Archbishop of Boston
Chairman, International Policy Committee
U.S. Catholic Conference
March 16, 2000
Colombia was for years one of the most democratic and prosperous countries in the Western Hemisphere, but is today the most troubled. An economic crisis has resulted in massive unemployment and extreme poverty for millions. A forty-year civil war has been pursued by leftist insurgencies, rightist paramilitary bands, and a wealthy criminal drug trafficking enterprise, all of which leave Colombia with one of today's worst records for violations of human rights. Many Colombians have fled the country; they see no future for themselves if the government is rendered ineffective and paralyzed by competing paramilitary bands. Well over a million others are internally displaced.
The Church in Colombia has insisted on the absolute necessity of finding a peaceful, political and negotiated settlement to the internal conflict. Colombia today has every right to call upon its neighbors, especially the United States, to come to its aid. It is our country that is the source of much of the demand for the illicit drugs grown and processed in Colombia. The crisis in Colombian civil society is, in good measure, due to illegal drug use in the United States.
Over the long term, our country's greatest contribution could be the reduction in the domestic demand for these drugs, the result of policies of drug education, treatment and rehabilitation. In the short term, however, it seems clear that financial and technical assistance from this country and other friends of Colombia is essential.
A genuine balance must be found between assistance to the Colombian armed forces and aid that more directly addresses the root causes of the conflict and assists the victims. All military aid must be carefully monitored and conditioned on well-established human rights criteria. There should be major support for the peace process, including judicial reform, stronger measures to protect human rights, humanitarian aid to the internally displaced, more engagement of elements of civil society in the peace process itself, and vigorous efforts to promote alternative agriculture to enable poor farmers to forgo cultivation of coca and poppies. The Church in Colombia has played and will continue to play a vital role in advancing the peace process at many levels.
An additional threat to the peace is the alarming proliferation of illegal weaponry in the country. More arms are said to have entered Colombia in just the past two months than in all of last year, an issue that should be addressed by countries where these weapons are manufactured and sold.
Finally, the U.S. relationship to Colombia should not be defined primarily by the drug problem. Rather, the central goal of all these efforts must be the successful conclusion of the on-going peace process. No one can anticipate a speedy arrival at a political settlement; a conflict that has been years in the making will take more years still to conclude. Patience and commitment are required by all and no action should be taken by the United States or other parties to inhibit the process for a negotiated and just settlement of the conflict.