WASHINGTON -- A State Department report issued yesterday said that government forces in Colombia continued to participate in the murder and torture of that country's citizens last year, but the Clinton administration pressed on with a request for $1.6 billion in U.S. aid that would expand the power of Colombia's police and army.
"The government's human rights record remained poor" in Colombia, although there was some improvement, the State Department's annual rights report said. "Government forces continued to commit numerous, serious abuses, including extrajudicial killings, at a level that was roughly similar to that of 1998."
The annual report, often praised for its detail and candor by independent humanitarian experts, was also harshly critical of Russia and China.
Most recently in Russia, "government forces killed numerous civilians through the use of indiscriminate force" in the civil conflict in Chechnya, the report said. "Security officials' beatings resulted in numerous deaths" in the same conflict.
The Clinton administration has come under severe criticism for failing to back up its public denunciations of Colombia's abuses with concrete measures, such as withholding aid. Yesterday U.S. officials again found themselves defending the relationship with Colombia as well as with Russia, China and other nations cited for rights violations.
"There is no cookie-cutter solution to abuses of international norms," said Secretary of State Madeleine K. Albright, who argued that direct engagement is the best approach with some nations.
For example, she said, in China the United States sees "greater prospects for progress by pursuing our interests through our ties with China than by cutting those ties."
Other nations cited in the report for serious abuses included Cuba, Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan.
For Colombia, the Clinton administration wants Congress to approve aid, including 63 attack helicopters, that would assist the country's military in fighting heroin and cocaine trafficking. Drug policy chief Barry R. McCaffrey and other U.S. officials argue that the package is necessary to stem a huge rise in illegal Colombian drugs entering the United States.
Human rights groups and some members of Congress contend that Colombia's army, in particular, is not disciplined enough to wield the power that would come with extra U.S. aid. The risk is high, they argue, that the aid would contribute to abuses and be used broadly against Colombia's leftist guerrillas without regard for its effect on drug shipments.
Human Rights Watch, a nonprofit group that this week issued its own critical report on Colombian human rights abuses, doesn't oppose the aid but wants additional safeguards and conditions built into the package.
Human Rights Watch's Jose Miguel Vivanco called the State Department's report "very critical" and "pretty accurate," but he said it didn't go far enough in chronicling links between Colombian armed forces and right-wing militias that have been responsible for many of the abuses.
"The trouble today is not with human rights abuses committed by Colombian armed forces directly," he said. "The trouble is human rights abuses by paramilitary groups with the acquiescence of the Colombian armed forces or with their direct assistance."
The State Department's report said that 2,000 to 3,000 Colombians were victims of "extrajudicial killings" last year, mainly at the hands of guerrillas and other nongovernment agents. Direct killings by security forces came to 24 through September, the report said, compared with 21 in the same period in 1998.
"Police, prison guards and military forces continued to torture and mistreat detainees," it said. "Despite some prosecutions and convictions, the authorities rarely brought officers of the security forces and the police charged with human rights abuses to justice."
While acknowledging continued abuses in Colombia, U.S. officials said yesterday that President Andres Pastrana has taken encouraging steps toward human rights reform by firing several generals linked to atrocities and installing a military penal code.
"You can be clear-eyed about human rights problems in Colombia and still recognize that the Pastrana government and its plan to address the questions is the best hope of getting some kind of traction on the problem," said Harold Koh, assistant secretary of state for democracy and human rights.
A spokeswoman in Colombia's Embassy in Washington said her country would have no comment on the report. Earlier in the week, Colombian Vice President Gustavo Bell issued a statement acknowledging that ties remain between right-wing militias and the armed forces.
He added that the idea of a "deliberate, institutional will to help and support these illegal groups is something the government does not accept, because it is untrue."
The State Department's 6,000-page study noted several positive humanitarian developments around the world last year.
With elections in the populous nations of Nigeria and Indonesia, more people moved under democratic rule than in any other recent year, including 1989, when the Iron Curtain fell, it said.
The world had 120 democracies at the end of the year, the most ever and three more than at the end of 1998, the report said.
Those gains "cannot overshadow the fact that the past year also saw a number of profound violations of human rights," it said, noting a military coup in Pakistan, the expulsion of ethnic Albanians from Yugoslavia's Kosovo area, military abuses in Indonesia's East Timor province and continued atrocities and misery in much of Africa.
The report also singled out North Korea, Myanmar (Burma), Belarus, Uzbekistan, Turkmenistan, Syria, Sudan, Equatorial Guinea and Sri Lanka for violations.
It credited Indonesia, Turkey, Tunisia, Morocco, Bhutan and Russia with releasing imprisoned dissidents last year.