Colombia's Other Enemy:
Human Rights Workers
by Garry M. Leech
May 8, 2003
Since President Alvaro Uribe assumed office it has become open season on human rights workers in Colombia. According to Human Rights Watch, 17 human rights defenders were killed in 2002, the most since 1997. The past year has also seen a ratcheting up of the rhetoric from administration and military officials labeling non-governmental organizations (NGOs) as subversive organizations affiliated with Colombia's guerrilla groups. While NGO work has always been dangerous in Colombia, it is now proving to be more deadly than ever. The new Washington-backed "war on terror" has revitalized Cold War strategies commonly implemented under the Southern Cone dictatorships of the 1970s and in Central America during the 1980s. In the black and white worldview of the Uribe administration and Colombian military officials, NGO workers are guerrillas. And public accusations of this nature by government and military officials provide death squads with a green light to kill NGO workers with impunity.
On April 10, according to Human Rights Watch, during a speech at a conference sponsored by the United States Army in Washington, D.C., Colombian Army Brigadier General Josť Arturo Camelo, "Accused human rights NGOs of waging a 'legal war' against the military. Further, he claimed that human rights groups were 'friends of subversives' and that they formed part of a larger strategy coordinated by the guerrillas." General Camelo's statements cannot be written-off as an isolated incident. Numerous high-ranking officials and influential Colombians have made similar comments over the past year, among them Pedro Juan Moreno Villa, President Uribe's close personal advisor and former vice-governor of Antioquia during Uribe's tenure as governor of that department.
In an interview with the Colombian magazine Cromos, Moreno suggested, "An intelligence center should search out ... information that has been developed by analysts who are familiar with and experts on each one of the targets: FARC, ELN, EPL, drug traffickers, self-defense forces, the NGOs and common criminals. There should be intelligence monitoring of NGOs, because they are the ones who have trashed this country. Many are leftists. The subversives and [the] violent create these mechanisms to seize power."
While it may be difficult for some to believe that such an influential public figure would so blatantly label NGOs as targets in the same sentence as the FARC, ELN, EPL, drug traffickers, self-defense forces and common criminals, it has clearly become a strategy of the Uribe administration.
President Uribe has apparently heeded the advice of his friend Moreno and begun actively working to 'legally' restrict the activities of NGOs. According to Jorge Rojas, director of the Colombian NGO, Consultancy on Human Rights and Displacement (CODHES), "Uribe has put a bill before Congress that, if passed, will set up a system to monitor, control, and restrict the autonomy of NGOs." But as Rojas also points out, the Uribe administration's harassment is not limited to domestic NGOs, "The government has also obstructed international organizations that support the work of Colombian NGOs; for example, the government recently deported visiting representatives of international organizations on the grounds that they were 'participating in public demonstrations.' To further restrict international NGOs, the government has increased the bureaucratic procedures and requirements needed to obtain visas."
The obstacles and dangers faced by NGO workers, especially human rights defenders, in Colombia are enormous. According to Adam Isacson of the Washington-based Center for International Policy, "In a country where more than 95 percent of crimes go unpunished and the powerful go to great lengths to protect their impunity, this is challenging and often dangerous work. A human rights defender is assassinated about once every month. Dozens of the country's most effective activists and experts have been forced into exile in recent years."
A recent United Nations report stated that the direct involvement of the Colombian military in human rights abuses has risen since Uribe came to power. This increase in human rights violations by the Colombian Armed Forces corresponds with increased levels of U.S. military aid being provided by the Bush administration. Once again history is repeating itself as a right-wing Latin American leader and a U.S.-backed military closely allied with right-wing death squads are actively intimidating and even physically eliminating anyone who dares to stand up for social justice and human rights. Ironically, this latest wave of state-sponsored terrorism is being justified under the "war on terror."
Garry M. Leech is author of Killing Peace: Colombia's Conflict and the Failure of U.S. Intervention (INOTA, 2002), and is on the Board of Directors of the Information Network of the Americas (INOTA) in New York. This article first appeared in Colombia Journal. Please visit their website and consider supporting their vitally important work: http://www.colombiajournal.org