Colombian President Uribe was dealt a diplomatic rebuff from the European Parliament when he arrived on 10th February after a controversial invite from the Socialist Group of MEPs.
Campaigners had expressed deep concern at his imminent arrival in the wake of the Colombian government’s branding of human rights defenders as “terrorists”. Last September, Uribe told human rights groups to “take off their masks and stop hiding their ideas behind human rights”. Comments by his Vice-President, Francisco Santos, just two weeks before the visit, in which he accused human rights groups of “undermining democracy” did little to appease his critics.
Such talk does not play well with progressive members of the European Parliament, who staged protests both in and outside the Parliament building. In an unprecedented show of support for the people living under Uribe’s hard line regime, MEPs wore white scarves emblazoned with the message “peace and social justice in Colombia”, and stood up or walked out during Uribe’s speech. Sources within the chamber said that Uribe was clearly rattled by the protest as well as by the fact that the chamber was well under half full when he spoke.
Jillian Evans MEP told War on Want, “I was disappointed with the decision to invite President Uribe to the Parliament. My group had voted against this very idea on the basis that someone who is presiding over such injustice and human rights abuses does not deserve the same honour as others who have addressed the Parliament in the past.”
War on Want and Justice for Colombia had recently returned from a week long visit to the country, and the high profile delegation of trade unionists and parliamentarians were shocked at the flagrant human rights abuses they witnessed.
Richard Howitt MEP was part of the delegation, and vociferous in his denunciation of Uribe’s anti-terrorism legislation. He explained, “The Colombian government has deliberately flouted United Nations human rights recommendations which it signed up to with international donors last year, for example by transferring swingeing judicial powers to the Colombian army which, together with its paramilitary allies are responsible for more than three quarters of all atrocities.”
Under the guise of ‘democratic security’ Uribe has conducted mass arrests and is attempting to legitimise the militarised zones already thrown out by the Constitutional Court who said he had exceeded his power. He is in the process of establishing a ‘million-man’ informer network as the eyes and ears of the state; giving the army powers to tap telephones, make arrests and raid homes; and creating a ‘peasant army’.
Uribe’s performance was cool, but not flawless. Attending a session of the Foreign Affairs Committee – an unusual procedure for a Head of State, and a victory for those MEPs expressing concern at Uribe’s invitation in the first place – the President faced questions on paramilitary negotiations, compliance with UN recommendations and his fierce criticism of NGOs.
Uribe has stated that he would support a negotiated solution if armed groups first declare a ceasefire – ruling out negotiations with the guerillas. But he has started talks with paramilitaries who commit the vast majority of Colombia’s human rights abuses, and despite the fact that his own government accepts that there have been 750 paramilitary killings since their so-called ceasefire was announced. Asked about the apparent double standards, Uribe dodged the question.
Asked outright to withdraw his statements criticising NGOs last September, Uribe refused, saying, “I am entitled to express my reservations and disagreements.” Last week, the Colombian deputy Minister of Defence told our delegation that 95% of the information in the international arena comes from organisations who sympathise with the guerrillas.
In Colombia these statements amount to a little more than free expression. Apart from the fact that branding a Colombian as a terrorist places the life of the accused in danger, 55% of the 15,000 people detained since Uribe came to office have been social activists. The incredible increase in detentions under Uribe’s ‘democratic security’ policy have largely affected trade unionists and leaders of civil society, not guerrillas, prompting one senior British trade unionist on the War on Want/ Justice for Colombia delegation to say he believed that Colombia had become a “police state”.
The July 2003 London Declaration, a donor agreement under which Colombia gained £250million in EU aid, was premised on Uribe’s commitment to fulfilling 24 recommendations of the United Nations High Commission for Human Rights. Yet a meeting on 30th November concluded none had been fully met, and deliberate action directly contrary to seven had been taken, including implementation of his anti-terrorism laws.
Uribe claimed that Colombia had “room for democratic discussion” to vary its compliance with the UN recommendations, and he introduced Foreign Minister Carolina Barco who said that they would not comply with “handing over guerrillas to the courts” or the publication of military intelligence reports. A further aid consideration is the merging of the aid department – the Colombian Cooperation Agency (ACCI) with its budget for “Plan Colombia” to make a single High Commission for Social Action – threatening diversion of aid monies into the controversial US-sponsored Plan Colombia programme.
Such an outright breech of international obligations made only last year mean that Western governments, including the UK, have a responsibility to apply serious pressure. As Richard Howitt puts it: “if Europe is serious about that agreement [the London Declaration], it must have the conviction to delay any further donor’s conference, and ensure any new monies are made conditional on full and unqualified compliance with the U.N. recommendations”. But the British government’s view was expressed by the British Ambassador in BogotÃ¡ to our delegation last month: there has been a “vast improvement” in human rights.
Britain, and many others countries, point to the improving figures on killings and kidnappings published by the Colombian government. Colombian NGOs and trade unions claim that while massacres seem to have fallen, more targeted killings have increased. Kidnappings by guerrillas have fallen, while paramilitary-driven forced disappearances have increased. Whatever the truth, there is a definite lack of clarity, and we should expect a more nuanced position from Western governments.
On returning from the delegation, Louise Richards, Chief Executive of War on Want said, “The situation in Colombia is, at times, terrifying. During my visit I heard stories that left me deeply shocked. It is unbelievable that the head of a regime so heavily criticised by human rights groups across the world can be invited to stand in front of the European Parliament.”
The protests are a significant example of growing objections to the Uribe regime. Over 100 MPs in the British parliament have signed up to early day motion 333, demanding the immediate suspension of military aid to Colombia until full details of its destination are released.
Some present in Strasbourg felt the visit may have actually benefited those fighting for social justice in Colombia. Jillian Evans said, “Ironically, I think that Uribe’s visit did end up benefiting Colombia. Not, as he had hoped, in gaining support for his unjust, authoritarian government, but in bringing the plight of the ordinary citizens of Colombia to the attention of the people of Europe.
“I was glad that so many colleagues joined us in wearing white “peace and justice in Colombia” scarves and in walking out of the chamber when Uribe began addressing the Parliament. These simple actions blatantly demonstrated our objection to his presence and to the human rights abuses being perpetrated against Colombian citizens.”