Colombian agreement over US military bases ‘unconstitutional’

[Source = Guardian]

The Colombian constitutional court ruled yesterday that last year’s agreement giving the US military access to more bases in the country is unconstitutional because it was not approved by legislators.

The court’s decision, reached by a 6-3 majority, said however that the ruling does not affect US military personnel and contractors working from Colombian bases covered by earlier accords.

This means any US personnel at the seven bases included in the 2009 pact could shift to bases permitted by previous agreements while the government decides whether to put the latest accord before congress, where new President Juan Manuel Santos has a big majority.

Last year’s agreement with Washington intensified frictions with neighbouring Venezuela, with President Hugo Chávez, a strong critic of US influence in Latin America, calling it a threat to his country. Brazil and Bolivia also criticised the deal, saying it would unsettle the balance of forces in the region.

Santos, who was defence minister before running for president, has consistently defended the agreement on the grounds it “improve our ability to combat drug-trafficking and terrorism”.

Since taking office on 7 August, Santos has been working to improve relations with Chávez. There was no immediate comment from the government on whether it would ask congress to ratify the base deal.

Defence minister Rodrigo Rivera read a statement to reporters saying only that the government would study the ruling. He added that the government “reiterates the fundamental importance of co-operation between Colombia and the United States that has developed over decades in security and defence issues.”

The accord was aimed at boosting US help for Colombia’s operations against leftist rebels and to improve counter-drug campaigns.

The increase in bases available for use by the US military did not cause any expansion of US forces in Colombia. Officials said the deal kept the maximum number of military personnel and contractors at 1,400, as specified by US law.

Rivera did not say how many of those US personnel are at the seven bases covered by the accord overturned by the court.

The court ruled in a lawsuit filed last November by a lawyers group that argued the agreement signed the previous month should have been approved by congress. The government under the previous president, Alvaro Uribe, argued that it was not necessary, saying it was just an extension and revision of earlier agreements.

The judges rejected the government’s position, saying the agreement was a new treaty that needs congressional approval.