mr. Hyde, we ask you to give hope and dignity to the people of Colombia. Maintain standards of human rights as a condition for military aid to Colombia and do not broaden the scope of military assistance. We, or our representatives, stand ready to meet with you at any time to discuss this accelerating situation.
Kathleen Pruitt, CSJP
Canice Connors, O.F.M.Conv.