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Colombia: A False Sense of Security

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Over two thousand civilians intentionally killed by army soldiers seeking to beef up their body counts and score days off. A massive illegal wiretapping operation by the president’s intelligence agency targeting Supreme Court judges, journalists, opposition politicians and human rights defenders. Seven human rights defenders and leaders of displaced communities killed in May alone, in a nation where threats and attacks against defenders are rarely effectively investigated and government officials’ denunciations of them place them in danger. In which authoritarian country opposed to the United States did these abuses take place? In none other than Colombia, often called “the United States’ best ally in the Western Hemisphere.” And we, the U.S. taxpayers, bankrolled this friendship to the tune of more than $6 billion.

These brutal tactics are often overshadowed by the praise heaped on the outgoing administration of Álvaro Uribe for making impressive military gains against Colombia’s vicious, decades-old left-wing guerrilla insurgency. Yet as a new Colombian president takes office on August 7th, the Obama Administration must challenge its Colombian partner to demonstrate that security need not come at the expense of the most basic human right, the right to life, as well as precious freedoms of expression and assembly. 

The incoming president, former defense minister Juan Manuel Santos, has to answer for his own role in these scandals—and yet, his track record also shows potential for change, given the right kind of international response. As defense minister under Uribe, Santos presided over a massive increase in so-called “false positives,” in which soldiers detained and killed civilians, then dressed them up in guerrilla clothing to inflate their body counts. In response to concerns raised by the United Nations and the U.S. government as well as human rights groups, Mr. Santos then instituted reforms that helped bring down the number of new killings. But this agenda is still unfinished, with few of these cases brought to justice. “Lack of sufficient accountability has been a key factor in the continuation of falsos positivos. Estimates of the current rate of impunity for alleged killings by the security forces are as high as 98.5 per cent. Soldiers simply knew that they could get away with murder,” the UN Special Rapporteur on Extrajudicial Executions recently declared.  Of all Latin American countries today, Colombia “has been the source of the most serious cases of abuse” brought before the OAS’s Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, according to investigators cited by the Washington Post

Our best friends don’t just support us right or wrong; they help us become our better selves. If the Obama Administration wants to be a true friend to Colombia, the way forward is clear. U.S. support—both aid and trade—must be conditioned upon real and lasting human rights improvements. This includes an end to extrajudicial executions by Colombian security forces, intelligence reforms to prevent illegal wiretapping, vigorous efforts to fully dismantle the nation’s illegal armed groups on the right as well as the left, and measures to ensure a climate in which human rights defenders, union leaders, prosecutors and judges can carry out their important work. Those who committed and those who ordered these macabre violations of human rights must be brought to justice. Military progress achieved at the expense of basic rights and freedoms offers but a false and transitory sense of security.

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