WOLA: Advocacy for Human Rights in the Americas
26 Jun 2009 | News

Groups Urge President Obama to Raise Human Rights Concerns on President Uribe’s Visit to Washington

Colombian President Alvaro Uribe's meeting with President Obama on Monday comes at a controversial moment. President Uribe is embroiled in a number of human rights, corruption and abuse of power scandals. The Colombian President is seriously considering amending the Constitution to run for a third term in office. Meanwhile, a Free Trade Agreement remains stalled in the U.S. Congress.

"It is crucial that President Obama send the right message, with the right tone. Colombia is a close partner of the United States, which makes it all the more important that we voice concerns about human rights violations and the rule of law," said Gimena Sánchez Garzoli, Senior Associate for Colombia, Washington Office on Latin America.

In a scandal even more shocking than Watergate, evidence continues to emerge that for seven years, Mr. Uribe's presidential intelligence agency (DAS) engaged in illegal wiretaps and surveillance of hundreds of human rights defenders, journalists, labor leaders, opposition politicians, and Supreme Court judges. The presidential agency spied on their families, and even international and U.S.-based human rights organizations. Still worse, DAS agents reportedly sent a bloody doll to a human rights activist, threatening her daughter.

"Wiretapping is just the tip of the iceberg. Far from protecting human rights defenders, the intelligence agency has engaged in ‘intelligence offensives' that included sending defenders death threats and initiating malicious criminal investigations against them for bogus links to terrorism," said Andrew Hudson, Senior Associate, Human Rights First.

Some of the most frequent targets of the DAS spying have been Supreme Court judges charged with investigating widespread allegations of ties between the president's political allies and drug-funded paramilitary death squads. The so-called "para-politics" scandal has put over 30 percent of Colombia's Congress, and many governors and mayors, under investigation, on trial, or behind bars. Nearly all of the implicated politicians are members of pro-Uribe parties.

Meanwhile, months after Colombians were shocked by revelations that the army killed dozens of young men in a Bogota slum, government forces continue to murder innocent civilians with tragic frequency. Colombian human rights groups are still documenting new cases of extrajudicial executions and an alarming spike in forced disappearances.

"We now know of more than a thousand cases of innocent civilians killed since 2002. This is a systematic practice shrouded by impunity, as very few of these cases have resulted in convictions. This situation is aggravated by President Uribe's insistence on downplaying the problem, or even implying that the accusations are a guerrilla strategy," said Kelly Nicholls, Executive Director, U.S. Office on Colombia.

President Uribe exacerbates these problems by regularly labeling non-violent human rights activists as terrorists. For example, President Uribe recently spoke on national television about renowned human rights journalist Hollman Morris, saying that his journalism was "deceitful and a glorification of terrorism" and that it "is important to distinguish between friends of terrorists who act as journalists and those who are real journalists." Such attacks endanger human rights defenders, publicly stigmatize them, unleash the intelligence services against them and result in a surge of death threats.

Colombia continues to be the most dangerous place in the world for labor activists. So far this year, 21 trade unionists have been assassinated. Efforts to bring perpetrators to justice are inadequate as 95% of labor killings remain unpunished.

For these reasons, it is imperative that President Obama, both publicly and privately, conveys a strong message on human rights to his Colombian counterpart.

"President Obama should make clear that U.S. support comes with a price: respect for freedom of expression and other human rights. Right now, President Obama is being asked to raise these concerns more strongly with Iran. It is important that close allies hear the same message," said Lisa Haugaard, Executive Director, Latin America Working Group.

President Uribe's visit comes at a time when Colombia is awaiting his final word on whether he will run for a third term in May 2010, a step that will require the country to amend its constitution. If he runs and wins, President Uribe will face few checks on executive power, as his chosen political allies will be in control of all judicial and oversight bodies.

"Measures that affect democratic checks and balances or institutional stability, such as re-election, are Colombia's internal business," said Adam Isacson, Director of the Colombia Program, the Center for International Policy. "Nonetheless, while in Washington, President Uribe should hear what several U.S. editorials have already expressed: changes to the country's democratic order can affect U.S. interests, and U.S. – Colombia relations."


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Suggested questions and further background information

Uribe's visit offers U.S. journalists an opportunity to ask President Uribe the following questions: 

Why are labor union killings still taking place in Colombia?
Colombia continues to be the most dangerous place for labor activists. So far 21 trade unionists were assassinated in 2009 and efforts to bring perpetrators to justice are inadequate. The impunity rate in such cases remains 95%.

Why is the Colombian government undermining freedom of expression?
In a still-unfolding scandal, Colombia's presidential intelligence agency (DAS) was discovered to be systematically conducting surveillance without warrants, which included tapping the phones and email of hundreds of human rights defenders, journalists, members of the political opposition and Supreme Court judges. More than just wiretapping, the agency was reportedly involved in sending death threats to defenders and fabricating intelligence for use in trumped-up criminal charges.This scandal constitutes a serious assault upon freedom of expression, association and privacy.  In addition, aggressive and unsubstantiated statements by high-level Colombian officials, including President Uribe, continue to undermine the work and safety of human rights defenders, publicly stigmatizing them, unleashing the intelligence services against them and putting their security at risk.

Why is it taking so long to clean up Colombia's political institutions?
Today, 77 members of the Colombian Congress elected in 2006-more than 30 percent of the legislature-are under investigation, in jail or on trial for links to the United Self-Defense Forces of Colombia (AUC) paramilitaries, a group considered a Foreign Terrorist Organization by the State Department. During the first part of this decade, the AUC was responsible for three-quarters of conflict-related killings of Colombian civilians. Most of these AUC-linked politicians represent pro-government political parties. Despite steps taken, including an ongoing investigation of President Uribe's cousin and political ally Mario Uribe, the process is moving slowly.

Why do most extrajudicial execution cases remain in impunity?
Government forces continue to commit extrajudicial executions and other abuses, with the vast majority remaining in impunity. According to the Colombian Attorney-General Human Rights Unit's own statistics, of the 1,025 cases of alleged extrajudicial killings assigned to the unit from 2002 to April 2009, only 16 have resulted in conviction.  UN Special Rapporteur Philip Alston, who conducted a special mission on the issue last week, called the killings "cold-blooded, premeditated murder of innocent civilians for profit" and noted that while the most well-known "killings were undeniably blatant and obscene, my investigation showed that they were but the tip of the iceberg.

For more information on this troubling crime see the U.S. Office on Colombia's report, "A State of Impunity in Colombia," released this week.

Indiscriminate use of force by members of the armed forces also remains a concern, especially in Afro-Colombian and indigenous territories. On May 3rd 2009 a Colombian military helicopter indiscriminately machine-gunned several Afro-Colombian areas in Lopez de Micay, in the southwestern department of Cauca. Among the victims was a thirteen year old boy.

Why is the humanitarian crisis increasing in Colombia?
Over 4 million Colombians have been internally displaced by violence, and an estimated 500,000-750,000 refugees have fled to other countries. Colombia has the largest internally displaced (IDP) population in the world, UNHCR recently reported. According to the Colombian group CODHES, 380,000 people were newly displaced in 2008, an increase of 24% from 2007. IDPs are not Colombia's only humanitarian problem; a recent UNICEF report notes that landmines are found in 31 out of Colombia's 32 departments. Colombia has more landmine victims that any other country in the world, one-third of them children.