Colombian Government’s Role in Human Rights Abuses

May 8, 2009 12:00 am Published by Leave your thoughts

It seems that new revelations about the Colombian government’s links to human rights abuses are appearing almost weekly. In recent weeks there have been allegations that Colombian political and military officials conspired with right-wing paramilitaries to burn the bodies of massacre victims in an effort to conceal the number of people killed by the militias; the country’s largest paramilitary organization funded President Alvaro Uribe’s 2002 election campaign; and the military’s counterinsurgency strategy has contributed to a worsening humanitarian crisis. These revelations come on the heels of evidence that the military has increasingly used extra-judicial executions as a counter-insurgency strategy in recent years and the para-politics scandal linking elected officials to the paramilitaries. In response to the Colombian military’s increasing involvement in human rights violations, the British government recently announced that it was ending military aid to Colombia. In contrast, both the US and Canadian governments continue to disregard the human rights crisis in their push to implement bilateral free trade agreements with Colombia.

Salvatore Mancuso, former commander of the demobilized paramilitary organization known as the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC), recently testified that his fighters systematically burned the bodies of hundreds of massacre victims. According to Mancuso, the decision to incinerate the bodies was made at a meeting between a top AUC commander and political and high-ranking military officials. The objective, at a time when increasing attention was being focused on massacres perpetrated by the AUC, was to diminish the number of killings that could be attributed to the paramilitaries. The exhumed remains of massacre victims were cremated in ovens built near the border with Venezuela.

Mancuso’s testimony came on the heels of claims by another former AUC commander that the paramilitary organization contributed funding to President Uribe’s 2002 election campaign. Diego Murillo, known by the alias “Don Berna,” commanded paramilitary troops and drug trafficking operations in Antioquia when President Uribe was governor of that department. The fact that Murillo claims to have contributed “large sums of money” to Uribe’s campaign is particularly troubling in the broader context of the ongoing para-politics scandal in which more than 60 Colombian congressional representatives-the overwhelming majority of whom are allies of the president-are either currently in prison or under investigation for links to the paramilitaries.

There has also been a dramatic escalation in the number of extra-judicial executions perpetrated by the Colombian military since Uribe assumed office. Investigators are currently looking into 1,296 cases of extra-judicial executions that have occurred since 2002. In a process known as “false-positives,” soldiers execute civilians and then dress the corpses in camouflage fatigues and pass them off as guerrillas killed in combat.

Perhaps the most troubling human rights issue in Colombia today is the worsening crisis of forced displacement in the country’s rural regions. According to the Bogotá-based Consultancy on Human Rights and Displacement (CODHES), more than 380,000 Colombians were forcibly displaced by violence last year-a 24 percent increase over the previous year-making 2008 one of the worst years for displacement in the past two decades. With more than four million internally displaced persons, Colombia ranks second in the world after the Sudan.

The Colombian military’s aggressive counterinsurgency operations are a major cause of the escalating refugee crisis as soldiers forcibly displace communities in regions traditionally controlled by the guerrillas. According to the Norwegian Refugee Council, “The government’s military strategy, which was intended to be preventive, is instead resulting in an increased displacement of people.”

Much of the displacement is being perpetrated by the military and newly-formed paramilitary groups in traditional guerrilla strongholds that contain valuable resources or economically-valuable land. Along Colombia’s Pacific coast, particularly in the departments of Nariño and the Chocó, thousands of Afro-Colombians and indigenous peoples have been forcibly displaced to make their lands available for African palm cultivation-much of which is being produced to satisfy the increasing demand for agrofuels in the wealthy nations of the global North. Significant displacement has also occurred in mining regions where multinational corporations are seeking to exploit Colombia’s extensive mineral reserves. The bilateral free trade agreements being pushed by the US and Canadian governments will only intensify Colombia’s refugee crisis as they will further open up Colombia to foreign investment, particularly in the resource extraction sector.

During last year’s election campaign, US President Barack Obama criticized the proposed US-Colombia Free Trade Agreement because of human rights concerns. However, in an apparent reversal, Obama recently called on US trade representative Ron Kirk to work with the Colombian government and Congress in order to address the obstacles to the trade agreement and get the deal signed. Meanwhile, Canada’s Prime Minister Stephen Harper and his Conservative Party are currently pushing Parliament to ratify the free trade agreement signed last November with Colombia’s President Uribe.

The Canadian government’s promotion of the pact contradicts the desires of most Canadians. In a July 2007 poll, 73 percent of Canadians said their federal government should not negotiate free trade agreements with countries that have dubious human rights records. That same month, Prime Minister Harper responded to criticism of his free trade negotiations with Colombia, the country with the worst human rights record in the hemisphere, by declaring: “We’re not going to say, ‘Fix all your social, political and human rights problems, and only then will we engage in trade relations with you.’ That’s a ridiculous position.”

The US and Canadian governments have both abided by Harper’s mantra as they ignore the Uribe administration’s role in Colombia’s dire human rights crisis and seek to implement free trade agreements with the troubled South American nation. In contrast, the British government-the second largest contributor of military aid to Colombia-recently announced that it was cutting military aid to the Uribe government because of the state’s complicity in human rights violations. In a statement to the House of Commons, British Foreign Secretary David Miliband stated: “The challenge for the Colombian government is to ensure the strategic human rights principles we have helped to promote are embedded and consistently practiced by all members of their armed services.” It is a challenge that Barack Obama and Stephen Harper refuse to issue to the Uribe government in their eagerness to implement bilateral free trade agreements with Colombia.

Garry Leech writes for Colombia Journal.

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This post was written by Garry Leech

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