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When Terrorists Talk of Human Rights


On September 8, Colombian President Alvaro Uribe Velez said “when terrorists start feeling weak, they immediately send their spokesmen to talk about human rights.”  He said while some human rights groups were “respectable”, others were “political agitators in the service of terrorism, cowards who wrap themselves in the banner of human rights, in order to win back for Colombian terrorism the space which the armed forces and the public have taken from it.”


Why was Uribe annoyed enough at human rights organizations to try to demonize them as ‘terrorists’?  The human rights organizations had been very busy in the weeks leading up to Uribe’s speech, in no small part due to the activities of Uribe’s government and army.  A small sample:


One noted human rights organization, CREDHOS (Corporacion Regional para la Defensa de los Derechos Humanos) reported that the paramilitaries disappeared 6 men and a woman in Barrancabermeja.  Like Uribe, the paramilitaries in that city demonized and threatened 15 others, accusing them of being guerrillas.  Colombia’s food and beverages union, SINALTRAINAL, reported an attempt on the life of its vice president on August 22, 2003 by a motorcycle gunman.  Youth organizations reported a paramilitary massacre of five youths in Cundinamarca.  Other human rights organizations reported two murders that occurred on August 1 (during skirmishes between the army, paramilitaries, and guerrillas),  another on August 9 in El Castillo county (by the Army), two more, one on August 11  and another on the 12 in Villavivencio (by the paramilitaries).   The United Nations reported on August 8 that 118 indigenous had been murdered in Colombia  so far in 2003.  Unions reported that 50 unionists were killed in the same period.  The Colombian Commission of Jurists reported some 7,000 political assassinations in the past year.  They criticized the government’s agrarian policy, its authoritarianism, and its regressive social policies. 


In Cali, the paramilitaries threatened the Social and Political Front, a group consisting of unions, social organizations, and human rights groups, calling for a war against them. 


Uribe’s government is in peace negotiations with these paramilitaries.  And so, while trying to bring the paramilitaries back to legality and respectability, the government has been doing its best to make human rights work not only life-threatening, but illegal as well.  In other words Uribe has been making good on the threat implicit in his speech.


Since Uribe came into office in August 2002, 2400 people have been ‘processed’ by the justice system for their social, political, or human rights activities.  One example of such ‘processing’ is what happened to 156 people in Chalan, Coloso, and Onejas on August 17 or to 42 social leaders in Arauca, who were arrested en masse in house raids on August 20. Similar mass detentions happened on August 24 in Tolima (54 people, including a parish priest).  The police and army were detaining campesinos, who were protesting for the right to education, in Popayan in Cauca on September 8. 


On September 6, a church-based human rights group called Justicia y Paz demanded that the government open up the files it has been collecting on it and denounced the harrassment its members have been facing, accused of collaboration with the guerrillas.


The increasingly open, official attacks on social organizations are supplementing the older strategy of dirty war, where paramilitaries were used to do the same work while the government denied responsibility.  Uribe’s strategy is to bring the war out into the open: to declare social organizations illegal and use the army and police against them directly, while making the paramilitaries legal and holding ‘negotiations’ with them. 


Both strategies are based on conflating social opposition, social movements, and human rights defenders with the guerrilla insurgency.  But Colombia’s guerrillas are all too often as uninterested in human rights as its government and paramilitaries.  The Black People’s Processes, an Afro-Colombian organization, reported that on August 28, peasant leader Teodolindo Rivas Mena was killed in Medio Atrato by the 57th front of the FARC. On August 31, Jose Luciano Castillo Alegria, an Afro-Colombian leader from Narino was assassinated by the 29th front of the FARC.  It seems that no armed actor in Colombia’s war respects the lives of civilians and social leaders. 


But Uribe’s tirade was not motivated by tears for peasant leaders from the Pacific Coast.  It might instead have been pitched to his backers in the United States.  Uribe’s economic policies have devastated the country.  He has thrown tens of thousands out of work, broken unions, privatized public services, continued to fumigate peasants, and given Colombians nothing in return but violence, death, and empty rhetoric about ‘terrorism’.  Terror wars are expensive.  The United States is Uribe’s only hope for the money to pay for this war.  But the US is in an economic recession itself, and is sinking tens of billions into occupations of Afghanistan, Iraq, and Palestine.  Uribe’s attack on the human rights organizations fits nicely with the American Enterprise Institute’s (the Bush Administration’s favorite think-tank) recent railing against non-governmental organizations (NGOs) as antidemocratic bodies (would AEI criticize the NGOs of the Venezuelan opposition as antidemocratic, one wonders?).  Repackaging an old product with fresh lingo is an old advertising trick. 


And for all the US’s expenditures on other wars and occupations, it will come up with the money.  Washington’s price is immunity: the announcement that military aid funds would continue was made just after Washington and Bogota signed a bilateral deal exempting Americans from prosecution by the UN’s international war crimes court.  Between these exemptions and the paramilitary ‘peace negotiations’, Colombia is becoming a model place for officials to commit war crimes and be immune from the consequences.


But years from now, Uribe, the Colombian military, and paramilitaries, may find that their careful efforts to ensure their immunity won’t enable them to hide.  The Peruvian Truth and Reconciliation Commission published its report at the beginning of September.  It named names and fingered members of governments and occupiers of high military posts as being criminally responsible in that country’s vicious counterinsurgency war of the 1980s.  Pinochet might have escaped justice, but the attempt to try him reduced some of his arrogance.  The Argentine generals who ruled from 1976-1983 spend time worrying about prosecution.  Perhaps those who have unleashed state and paramilitary terror on Colombians should worry about that, too, when they talk so disparagingly about human rights.


Justin Podur is a frequent writer and translator on Colombia and Latin America.  He can be reached at justin.podur@utoronto.ca

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