Colombian Vice President Garzón Comes to Town

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Welcome to Washington, Vice President Angelino Garzón. In your visit last week, you said all the right words. Now Colombia needs to see the deeds. Despite a marked improvement in the tone of Juan Manuel Santos’s government, which took office in August 2010, violence against human rights defenders, unionists, Afro-Colombian and indigenous community leaders and land rights activists continues unchecked.

  • 42 union members were killed in 2010, as of mid-December, according to Colombia’s National Labor School, meaning that Colombia once more leads the world in assassinations of trade unionists;
  • 8 land activists were killed just since the Santos Administration took office;
  • 33 human rights defenders were killed between June-October 2010, according to the Colombia human rights defenders campaign.

What is behind this violence? In great measure it is due to the resurgence of paramilitary and criminal gangs, which were never completely dismantled in 2005’s partial demobilization. According to Human Rights Watch, “toleration of these successor groups by members of the public security forces is a main factor in their growth.” HRW also notes that massacres escalated in 2010, to the largest number since 2005. See our memo on human rights in Colombia under the Santos Administration.           

As an August 2010 report by Colombia’s governmental National Reparations and Reconciliation Commission explains, as the brutal paramilitaries did before, these groups target local leaders who seek to defend their rights:

The great majority of threats and many of the murders, disappearances, attacks and forced displacement have been directed against community leaders—campesinos, indigenous, union members, women’s leaders, opposition politicians, human rights defenders, NGO members and social leaders…. For this reason we infer that these groups are aiming to prevent the consolidation of organized community networks and grassroots social sectors, especially those that organize for their rights. Therefore, they attack their leadership, the communal processes in which they participate, and in particular, [attack] victims, given that it is they who are demanding the restitution of their lands, the possibility of return and attention to their rights…. Those who had victimized them frequently reappear leading the rearmed groups.

The Uribe Administration downplayed paramilitary violence, seeking to portray the demobilization as a complete success. There are signs that the Santos Administration will take this more seriously, as it has begun to employ joint military-police action against the groups. But it has not yet developed an effective plan to address this critical threat, including by vigorously suspending, investigating and prosecuting security force and government officials suspected of collaborating with criminal networks.

The Santos Administration also must make serious progress in addressing these other major human rights challenges inherited from the Uribe Administration, in which Mr. Santos played a prominent role as defense minister:

  • achieving justice for the more than 3,000 extrajudicial executions of civilians by members of Colombia’s security forces during the Uribe Administration. In this horrific, widespread scandal, members of security forces killed civilians outside of combat, dressed them up in guerrilla uniforms, and claimed them as enemy dead. Often, young men were lured with promises of jobs so that they could be killed to rack up body counts. Many cases still have not been transferred from military courts, where they go nowhere, to civilian courts, and cases in the civilian justice sector, even the notorious Soacha cases, are stalled.
  • successfully prosecuting those responsible for massive illegal wiretapping of the Supreme Court, civil society and political opposition and replacing the notorious DAS intelligence agency. While serious investigations have begun, they have not yet concluded. Successful prosecutions must include those who ordered the illegal wiretapping, and new safeguards must prevent misuse of intelligence services.
  • ending baseless prosecutions against human rights defenders, and instead, ensuring successful investigations of attacks and threats against them. Virtually no effective investigations of threats take place, although many threats turn in to violent reality. Vigorous investigation of murders of trade unionists, including material and intellectual authors, while grouping investigations to identify patterns behind the crimes, is key to reducing Colombia’s still-astounding level of violence against trade unionists and establishing a climate in which labor rights are fully respected.

After years of the Uribe Administration’s charged rhetoric that put human rights  defenders’ lives in danger, it’s a relief to hear the Colombian government saying publicly that human rights defenders have a legitimate role in society, and that differing opinions must be respected. It is encouraging to hear Vice President Garzón’s commitment to building a modern, democratic society and his strong statements that collaboration of security forces or government officials with criminal groups is shameful. It is positive to see the new administration focus on reparations and land return for victims of violence.

But too many lives are at stake in Colombia to stop with good words alone. Now let’s see the deeds.